Chicago Daily Law Bulletin,

April 25, 2011, page 1


By Maria Kantzavelos—

Law Bulletin staff writer


While most lawyers go through an entire career without getting the opportunity to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court, George Anastaplo did so without entering the legal profession—and then, he likes to say, he retired.

Fifty years ago Sunday, on April 24, 1961, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered a decision that affirmed the decision of the Illinois Supreme Court to deny Anastaplo admission to the Illinois bar because he refused to answer questions asked by the bar’s character committee about political associations.

That decision, which he first learned about from a local newspaper reporter who tracked him down by phone for his on-the-record reaction to that news, virtually put an end to a battle that took 10 years to resolve. With the high court’s subsequent ruling denying his petition for rehearing—a petition he wrote and argued, of course, without a law license—he said, “I retired from the practice of law.”

And while his bar admission experience became an important chapter in his life, Anastaplo, now 85, has refused to allow it to define him.

“I think it’s more than an important footnote in his life, because it put the stamp of moral courage on him and it created, in time at least, a greater interest in his word and in his accomplishments,” said Ramsey Clark, U.S. attorney general under President Lyndon Johnson. Clark was among Anastaplo’s classmates at the University of Chicago Law School.

Anastaplo, who completed his undergraduate degree in a single year at the University of Chicago and graduated at the top of his law school class in 1951, completed his doctorate at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought in 1964.

He went on to become a prolific author, who has to date published some 20 books, including “The Constitutionalist” as well as others on legal, literature and political subjects.

A longtime Loyola University Chicago School of Law professor who today teaches courses in constitutional law and jurisprudence, Anastaplo became an eclectic scholar and teacher.

This morning, he was teaching a class on three Greek plays as part of the Great Books seminar that is part of the curriculum in Chicago’s basic program of liberal arts. He has been teaching those seminars for nearly six decades.

Marijane F. Placek, a veteran assistant Cook County public defender in that office’s Homicide Task Force, called Anastaplo an Aristotelian who “was one of the greatest influences on my life.”

She said she took every class Anastaplo taught when the two were at Rosary College (now Dominican University) in River Forest, where Anastaplo had been teaching, mainly philosophy, for a decade, and where Placek received her undergraduate degree.

“He was such a remarkable teacher,” Placek said. “He made you reach inside yourself. He not only knows his subjects backwards and forwards, but he loves his subjects and he loves the art of thinking.”

Loyola law school’s dean, David N. Yellen, said Anastaplo, who in addition to his scholarship continues to churn out regular “letters to the editor” on current issues and events, is: “A classic intellectual whose interests do not know a lot of bounds.”

“He’s been a deep thinker, connecting ancient ideas with the world today and he’s led by example,” Yellen said of Anastaplo’s contributions to the law school and the legal profession at-large. “He’s inspired generations of students with his love of learning and love of  the law.”

Anastaplo has a self-imposed rule that forbids him from discussion his bar admission story while in the formal classroom setting.

But he’s perfectly willing to discuss it at a public lecture devoted to that topic, or one-on-one with an interested individual, from his tiny desk in his small office at Loyola that is filled with piles of books and cluttered papers and boxes.

His fight for admission to the bar started on Nov. 10, 1950, when a 25-year-old Anastaplo was seated before two members of an Illinois Supreme Court subcommittee on character and fitness for what was supposed to be a brief, routine matter—a final formality before becoming an attorney.

This was at a time when the Korean War had started (“and people were excited about it,” Anastaplo said) and he discovered later that the question he was about to be asked was being asked of applicants routinely by some members of the subcommittee.

He said the question went something like this: “Do you think a member of the Communist party should be admitted to the bar of this state?”

“My answer was, ‘Well, why not?’ I didn’t make a big thing of it, and then he said, ‘Well they believe in revolution.’ And I said, in effect, ‘Well, we all do.’ And they got very excited about that,” Anastaplo said.

“And one of them, the more excitable one of the two, said something to the effect of: ‘Well, if you’re going to talk this way we’re going to have to find out from you whether you’re a member of the Communist Party.’

“And that was it,” Anastaplo said.

He said he shouldn’t answer that question. And he didn’t, and from that point forward, he took over his own bar admission litigation through hearings before the full committee and on to the high courts of the state and the country.

He and his wife, Sara Prince Anastaplo, who are the parents of four adult children—two lawyers, an architect and a doctor—had their first child who was 6 months old at the time of that first interview before the two-member committee panel.

“I went home that evening and said: ‘Something went wrong today’ and then that started a great adventure, which took 10 years to resolve,” he said.

He said he could not answer the question because, “in the first place, it was an affront, considering my circumstances and my career such as it had been with the Air Corps [he enlisted before college and ended up navigating bomber planes during World War II].

“I think I was right that the spirit that was seen there, that kind of moderated hysteria that was evident there, was not good for a sensible republic, for people to consider how to proceed, how to act.”

Had he gone along with the process, things could have turned out differently for Anastaplo, who was being considered for a position at one of the big law firms in town.

Anastaplo grew up in Southern Illinois, the son of Greek immigrant parents: a father who ran a restaurant and a mother who “ran my father,” he said. He worked in his father’s restaurant all through elementary school and high school and even drove a cab years later for extra cash during the mid-1950s.

Clark, the former U.S. attorney general, said Anastaplo “was a great human spirit then and he’s a great human spirit now—one of the rare people that followed his conscience and has no unworthy ambitions.”

“He’s built not only an important but a beautiful legacy of selfless devotion to truth,” Clark said. “He’s lived a very remarkable like, resisting most American character flaws, like materialism and personal ambition.”

Anastaplo said the result of his bar admission fight has opened  up a world to him that has allowed him to travel and so some of the things he could not do if he were a practicing lawyer in a law firm.

“I’ve never had the opportunity to be restrained by golden handcuffs,” he said.

[This article was accompanied, in the same issue of the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, by George Anastaplo’s essay, “Echoes from a Resounding Silence.” See, also,]

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