1985.06.00: Leon Letwin: Compassionate Scholar (UCLA Law School Magazine)

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1985.06.00 Leon Letwin, Compassionate Scholar (UCLA Law Magazine)_Page_3

VOL 8, NO 3 SUMMER 1985

Leon Letwin: Compassionate Scholar
by Ellen Klugman

Go ahead,” Leon Letwin laughingly urges his wife, Alita. “Just pretend this is one big gravestone and you have a hammer and chisel.” He’s talking, of course, about the interview question I had just finished asking his wife, which is, “What’s so special about Leon Letwin?”

“I think one of the nicest things about him,” Alita remarks thoughtfully and easily, “is he doesn’t have a glib answer for everything. He listens. Students feel he gives weight to their points of view. Leon conveys a certain respect for human intellect and dignity.”

Professor Edgar Jones, a faculty colleague at the UCLA School of Law, phrased it somewhat differently. In a memo to Dean Susan Westerberg Prager on Professor Letwin’s nomination for the 1982-1983 University Distinguished Teaching Award, Jones remarked: “Leon joined us in 1964. Over the years I have formed an opinion, shaped by the various inputs which are common to law professors, that Leon excels ‘in the pit.’ That he does so with warmth and compassion does not lessen his impact on the students in their grasp of technical legal materials. 6 It enhances their realization that even the most technical legal problem reduces to a human one of competing interests and claims for preference, requiring the exercise of human judgment under the stresses of conscience and professionalism.”

For readers accustomed to sex, controversy, and violence, what can be written about someone who is so universally well-liked, well-respected, and so good as Leon Letwin?


With thirty years of marriage behind him, he’s had some. As a professor of Evidence at UCLA, however, Leon Letwin knows the criteria for evidence, so he’s gone and put together proof: Danny, age 26, currently pursuing a doctorate in history at Yale; Michael, age 29, soon to become an attorney for the criminal trial branch of the Legal Aid Society of New York; and David, age 25, who is to become a student of acting at SUNY’s Purchase, N.Y., campus.

And if that weren’t enough, Leon Letwin thinks of himself as a feminist, too. He has been, and remains, an outspoken advocate of female representation among the faculty and student body of the law school. However, his commitment to women’s rights extends beyond the classroom. Had you flicked on the television on May 13th at 10 p.m., you could have seen Leon Letwin as one of the individuals in a candlelight vigil for abortion rights sponsored by the pro-choice organization, California Abortion Rights Action League (CARAL).

Leon Letwin’s concern for civil liberties of the underrepresented has also led him to take an early and active role in minority issues. Professor Letwin was instrumental in establishing the first Council on Legal Education Opportunity [CLEO) summer program at the UCLA School of Law in 1968, and acted as its director. The purpose of the program was to assist minority students in their transition to the study of law. Up until that point, few had attended the law school.

Remarks UCLA alumnus Ralph Ochoa, partner in the Sacramento law firm of Ochoa and Sillas and former special assistant to the speaker of the State Assembly: “In 1969, I was the only Mexican American in California to graduate from an accredited law school — UCLA. Leon Letwin made me appreciate the opportunity I had, first of all, to help myself. He helped me understand the anger, the hostility, the shame, the frustration, the ambition, and the goals. Leon Letwin showed me how to focus my talents in the right direction. Most of all, my friend Leon Letwin understood my need to help other Hispanics who found themselves trapped by their inability to cope with the system.”

Although most of the furor over minority admissions has abated, Professor Letwin sees the issue as far from being settled. “I think the biggest problem in the minority situation is that we admit a fair number of minorities, some of whom don’t have the same kind of preparation as the others, and then we leave them to their own devices. It’s sink or swim, and far too many sink who shouldn’t.”

To help these students, Letwin advocates more extensive support programs once the law school program has begun, and increased financial aid. Professor Letwin is equally frustrated by what he views as the law school’s relative lack of minority faculty. “The law school is receptive to such hiring, but does not place as high a premium on it as it would deserve, and doesn’t extend itself as it might in hiring minorities,” he says with intensity.


Some law professors confine their talents and experiences to academic treatment of the law. But the “how to do it stuff,” as Letwin calls it, fascinates this professor of Evidence and Civil Procedure as much as the theory seems to. “I went to law school [at University of Wisconsin) in 1950 because I thought as a lawyer, I would be able to do politically useful things like defend causes under attack that needed defense during a period which seemed to be repressive,” he explains.

He didn’t get that chance immediately. For the first ten years after graduation, Letwin practiced tort law in a small Milwaukee firm. “I was beginning to evaluate every personal injury that walked in with glee,” he remembers with self-amusement, “so I figured it was time to go somewhere else.” The “somewhere else” was a graduate program in law at Harvard, because, as Letwin puts it, “if you weren’t going the route of a Supreme Court clerkship or a prestigious Wall Street firm and wanted to teach law, Harvard was the place to go.”

A friend from Harvard, who was teaching at UCLA, went to bat for Letwin. That friend was the late Professor Donald Hagman. Letwin started at UCLA, in 1964, as a legal writing instructor. Since then, he has taught Contracts, Evidence, and Civil Procedure, with the latter two as his academic mainstay. It certainly seemed a far cry from doing “politically useful things like defending causes under attack.” Then came the Vietnam War years.

Along with former UCLA law Professor Dick Wasserstrom, Letwin took on several “pro bono” cases including representation of a professor from UC Santa Barbara who had been fired from his post for anti-war activities. Letwin also took personal interest in the right of public school students to distribute uncensored “underground” [unofficial) newspapers on campus. The case came to him by way of someone he’d known for a long time — his son.

Michael, a student at University High at the time, was involved in writing and running the publication at issue. In Bright v. Unified School District, Dick Wasserstrom and Leon Letwin took the case against the Los Angeles school authorities straight on through to the California Supreme Court.

“It was fun arguing the case before the court,” Letwin says. “Put a law professor in an appellate court and all you’re doing is what you’d normally 8 do in a classroom — take statutes and cases apart and put them back together again.”

During the early ’70s, Leon Letwin would find himself tearing apart statutes and cases and putting them back together both in and out of the classroom on far more than one occasion.


When violence struck the campus, Letwin again found his legal education helpful for doing “politically useful things like defending causes under attack.” During one enormous anti-war demonstration in front of the law school, the police ordered the crowd to disperse. One of the protesters, a student named Harry Alexander, refused to leave. According to Letwin, the police brutalized Alexander with clubs and charged him with about a dozen misdemeanors.

By coincidence, about 50 law students had witnessed the event. With the help of Leon Letwin and Dick Wasserstrom, some 30 affidavits were collected from these law students to contradict the police’s justification of “self defense.” What’s more, Letwin’s wife, Alita, had a co-worker who had been on campus at the time and who had actually taken pictures of the beating. Wasserstrom and Letwin took over, and led the student’s defense.

The ’80s are a more placid time than the ’70s, though perhaps as perturbing in their own way. Some of Professor Letwin’s activism went into acting as chair and later as advisor to the Academic Senate’s Committee on Privilege and Tenure, which conducts hearings into alleged violations of professors’ rights in these areas.

Leon Letwin’s publications tend to be based on his experiences in the trenches defending those values he holds as crucial. A sampling of his publications includes: “Education and the Constitutional Rights of School Children,” 1 Thinking, The Journal of Philosophy for Children 11 (1978); “The Preliminary Hearing in Los Angeles: Some Field Findings and Legal Policy Observations,” 18 UCLA Law Review 636-757 and 18 UCLA Law Review 916-961 (1971), which was co-authored with Ken Graham; “Administrative Censorship of the Independent Student Press-Demise of the Double Standard?” 28 South Carolina Law Review 565 (March 1977); “Regulation of Underground Newspapers on Public School Campuses in California,” 22 UCLA Law Review 141 [October 1974); and “Unchaste Character, Ideology, and the California Rape Evidence Laws,” 54 USC Law Review (1980).

Letwin still teaches Civil Procedure and Evidence, and has developed problem-centered teaching materials in the latter course which he is currently preparing for publication. Many of today’s students are perhaps not aware of Leon Letwin’s social and political interests. But his gentleness and his joy in teaching — especially when the class is as heady a subject as Evidence — always makes Leon Letwin’s classes a fun, peaceful, yet challenging, place to be.

When, during the spring of 1983, Letwin won the Rutter Award for excellence in teaching, the classroom in which the award was presented brimmed with students, colleagues, and staff whom Leon Letwin had touched in some way. Explains Dick Wasserstrom, now head of the philosophy program at Kresge College, UC Santa Cruz, “You might say that Leon Letwin is one of the few people around who actually acts out of those principles he supports, and he does so with remarkable consistency.”

This remark seems readily demonstrated in Leon Letwin’s daily interaction with people in general. When called to be interviewed for this piece, Leon Let win suggested not his office (as most professors are apt to do] but dinner at his home, instead. The bare, polished wooden floors and the tasteful, attractive Native American folk art are somehow a perfect setting for this unpretentious couple.

A casual conversation is interrupted by a call from a colleague of Letwin’s at UC Berkeley. They discuss efforts to coordinate protests throughout the UC campuses concerning apartheid in South Africa. Professor Letwin mentions the meeting he’ll be having that weekend with a group called “Concerned Faculty,” comprised of faculty across the UCLA campus.

Upon Letwin’s return to the room, conversation drifts to the quality of legal education. Letwin advocates change. I ask him why, given the fact that although many of his colleagues have voiced the same dissatisfaction, the basic system of legal education remains unchanged. “Gee now, that’s a great question,” he exclaims, sitting up. He repeats the question slowly, examining all sides and combinations of it, as if he had just been handed a Rubik’s cube.

“You know,” he says, “I don’t have a very good answer to that. One thing is that we were all trained in the same three year system of legal education, and it may be hard to break out of that pattern. I think there must be an element of self deception on the part of faculty members, including myself. I don’t fully understand it,” he says, slowly, deep in thought. His face suddenly breaks open into a grin as if he’s just discovered the opening, if not the answer. “I think it’s an interesting challenge to try to make my teaching conform more with my underlying values,” he muses. And for some inexplicable reason, you believe he will.

Leave it to Leon Letwin to come up with a nondefensive, thoughtful answer where a lesser man might bristle. Whether or not you agree with his politics, you have to admire Leon Letwin’s willingness to look at life, and himself, with the very compassion we all seek from ourselves and others.

Ellen Klugman ’84 has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and other periodicals. She is an attorney at Shea & Gould.

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