2015.07.13: Leon Letwin (1929-2015)

Leon Pix
Photo credit: Rick Clarke

An expert on evidence, civil procedure, constitutional law, and criminal law, Leon Letwin was on the faculty of UCLA Law School for more than fifty years. A lifelong social justice activist, he pioneered law school affirmative action programs for both students and faculty, was an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War, and was at the forefront of defending the rights of political protesters, criminal defendants, women, high school students, and many others.

Family Background

Leon Letwin was born on December 29, 1929 to Bessie (née Rosenthal) (1898-1987) and Lazar Letwin (née Litvak) (1892-1957), who came from the Jewish shtetl (town) of Mogilev-Podolski in the Ukraine. His parents had participated in the Russian Revolution of October 1917, and narrowly escaped an anti-Semitic pogrom during the ensuing civil war by fleeing across the frozen Dniester River into Romania. Arriving in Milwaukee in 1921, they joined the fledgling Communist Party, and later opened Letwin’s Grocery, a small neighborhood store.

IMG_6697Circa 1927: Letwin family in Milwaukee prior to Leon’s birth: L to R: Gertie and Anna Rosenthal, Lazar, Bessie and Bill Letwin (child)

Leon and his older brother, William (1922-2013), grew up during the Depression in a predominantly African American neighborhood on Milwaukee’s West Side. Their parents imbued them with values of compassion and social justice, amidst such events as the Scottsboro Boys case, the rise of the Nazis, the Spanish Civil War, the Japanese invasion of China, and formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

IMG_6941 Circa 1932: The young Leon

Early Activism

Against this background, Letwin became a political activist in his own right during the Second World War, and in 1945, a leader of American Youth for Democracy (AYD), successor to the Young Communist League, when, age 15, he became a freshman at the University of Chicago.

1945: Ten Days That Shook the World
1945: Letwin’s Copy of Ten Days That Shook the World

In that capacity, he organized support for the Allis-Chalmers strike in Milwaukee (1946) and Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party presidential campaign (1948), resistance to universal military training (1948-1949) and opposition to the Broyles Commission witch-hunt against “seditious activities” at the University of Chicago (1949).

As Letwin later recalled, McCarthy-era attacks on civil liberties convinced him to become an attorney: “I went to law school 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.”

Blacks Law Dict010
1949: Letwin’s copy of Black’s Law Dictionary

At the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Letwin was on law review, which published his article on Communist registration under the Internal Security (McCarran) Act of 1950. There, he joined the National Lawyers Guild, formed in 1937 as an alternative to the whites-only American Bar Association, and remained a member for the next sixty-five years. In 1952, he graduated second in his class.

At Madison, he was a leader of the Labor Youth League (LYL), which had succeeded the AYD. In 1952, he married fellow LYL leader Alita Zurav (born 1932). Their activities included protest against the Korean War (1950-1953), the draft (1951), white supremacy (1953), execution of accused atom-spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (1953), Sen. Joe McCarthy (1954), and lynching of Emmett Till (1955).

Upon graduation from UW Law School, Letwin joined the firm of prominent Milwaukee labor and civil liberties attorney Michael Essin. In fall 1954, the Letwins moved to New York City, where Leon became New York State LYL chair, and Alita became LYL National Student Secretary.

Their first child, Michael, was born on May 1, 1956, one day after Letwin spoke at a May Day rally in Union Square. Two more sons followed, Daniel (1958) and David (1960).

In 1957, the Letwins left the LYL, then dissolving under the dual impact of McCarthyism and admission of Stalin’s crimes. But they refused to disown their friends, fellow activists, or social justice principles. As Letwin wrote in 1963, responding to Harvard Law School faculty interrogation about his political views:

“I have not replaced my past dogmas with a new set of dogmas of the opposite political tint. While some of my goals have changed, and certainly my ideas as to how to achieve them, I have not lost my concern for objectives such as racial equality, civil liberties, peace, and the desirability of public ownership and responsibility in many areas of our economic life.”

In 1958, Letwin rejoined the Essin law firm in Milwaukee. He also served as a volunteer public defender, and advocated the need for full-time indigent criminal defenders. “It will be said these programs are costly,” he wrote in a letter to the Milwaukee Journal in 1960. “The only thing we can’t afford is to have a man’s guilt or innocence determined by his financial capacity.”

But he soon tired of private practice. “I was beginning to evaluate every personal injury that walked in with glee,” he later recalled, “so I figured it was time to go somewhere else.” As a result, he chose to pursue a career in legal education.


But not if the FBI could help it. Government records show that the Bureau had tracked Letwin since 1943 at age thirteen (for subscribing to the Sunday Worker). In the early 1950s, Alita and Leon Letwin were placed on the FBI’s “Security Index,” a list of political dissidents marked for illegal future mass detention; they remained under FBI, CIA, and/or Army Intelligence surveillance through at least the mid-1970s.

In 1975, the U.S. Senate Church Committee hearings revealed that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had made Letwin a target of the notorious Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO), which covertly pressured universities to blacklist him.

Despite COINTELPRO, Letwin received post-graduate appointments in 1962-1964 at Harvard Law School, and then a teaching position in 1964 at UCLA Law School, where he ultimately received tenure.

But the witch-hunt was not yet over. In 1965, the California State Senate Un-American Activities subcommittee falsely implied that he and UC Berkeley Prof. Leon Wofsy — the Letwins’ longtime friend and political mentor — had engineered the 1964 Free Speech Movement.

Law School Years

Letwin could not take credit for the FSM, but he lost little time bringing the issues of the day to academic life. In 1966, he joined the faculty of Harvard Law’s Intensive Summer Studies Program for African American college students. Upon his return, he successfully pioneered the UCLA Law affirmative action program, arguably the first formal law school affirmative action program, and certainly the most innovative and expansive. In 1968, he became director of the Council on Legal Education (CLEO) at UCLA.

The goal, he explained, was “to move more aggressively to open the door to higher education for minority groups.” And move aggressively he did. In October 1967, he joined calls on university officials to confront discrimination in off-campus student housing.

Responding to the April 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he and colleague Herbert Morris wrote: “The death of Rev. King is a horribly painful reminder of where we have failed. . . . What can we do, for example, to open more widely the doors of the University to Negro, Mexican American and other non-white, non-middle class students at every level, undergraduate and graduate? What can be done to insure that our faculty and administration has a composition more in keeping with the diverse make-up of our society?”

When Chicano students walked out in June 1968 to protest their underrepresentation in the program, Letwin voiced his support: “I think that the walkout demonstrates the strength of feelings on the part of both the blacks and the Chicanos. And they have a right to be concerned.”

In November 1968, he called for California law schools to increase minority student enrollment to twenty-five percent, and to reduce reliance on standardized tests that had a discriminatory impact. On December 3, 1969, as chairman of the Academic Senate’s Equal Opportunity Program (EOP), he warned: “There is a terrible state of affairs here. We have a white middle class faculty.” He staunchly defended affirmative action against the backlash that began in the late 1970s.

He also advocated inclusion of women at the Law School, and was an ardent feminist in all areas of his life.

Broader Activism

For Letwin, affirmative action was but one aspect of the era’s broader social movements.

In November 1965, he was a faculty cosponsor of the first UCLA teach-in against the Vietnam War. The Letwin family frequently participated in political protest, including the June 23, 1967 demonstration where the LAPD notoriously attacked thousands protesting President Lyndon B. Johnson’s appearance at the Century Plaza Hotel, a watershed event that foreshadowed the police riot a year later at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

In 1968, he and other Law School professors represented students disciplined for protesting on-campus recruitment by the Dow Chemical Co., which produced napalm for the U.S. Air Force. On May 16, 1969, the Committee of Concerned Faculty was formed at Letwin’s home to defend UCLA students protesting the use of lethal violence by police and National Guard a day earlier at People’s Park in Berkeley.

Commenting on the diversion of funds from social programs to the first moon landing in July 1969, Letwin argued that the space program, “illustrates a perverse hierarchy of values. We’re going to the moon for all the wrong reasons. We’re spending vast sums on the wrong thing in pursuit of the wrong goals.”

In fall 1969, Letwin played a leading role in the Academic Senate’s defense of Angela Davis, a fellow COINTELPRO target and prominent African American radical activist, whose UCLA teaching appointment was under attack from Gov. Ronald Reagan and the UC Regents.

Law Practice

This work was accompanied by establishment of a law practice with Letwin’s close friend and colleague, Richard Wasserstrom [and here], who represented members of the Black Panther Party’s L.A. chapter against government attack.

In 1970, Letwin & Wasserstrom took up the case of UC Santa Barbara Prof. William Allen, who was summarily fired by Gov. Reagan for participating in student antiwar protests at Isla Vista.

In 1971-1972, Letwin, Wasserstrom, and law school colleague Hank McGee assisted the defense team for Angela Davis, who was tried and acquitted for murder, kidnapping and criminal conspiracy charges in the August 1970 failed attempt to free Black Panther Party leader George Jackson and the other Soledad Brothers.

In May 1972, they defended UCLA student Harry Alexander, who was badly beaten and arrested by police during campus antiwar protests. In 1973, they assisted the legal defense of Daniel Ellsberg, who was prosecuted for releasing the Pentagon Papers, which revealed that that the Johnson Administration had “systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress” about the Vietnam War.

Letwin & Wasserstrom frequently represented the next generation of Letwins and their fellow youth activists. From 1971-1976, they fought school censorship of the Red Tide, a Marxist high school underground newspaper, which was headquartered in the Letwin home at 2226 Manning Ave.

In March 1973, they represented Letwin’s teenage son, Michael, fellow Red Tide member Karen Pomer, and American Indian Movement (AIM) leader Archie Fire Lame Dear, who, along with thirteen others, were arrested at gunpoint by the FBI under the “Rap Brown Act” for transporting food and medicine to AIM’s occupation at Wounded Knee.

Letwin & Wasserstrom’s victories in the California Supreme Court included Pitchess v. Superior Court, 11 Cal.3d 531 (1974) (expanding criminal defendants’ right to discovery of prior misconduct by police officers), and Bright v. Los Angeles Unified Sch. Dist., 18 Cal.3d 450 (1976) (striking down prior censorship of underground high school student publications). In later years, they handled death penalty appeals.

Teaching and Scholarship

Letwin’s political concerns were reflected in his legal scholarship (much of it posted on this site), which examined such issues as affirmative action, representation of indigent criminal defendants, preliminary hearings in Los Angeles, free speech rights of high school students, evidence of “unchaste character” in rape cases; and impeachment of criminal defendants with their prior convictions.

Letwin produced two textbooks, Assignments in Trial Practice (Little, Brown: 1964), and Evidence Law: Commentary, Problems and Cases (Matthew Bender: 1986). His entry on evidentiary privilege appeared in the Encyclopedia of the American Constitution (Macmillan: 1986).

He also argued that legal education should encourage students to think critically about moral, political, and social values, even to the point of challenging their professors’ beliefs — including his own:

“I cheerfully concede that some of my suggested answers may be ‘wrong’ or at the very least debatable,” he wrote. “In that case, I use student doubts about my analysis as an occasion for classroom discussion. . . . I attempt to focus on the political and social choices implicit in many doctrines of relevancy, resting as they do on powerful but often unarticulated premises about the way the world is or ought to be.”

Among students and colleagues alike, Letwin was widely admired for his combination of enthusiasm, intellectual rigor, wit, and humanity. Students elected him UCLA Law School Professor of the Year in 1975, and he received the Law School’s prestigious Rutter Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1983.

From 1998-2002, he was UCLA Coordinator for implementation of the Native-American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which requires federally funded institutions to return cultural items to indigenous peoples.

Later Years

Colleague Richard Wasserstrom once remarked, “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.”

Letwin adhered to those principles for the rest of his life, speaking out against nuclear weapons, Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, U.S. intervention in Central AmericaUniversity of California investments in apartheid South Africa, right-wing attacks on the California Supreme Court, the Gulf War, the “International War on Terror,” and denial of Palestinian rights.

In 2011, he and Alita visited the Manhattan encampment of Occupy Wall Street, and in 2012 made his final appearance at a May Day rally at New York City’s Union Square, more than half a century after speaking there in 1956.

Appreciated for his warmth, humor, wisdom, humility, and principles, Letwin is survived by Alita, his wife of 63 years; his sons, Michael, Daniel, and David Letwin; their partners, Ellen Dichner, Eva Letwin, and Kristin Horton; and his grandchildren, Brian Letwin, Chau Nguyen, Andrew Letwin, Nicholas Letwin, and Timothy Letwin.

20 responses to “2015.07.13: Leon Letwin (1929-2015)

  1. Barbara Bilson

    We mourn this exceptional man arnd remember him for his good humor, his lively intelligence, his high principles and dedication to social and racial justice, his unwavering love for family and friends, and his good taste in wine. We will miss him. Love to all his family. Bobbie and Bert

  2. Drucilla Cornell

    We have all lost today one of the most extraordinary men I have ever met. He was my my mentor teacher and friend during my years as a student of law . His influence on my life is not something I could ever quantify not the least because I spent so many wonderful nights with the Letwinfamily. My heart goes out to all of you that I got to know over those years. He will leave a hole as big as his heart ! But I too have no doubt that his soul goes marching on! Without Leon Letwini would never have become the person I am now in love and with sorrow Drucilla Cornell

  3. An exceptional man for exceptional times. What a fine and enviable legacy. My heart felt condolence to you, Leon’s beloved. -Jon Bailiff

  4. Rachel Fisher

    Condolences from the grandchildren of Len Fisher, who loved Leon as a cousin and friend: Michael, Nate, Noah & Adam.

  5. Bereket Habte Selassie

    Leon Letwin is a Man For All Seasons. (It is hard for me to speak of him in the past sense!).
    Leon lived life to the brim, morally, intellectually and socially. I first met Leon and his wonderful wife, Alita in LA in 1964, when I was a fellow at the UCLA Law School for a year. We became friends instantly, because we also lived as neighbors in Santa Monica, offd the San Diego Freeway. I, my (then) wife, Koki and two-year old son, Asgede were cosntant visitors at their home, where the Letwin boys (Michael, Dan and David) took charge in making Asgede feel at home. Alita’s quiet authority and dignity infused with warmth was the primary factor that made all our meetings a very pleasant occasion. I will never forget those halcyon days.
    Leon and I met for lunch or coffee at the UCLA cafeteria sometimes joined by Professors, Herb Morris and Don Hagman. I remember Leon’s wit and wicked sense of humor, often teasing his friend Don Hagmant who was mild and good-humored in his response. Clearly, they were good freinds going back to school days. Leon, Alita and our colleagues at the UCLA Lw School, especially Don and Herb have left wonderful memories indelibly etched in my mind.
    The last time I saw Leon and Alita was at their Santa Monica home in March 2005 when I was honored to deliver the David Mellinkoff Memorial Lecture at the UCLA Law School. They were gracious in inviting me to dinner in their house and we coud hardly stop talking about the good old days.
    I miss this bright star of the progressive and humane side of America that I had the great honor and pleasure in knowing and befriending.
    To Alita, Michael, Dan, David ands their spouses as well as to all the grand children I offer my heart-felt condolences.
    May his grear soul, indeed keep marching on

  6. Isabel Knight

    What a heroic life! My condolences to Dan and Eva and to all his family.

  7. David R. Ginsburg

    Leon was a guiding light in my studies of advanced constitutional law and criminal procedure at UCLA Law School in the 1970s. He was a brilliant, cheerful, progressive, and rebellious lawyer who left a mark of intellectual activism on generations of his students. He will be missed. עליו השלום, Aláv ha-Shalóm.

  8. Clyde Spillenger

    Leon was extraordinary. He was one of those who reached out to me when I joined the UCLA Law faculty in 1992 and his fellowship and engaging good nature were very important to me in my first years there. His political commitment and superb intelligence were combined with an affability, optimism, and mischievous wit that made him great company as well as an illuminating teacher. His loss fills me with sadness, yet his was also a life that we can celebrate with pride and joy.

  9. Smiley and I are honored to be invited to contribute to this celebration. We stand in awe of Leon’s contributions to many campaigns to make the world better. Dick Wasserstrom has said it beautifully, and we won’t try to gild that lily. We have seen Leon in action in campaigns for fairness that have reached across cultures and across generations. This is one “activist” who never sought any reward for himself. When Leon identified a need for justice, he went to work. May the generations that follow see Leon as a model. They could choose no better pathmaker. To Alita, and to all the Lewins,, a bunch of Leon-sized hugs.

  10. Thanks for this rich biography, and what a legacyn Leon has left for us! Love to you Alita, and the family, Judith Pacht

  11. Michael Laslett

    I was very sad to hear of Leon’s death. He and his family were a big part of my life growing up in L.A., where our families were (and are) friends. He was in turns funny, warm and serious. He took young people seriously, and I always felt like he really listened to what I had to say. To get that kind of respect from someone like Leon was a big confidence boost for a budding activist like me.
    Leon and Alita spent a lifetime together building a wonderful family and extended community that I felt lucky to be part of. I will deeply miss Leon and his example of how to live a principled and loving life.

  12. This biography is an act of love. So beautifully written to bring Leon back to life. I learned so much about him that I didn’t know. What a humble and unassuming person he was! Much love to all those whose lives he enriched who now face the sadness of his loss.

  13. Stephanie Fischer and Steve Flicker

    Although we only met Leon and Alita during their brief stay in Brooklyn, we felt that we had been adopted into the Letwin family. Great conversation, enjoyable dinners, lots of laughs, memorable times together like watching Hurricane Sandy from their apartment. We shall always treasure the time we spent with Leon and Alita. Our condolences to the entire family.
    With love, Stephanie and Steve

  14. Dorothy Wolpert

    Leon’s loss leaves a hole in the world and in all of our lives. He was a beautiful human being in every sense of the word and a gift to all who knew him.
    Dorothy Wolpert

  15. Henry W McGee, Jr

    News of Leon’s passing, regrettable though it is, reminds us all of his importance in the struggle for racial equality and for a society in which poverty and lack of opportunity are intolerable. I regard him as the conscience of the UCLA faculty during the critical years of the Sixties and the Seventies, and his leadership on law reform as well as social justice was a hallmark of his tenure at the university.

    Equally impressive was his devotion to his family, and the achievements of his children gives testament to his role as a loving and nurturing father who blazed a path for his sons to follow.

    On a personal level, when I arrived at UCLA in 1969, Leon Letwin and his wife Alita embraced our family and made me feel supported and nurtured my first years at the university. While Leon is no longer with us in person, he lives indelibly in our hearts and minds as an exemplar of an intellectual whose life and career meant as much to the public world as they did to his family.

    God bless the Letwins.

    Henry W McGee, Jr

  16. Richard Abel

    Ever since your sad news, Emily and I have been thinking of Leon and you. The two of you were Los Angeles for us from the moment we moved here in 1974. You have always been a model of what life looks like ten years ahead (and insights into what it would have been like to have three boys instead of three girls). Emily remembers you telling us what it was like when children came back from college after the first semester–full of their newly acquired but fragile sense of adulthood and independence, which crashed against the reality of being home. And you have been an inspiration of how to be a progressive in (mostly) hard times (if we never came close to your level of dedication). I don’t think we ever went to a demonstration, contributed to a fund raiser or signed a petition without you.
    Leon was the backbone of progressive collective action during my 35 years in the law school. He was key to the wonderful hiring decisions we made over those years: Chris Littleton, Fran Olsen, Kim Crenshaw, Isabel Gunning, Carrie Menkel-Meadow, Lucie White, Willie Forbath, Jerry Lopez, Gary Blasi, Cheryl Harris, Laura Gomez, and of course Cruz and Joel. He was always one of the strongest voices for affirmative action at the many moments when it was threatened from within and outside. (I know a little about his role in the early years of CLEO.) Without his support, Critical Legal Studies never would have held the seminal Los Angeles conference that gave rise to critical race theory. And I was inspired by his stories about raising funds to pay Angela Davis when the Regents blocked her appointment, and his work with Dick on “Red Tide” and death penalty appeals. The parties at your house were always the best‒especially when your sons made fun of Leon’s insistence that just to be on time for some event was to be late. We treasure those fall months we shared with you in Brooklyn. But what we remember most of Leon was his ability to laugh at the evils and absurdities of American (and world) politics–when the only alternative would have been to cry. So we’ll keep laughing–and remembering him.

  17. Reblogged this on Michael Letwin.

  18. Thank you for this amazing life story of an amazing Man, whose courage and whose Code of Ethics made the world a better place. It was a privilege to know the Letwin Family, and I will always treasure this association. Love to Alita and to All of us who will forever grieve at the loss of our Hero.

  19. An old classmate told me of Leon’s death. I reach across the years to salute that magnetic embattled couple of the early 50s in Madison, Wisconsin, who I am glad to hear, evolved politically to carry on their work in the service of human betterment. Alita and Leon were sparkling firebrands and I am glad I knew them.

    Arnie Lieber New York City

  20. leon did a good job in educating michael…i have known mike since the 70s when i was involved with green power in la and the yippies in nyc..leon’s influences sure rubbed off on michael big time ever since i knew him..
    mike is able to use his position as a public defender to help those fucked over by the nypd….i am glad mike is here to help the masses…now lets use his father as an inspiration to others

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s