ARMAND DERFNER: Attorney's lifelong passion to defend underdog has taken him to the nation's highest courtBy: JENNIFER BERRY HAWES Of The Post and Courier Staff
Originally Published on: 11/16/02
See PDF or microfilm for 3 provided photos of Derfner
Photo: Armand Derfner has argued civil and voting rights cases from small towns across the South to the U.S. Supreme Court. This year, he was honored with a prestigious national award from the Trial Lawyers for Public Justice.
It's telling enough that Armand Derfner would win a prestigious national award that honors an attorney who has most contributed to the public interest in a precedent-setting case.
What's just as telling: Derfner missed the fancy, Oscar-like ceremony to get it.
Derfner and his wife, Mary Giles, were sitting on a tarmac in Charleston because their flight was delayed.
Of course, he had a defense for cutting it too close. He couldn't miss cross-examining a witness the day before. Besides, Derfner just isn't a man of pomp.
The honor is called the 2002 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award. It was given this summer by the Trial Lawyers for Public Justice.
Derfner and three other attorneys were honored for this year's huge settlement of their 27-year class-action lawsuit over Mississippi's treatment of the state's black college students and its traditionally black universities.
The state settled for $513 million. Now, even the suit's settlement is being disputed: "It's still going on!" Derfner grins.
Such a draining, drawn-out conflict could tax many people. But a good debate of any sort delights Derfner. It's why such an ardent liberal can enjoy life in conservative Charleston. "Armand always goes against the wind," says his longtime friend Martin Gold.
As a Jewish kid growing up in New York, Derfner's friends backed the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Derfner cheered the Giants, the working man's team.
Call it an early showing of a lifelong passion for defending the underdog, a passion he's taken to courtrooms around the nation - namely the South - arguing civil rights cases, taking several to its highest court.
He's argued before the U.S. Supreme Court five times, and won them all. He's won several more cases that he didn't have to argue before the justices. He's also testified several times before Congress.
But in his hometown Charleston, he's better known for challenging County Council's at-large system of elections, arguing that the system discriminates against black voters. He also defended the Charleston 5 and argued that County Council violated the Constitution by posting the Ten Commandments.
They can be unpopular positions. It's why Derfner needs a sense of humor to work in a place like this.
In his office at Broad and Church streets, his thick legal texts and filing cabinets tower near a pinball machine. And this is no respectable pinball machine. It features The Fonz and a buxom, redheaded Pinky Tuscadero. Get him playing and Derfner, in slacks and a tie, grins like a 12-year-old in an arcade.
"Stuffy, he's not," former partner Ray McClain says with a laugh. "He's not someone with the slightest trace of arrogance or condescension."
Nor is he shy with his opinions. In 1999, amid the battle flag debate, Derfner wrote this letter to the editor: "I believe the Confederate flag should keep flying over the state Capitol. It is a useful reminder about the people inside, like a warning label on a hazardous product or a sign at the zoo saying, 'Beware of the Animals.'"
While Derfner has a lighter side, talk about his work and he turns intense.
On his office wall hangs a sketch of a white hand uplifting a black one. In Hebrew and English, it reads, "Thou shalt not stand idly by."
And stand by he hasn't.
His Jewish family lived in Poland as Hitler came to power. With the rise of Nazi control in 1936, his parents fled their home with forged Swedish passports. They traveled through Germany and on to France, where they settled in Paris.
In 1938, his mother gave birth to Armand, her first child. During Derfner's first year of life, Hitler's aggression escalated, and his troops expanded their control. The next year, the Nazis invaded Poland.
His parents, foreseeing that Hitler would not stop there, tried to get passports to the United States - but couldn't.
Finally, as the Nazis began to invade France, Derfner's mother got the passports. His father raced to the U.S. Consulate to get American visas. But the consulate was packed up and the workers heading out. One worker still there broke open a locked desk drawer and stamped the visas.
It was June 12, 1940, Derfner's second birthday.
They left Paris by train just hours before the Nazi troops arrived. By June 14, Nazis occupied the city.
The Derfners fled south and stopped in Bordeaux. They crossed by train into Spain and then to Portugal, where they boarded a Greek ship, the Nea Hellas, on its way to New York.
Exactly one month later, on July 12, they landed in New York.
Derfner grew up mostly in New York, surrounded by fellow Jewish immigrants with similar family stories. Many older people he knew had numbers tattooed on their forearms.
Derfner's parents never again saw their families in Poland. "Everyone was killed in concentration camps," he says, turning emotional.
Years later, Derfner would sit with his mother to look at family pictures. On a good day, she could make it through four or five names before breaking down. "Everyone she'd ever known was gone.
"In my family, there's always been this sense that there is supposed to be justice in the world, and we're supposed to help people get it," he says. Even before the Holocaust, his father's family had gone to Palestine in the 1920s to fight the British. "Maybe it's a family tradition."
Today, Derfner's younger brother, Larry, is a journalist in Israel who covers the conflict there for U.S. News & World Report and the Jerusalem Post, an English-language newspaper. His sister, Suzanne, is a lawyer for children with disabilities in California.
After growing up, Derfner got his undergraduate degree from Princeton and then graduated from Yale Law School in 1963. Derfner - and the nation - was focused on the civil rights movement.
He was among those who headed into law "as an engine for social change," McClain says.
In college, Derfner clerked for the chief judge of a U.S. court of appeals and then landed a job at Covington & Burling, among the most prestigious firms in Washington, D.C. He began traveling to Mississippi for stints to work on civil rights cases.
When a civil rights law group needed a full-time attorney, he packed up and moved south. Soon after, in 1968, he argued his first case before the U.S. Supreme Court, an early Voting Rights Act case.
Derfner was just 29, a young liberal standing before the court's renowned liberals, Earl Warren and Hugo Black, who grilled him good.
"They were giants then," he recalls. "And it was such an exciting experience, so exciting to see the court looking at laws and consulting in a way I thought was so good for the country."
When he moved to Mississippi, he was joined by his first wife, Mary Frances. They'd met in Washington. She was from an old Charleston family named Legare, he was a New York son of Jewish immigrants.
Different as they could have been, they shared a passion for civil rights. And they were about to become partners in risky work.
When Derfner landed in Mississippi in the late 1960s, a man he didn't know greeted him at the airport. "Hello, Mr. Derfner." He was followed day and night. And he was threatened. His dog was poisoned. He was arrested and jailed for contempt of court.
And while driving down a highway with Mary Frances one day, a bullet smashed through the passenger window beside her, shattering it, but missing them.
"It was definitely a war zone," he says. "I had a lot of friends who were shot at, so I wasn't surprised."
Yet he never unlisted his phone number. And Mary Frances remained active in the work with him. They stayed for three years.
"After a while, I could see that the work was so intense and so unrelenting that it had an effect. I began to feel like it was time to take a break."
They returned to Washington for several years. He was thrilled to work on hot national issues, but at times the work was abstract, less personal than toiling in legal trenches, working hands-on with clients who needed help.
And the couple wanted to start a family.
Yet Mary Frances suffered from juvenile diabetes. As a teenager, her doctor had said that she would die young and couldn't bear children. When they met, she'd already begun to feel the terrible disease's effects but didn't believe the doctor's dire prediction.
"She was active while being sick," Derfner smiles. "Her life was a miracle, too."
Mary Frances drove, even played baseball. And she wanted to have children.
But they didn't want to raise them in Washington and preferred to move south, closer to family and the civil rights work they loved. Her aunt was lieutenant governor, and her grandfather had been instrumental in restoring what became Charles Towne Landing.
In 1974, they made the move. Their first son, Joel, was a baby then. When Joel was born, doctors warned that he might not live because he was so premature. But he did.
And after they moved to Charleston, the Derfners welcomed their second son, Jeremy. Doctors again warned that the newborn might not live. He also survived.
Today, both sons live in New York. Joel, a Porter-Gaud School valedictorian and Harvard summa cum laude graduate, composes musical theater. "I expect to see his name up in lights one of these days," Derfner says, smiling proudly.
Jeremy, named Porter-Gaud's best all-around, graduated from Brown University summa cum laude, wrote for Slate magazine and now is pursuing his Ph.D. at Columbia University.
When he moved to Charleston, Derfner joined a firm here with McClain and Frank Epstein working on civil rights and workers' rights cases. Twice he served as South Carolina's representative to the American Civil Liberties Union's national board.
Despite his liberal views in Charleston, Derfner says he never felt unwelcome. That may be thanks in part to his synagogue involvement and Mary Frances' family roots here.
Then in 1981, the Derfners returned to Washington for a third time to pursue a chance to extend the Voting Rights Act.
Derfner toiled from an office near the U.S. Capitol and taught at American University. He worked closely with Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy and clashed with his home state's Sen. Strom Thurmond.
"He could be legitimately called one of the two or three most experienced and most effective attorneys in the area of voting rights in the country," McClain says.
But the Derfners returned, again, to Charleston. Soon after, around 1990, Mary Frances' diabetes ravaged her body.
She died in 1992 when she was just 45.
Joel was in college, and Jeremy in high school at Porter-Gaud. "I think they were raising me," Derfner says, looking back on the painful time.
McClain recalls the years Derfner cared for his wife.
"He was very devoted," McClain says. "He grieved quite deeply for Mary Frances."
JOY IN LIFE
But then, in the mid-1990s, Derfner met a woman named Mary Giles. She worked at the S.C. Historical Society, which has archived some of Derfner's papers.
He became intrigued by this warm woman who found a fascinating life behind potentially dry documents. They began to date.
They married in 2000. Today, she works as archivist for the Catholic Diocese of Charleston.
Talking about her, Derfner grins big, like a boy with a giant crush. She's clearly returned joy to his life.
"She's an extraordinarily warm person," he says. "People are bulldozed by how close you feel to her. I know I was."
BIRTH PLACE: Paris.
BIRTH DATE: June 12, 1938.
EDUCATION: Princeton University and Yale Law School.
FAMILY: Wife, Mary Giles; sons, Joel, 29, and Jeremy, 25.
WHAT WAS YOUR MOST PERSONALLY REWARDING CASE? My 35 years of cases protecting the right to vote.
WHAT IS IT LIKE TO ARGUE A CASE BEFORE THE U.S. SUPREME COURT? Like being the target in a battling range for a half-hour.
WHO WAS THE TOUGHEST COUNSEL YOU'VE FACED? Big Gedney Howe.
WHO WAS THE TOUGHEST JUDGE YOU'VE FACED? A judge in Mississippi who had me arrested in the middle of the courtroom.
IF YOU WEREN'T AN ATTORNEY, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING? Radio talk-show host. I did it for a while and loved it.
YOUR MOST EMBARRASSING MOMENT IN COURT: When my client testified that I had threatened to put a bullet in the back of her head (not true).
WHAT DO YOU ENJOY DOING AFTER WORK? More work.
WHO WOULD YOU MOST LIKE TO DINE WITH (DEAD OR ALIVE)? My parents as a young couple.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE BOOK? "The Elements of Style" by Strunk and White.
IT WOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE TO KNOW THAT YOU: Listen to country music and Rush Limbaugh.
BEST PART OF BEING A LIBERAL IN THE CONSERVATIVE SOUTH: It's an adventure.
WHAT WAS THE GREATEST DAY IN HISTORY? Jan. 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation.
GREATEST AMERICAN PRESIDENT: Lyndon B. Johnson.
Jennifer Berry Hawes writes feature stories. Contact her at 937-5489 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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