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Herbert Wechsler (1909–2000) was a leading lawyer and legal scholar best known in First Amendment circles for arguing New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964) before the U.S. Supreme Court. Wechsler entered the City College of the City of New York at the age of fifteen and graduated in 1928 at the age of eighteen. After his application to teach French at the college was rejected, he applied and was admitted to Columbia Law School, where he became editor-in-chief of the Columbia Law Review at the age of twenty.

Wechsler transitioned from academics to government

Wechsler joined Columbia Law School as a professor in 1931, the same year he graduated, but in 1932 he left for one year to serve as a law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harlan Fiske Stone. After his clerkship, he returned to Columbia until 1940, when he moved to the U.S. Justice Department. At the Justice Department during World War II, he defended the government’s internment of Japanese Americans in Korematsu v. United States (1944). After the war ended, he helped establish the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, which tried war criminals, and was a special technical adviser to American judges who took part in the trials. He returned to Columbia as a law professor in 1945 and was named to the Harlan Fiske Stone Chair in Constitutional Law in 1957.

Wechsler produced writing vital to constitutional law

Wechsler continued to shape the practice of law, writing casebooks and serving as executive director of the American Law Institute, for which he spent ten years writing the Model Penal Code. In 1959 he delivered a speech for the Oliver Wendell Holmes Lecture at Harvard Law School that was then published as “Toward Neutral Principles of Constitutional Law.” In it Wechsler argued that judges too often focused on the result in the case at hand rather than articulating broader neutral principles that would apply to related areas. He used several examples, notably the school desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education (1954), in which he agreed with the result of a decision as a policy matter but thought that the reasoning was inconsistent.

Weschler argued fundamental First Amendment libel case

In 1964 he successfully argued New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, which constitutionalized libel law, on behalf of the Times. He also appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court in two other First Amendment cases: Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts (1967), involving libel, and Gelling v. Texas (1952), involving the showing of a movie without prior authorization by a board of censors.

This article was originally published in 2009. Professor Dara E. Purvis is a scholar of family law, contracts, feminist legal theory, and sexuality and the law. She is particularly interested in the intersection between gender stereotypes and the law. Her work examines gendered impacts of the law and proposes neutralizing reforms, most recently in the context of how the law defines parenthood.

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