Alan Dershowitz (1938–)

Alan Dershowitz, professor of law at Harvard University, is a prolific writer, social activist, and legal commentator who has been described by Newsweek as ‘‘the nation’s most peripatetic civil liberties lawyer and one of its most distinguished defenders of individual rights.’’

Early in his career Dershowitz clerked for Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg. At the time of his teaching appointment at the age of 28, he was the youngest tenured faculty member ever at Harvard Law School. Dershowitz, who specialized in appellate work, has since been involved in a number high-profile criminal defense cases, including the trial of Claus Von Bu¨low, and served as an advisor to O. J. Simpson’s defense team. Acknowledging that his philosophy as a civil-liberties lawyer is to ‘‘challenge the government at every turn,’’ Dershowitz has campaigned for Jews in the former Soviet Union and has taken on less highly publicized cases involving issues of individual rights, many of them on a pro bono basis.

Dershowitz articulated his concept of civil rights, which he views as deriving from past human experiences with injustice rather than from God or natural law, in a 2002 book entitled Shouting Fire: Civil Liberties in a Turbulent Age. He has been at the forefront of a discussion, provoked by the events of September 11, concerning the legality and propriety of the use of torture in exceptional circumstances. Addressing the hypothetical ‘‘ticking bomb scenario’’ in which torture is contemplated as a means of last resort to extract information needed to forestall a massive terrorist attack and save lives, Dershowitz’s proposal to regulate torture through a ‘‘warrant’’ system has sparked debate among civil-rights lawyers and academics. The concept of a torture warrant system—a delicate balance of conflicting rights that ensures judicial oversight and government accountability at the cost of establishing a damaging legitimizing precedent for torture—represents a salient new component in Deshowitz’s concept of civil liberties.

ANDREW FINKELMAN

References and Further Reading

  • Dershowitz, Alan. Shouting Fire: Civil Liberties in a Turbulent Age. Boston: Little, Brown, 2002.
  • Williams, Marjorie, and Ruth Marcus. 1991. Courting fame, fanning flames: lawyer Alan Dershowitz, from rogues to riches. The Washington Post, February 10, F1.

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