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It was 1962 and a Jesuit priest rose to speak to a group of first-year students at Georgetown Law School’s night program. He wasn’t there to lecture on the law but to tout an overseas Catholic charity. As the priest began his talk he was interrupted by a young law student named Philip Hirschkop, who was making a noisy exit from the room. “You’re disrupting the class,” the priest told Hirschkop, according to another student in attendance that day. “It’s impolite to me as your speaker, and I want you to go directly to the dean.” “That’s exactly where I was headed,” Hirschkop shot back. “I didn’t pay my tuition for law school to be solicited on behalf of a faith in which I’m not a member.” Hirschkop went to then-Dean Kenneth Pye and pleaded his case. “Phil was in class the next time,” says Robert Hall, a classmate and a future law partner of Hirschkop’s. “And Father Murphy was never seen again.” “I was so embarrassed,” Hirschkop says today. “I had never protested in my whole life.” The incident may have been Hirschkop’s first run-in with the establishment, but it wouldn’t be his last. As a lawyer, he would become known not only for his legal prowess but his bombastic and outspoken manner. Hirschkop, now 69, is preparing to close his law offices in Old Town Alexandria, Va., marking the end of a colorful, four-decade career that made him an icon among left-wing lawyers. For the past two decades, Hirschkop has served as the outside general counsel for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the controversial animal rights group known for its militant advocacy of vegetarianism and its proclivity for throwing pies at fur-wearing fashionistas. But long before he hoisted PETA’s standard in battle, Hirschkop had made his mark as a civil rights lawyer and as an opponent of the Vietnam War. Perhaps his most significant case was Loving v. Virginia, a landmark 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case that overturned Jim Crow-era laws banning interracial marriage — a case in which Hirschkop presented the main argument when he was just two years out of law school.
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Since that auspicious start, he’s worked for a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee, donned a Viet-Cong armband to protest the war, and stood for the free-speech rights of the American Nazi Party. In one six-year span, 17 disciplinary complaints were brought against him at the Virginia State Bar — a distinction Hirschkop bears proudly. The complaints, he says, were “never for screwing a client, only for making public statements” about pending litigation. And those public statements usually get noticed. “He will yell and scream and interrupt other people and act utterly without decorum in order to achieve his goals,” Donald Casey, a former Alexandria councilman who tangled with Hirschkop, told Legal Times in 1986. In many ways that description still applies. He openly refers to his former partner and co-counsel in the Loving case as a “slime” and a “prick,” and begins one interview by referring to a former Virginia judge as a “crazy sonofabitch.” “He will go to the outer perimeter,” says Bernard J. DiMuro, a friend of Hirschkop’s and a lawyer with Alexandria’s DiMuro Ginsberg. “Whatever friendships he has go by the wayside when he’s representing a client.” In his last case before closing his law office, Hirschkop is representing PETA against circus magnate Kenneth Feld, CEO of Feld Entertainment Inc., the parent company of Ringling Bros. A COURTROOM CIRCUS ACT The PETA case makes an especially appropriate coda for Hirschkop’s career. It involves a controversial client (PETA) suing a wealthy business magnate (Feld), represented by a white-shoe law firm (Williams & Connolly), over a respected brand name (Vienna, Va.-based Ringling Bros.). On top of that, it includes two other themes recurrent in Hirschkop’s career: bizarre behavior by one of the parties and mudslinging between lawyers. In 2002, PETA filed suit against Feld in Fairfax County Circuit Court, charging that the Ringling Bros. executive had orchestrated a conspiracy to infiltrate and discredit it and other animal rights groups opposed to the circus’s use of animal acts. The lawsuit isn’t the first to accuse Feld of dirty tricks. He’s also a defendant in D.C. Superior Court, in a long-running suit brought by Jan Pottker, a freelance journalist, who alleges that Feld hired former CIA operative Clair George and others to thwart her career. In both cases, Feld’s attorneys have denied their client committed any wrongdoing. The PETA case has moved at a glacial pace, as Williams & Connolly and its co-counsel at Blankingship & Keith and Hunton & Williams have filed numerous pretrial motions attempting to forestall a court date. But in recent months, Hirschkop has begun to land some punches. In August, Judge David Stitt hit Feld lawyers from Williams & Connolly and Blankingship & Keith with $50,000 in sanctions and fines for filing an improper accusation of judicial misconduct and for obstructing discovery. Stitt also ordered Williams & Connolly senior partner Barry Simon removed from the case. (Simon did not return calls for this article.) The sanctions have been appealed, but in December, Hirschkop scored again, when Stitt sanctioned Feld for filing late and incomplete documents and ordered him to disclose his net worth and recent tax returns. The case is now set to go to trial in February. Over the years, Hirschkop has counseled PETA in a slew of legal battles, including a libel suit against Rosie O’Donnell (who told her audience on “Leather Pants Day” that her outfit had been PETA-approved). But perhaps Hirschkop’s biggest victory for PETA was in its long-running legal battle with Las Vegas entertainer Bobby Berosini, whose Lido de Paris lounge act at the Stardust Casino featured a troupe of trained orangutans. Berosini sued PETA and another animal rights organization in 1989 after they circulated a video that appeared to show Berosini beating his stage animals. A Nevada jury sided with Berosini, awarding him $4.2 million in damages. But the setback was short-lived. Berosini’s act was canceled, and the jury award was overturned on appeal to the Nevada Supreme Court, which also ordered the entertainer to pay PETA hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees. CIVIL RIGHTS TO ANIMAL RIGHTS Litigating over animal rights is a long way from where Hirschkop started. Born in Brooklyn in 1936, he grew up in central New Jersey and joined the Army in 1954. Two years later, he enrolled in engineering school at Columbia College in New York. In 1961 he moved to Washington and took a job at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and enrolled in night classes at Georgetown with the goal of becoming a patent attorney. But politics proved more alluring than patent work. In 1963, after white supremacists killed four black girls in the bombings of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., Hirschkop became involved in the civil rights movement. After protesters were beaten by police in Danville, Va., that year, he clerked for the lawyers representing the protesters. Through that case he met civil rights attorneys William Kunstler and Arthur Kinoy and activist Stokely Carmichael. He soon quit the patent office and took a job on Capitol Hill with Rep. Dick Ichord, a conservative Missouri Democrat. One of Hirschkop’s first assignments for the congressman was to pen a policy paper on the House Un-American Activities Committee, of which Ichord had recently become a member. Hirschkop wrote the paper, but apparently not the paper his boss had in mind. “He thought I was a communist,” Hirschkop says. “I thought he was a right-wing nut job.” Three months later, Hirschkop left the office, he says, because he and Ichord “agreed it wasn’t my choice of jobs.” After finishing his law degree, in 1964, he was hired by Bernard Cohen, then a young civil liberties lawyer in Alexandria. The American Civil Liberties Union had recently referred the case of Richard and Mildred Loving, a white man and black woman from Caroline County, Va., who had married in Washington in 1958. Less than four months after the ceremony, the couple were indicted in Virginia for violating the state’s ban on interracial marriage, and they were forced to move to the District. “If you knew Virginia back in the early sixties, to have a couple Jewish guys from New York come down here and take on this case, that took a lot of courage,” says Stewart C. Economou, a lawyer who’s known Hirschkop since the 1960s. Cohen and Hirschkop took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which struck down the law in 1967. Writing for the Court, then-Chief Justice Earl Warren ruled, “The freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.” The case dramatically raised the profiles of Cohen and Hirschkop, but the two partners had feuded over tactics in the Loving case, and their paths soon began to move in different directions. Cohen had political ambitions and would eventually win election to Virginia’s House of Delegates. But Hirschkop had become radicalized by his opposition to the Vietnam War, and so he focused his energies on representing anti-war activists arrested for protesting. His early clients included Dr. Benjamin Spock, Abbie Hoffman, and H. Rap Brown. In his 1968 account of the anti-war movement, The Armies of the Night, novelist Norman Mailer wrote glowingly of Hirschkop: “Hirschkop kept attacking with his high-pitched, eager, peppy voice . . . he was like a wildly successful salesman with an impossibly difficult buyer.” But the anti-war attorney wasn’t just a mouthpiece for the movement. Among the clients the ACLU referred to him during this time was the American Nazi Party, whose assassinated “F�hrer,” George Lincoln Rockwell, had been denied burial in a veterans cemetery after his followers refused to remove their swastika armbands. Hirschkop didn’t win the case, and still wonders if taking it was the right thing to do. “My parents didn’t talk to me for almost two years,” he says. Nor were such cases helpful to the burgeoning political career of Cohen, and he and Hirschkop parted ways in the early 1970s. “You can’t represent too many Rap Browns and be electable in parts of Alexandria,” says Hirschkop’s former law partner Hall. Hirschkop denies his controversial clients contributed to the split, citing more mundane disputes over money and partnership shares. MONEY AND IDEALS Though civil rights and Vietnam receded as national issues in the 1970s, Hirschkop continued to enjoy a high profile. By then he’d begun to balance civil liberties cases with more profitable work, serving as trial counsel to the National Education Association and trying his hand at medical malpractice even as he won a landmark gender discrimination case against Virginia universities. He also donned a 10-gallon hat and cowboy boots to win the acquittal of Texas oil magnates Nelson Bunker Hunt and W. Herbert Hunt in a federal wiretapping case. The decision to represent the archconservative oilmen was a tough one for Hirschkop, says John Kenneth Zwerling, an Alexandria lawyer whose wedding Hirschkop had officiated at while wearing a coonskin cap. “The [Hunt brothers] bought him a membership in the John Birch Society,” he says. “And he bought them a membership in the ACLU.” The Hunt brothers and other famous clients helped provide Hirschkop with the kind of money a radical lawyer could only dream of, especially 30 years ago. In his best years, Hirschkop says, he’s earned well above $1 million. But by the late 1970s, he says, he was beginning to burn out. “Your ego starts to get control of you, and you lose your privacy.” Hirschkop, who has three children by two women, also went through a divorce. Despite such problems, Hirschkop kept taking a steady diet of controversial cases. He represented the Church of Scientology after the Justice Department accused the group of spying on government agencies and raided its California offices. He represented country-music singer Waylon Jennings in a legal dispute with a Maryland concert promoter and helped presidential candidates Jesse Jackson and Gary Hart with electoral issues. He also did legal battle with groups affiliated with perennial presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche. In one instance he represented two reporters in a suit filed by LaRouche — a case in which Hirschkop says LaRouche’s lawyers unsuccessfully requested that their security-conscious client be deposed in the back of a tractor-trailer as it circled the Washington Beltway. THE LOVING LEGACY By the 1990s, Hirschkop was focusing his legal energies on animal rights. But even now he still grapples with his legacy from the 1960s. His deepest regret, he says, is a still-running feud with Cohen over the legacy of the Loving case. At issue: a 1997 cable television movie called “Mr. and Mrs. Loving,” released to coincide with the decision’s 30th anniversary. The fictionalized film focuses on the Lovings’ romance, rather than on their legal battle, but it also depicts only one lawyer, Cohen, representing them in court. The movie was produced by a relative of Cohen’s cousin and directed by Richard Friedenberg (best known for writing the script for “A River Runs Through It”). Cohen served as an adviser to the film but denies that he obscured Hirschkop’s role in the case in discussions with the filmmakers. “I’m just sorry as can be that the movie turned out without giving him decent credit,” says Cohen, who maintains that he was lead counsel in the case. “That was not my decision. I’ve never diminished Phil’s involvement in the case.” Hirschkop maintains that if anyone should have been portrayed as the lead lawyer, it should have been him. Though Cohen’s name appears first on the Supreme Court brief, Hirschkop offered the duo’s main argument, with Cohen making the Lovings’ rebuttal. “He didn’t do shit in the case,” after 1964, Hirschkop says — an assertion Cohen disputes. But in reviewing his career, Hirschkop hesitates to embrace the traits others see in him. “I don’t particularly like radical people,” he says, distancing himself from that label. Nor does he accept the view that he’s spent his career chasing the next big fight. “I don’t like controversy,” he says. On that statement, as in other things, he’s likely to find many who’ll disagree with him.


Jason McLure can be contacted at [email protected].

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