Burt Neuborne ’64 has often been in the public eye–leading the charge for ballot access in New York State, arguing for Holocaust reparations, presenting cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. But he is perhaps best recognized for an on-screen defense of someone whose politics couldn’t be more different from his.
Though a small role in the film The People vs. Larry Flynt gained him notoriety, Neuborne has built a career protecting individual liberties. Yet, he is quick to note, the field of public interest law didn’t exist when he graduated from HLS. At that time, Neuborne worked for several years at a traditional Wall Street law firm. But it was clear that his heart was elsewhere. “The work was interesting and I got along with everybody, but I just didn’t feel fulfilled,” he recalls.
Neuborne was granted a one-year leave of absence to work for the New York Civil Liberties Union defending antiwar demonstrators. The one-year absence has been extended a bit. “For many years I used to go down [to the firm] and have a sherry with them and renew my leave of absence for another year,” he said.
He later became national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union and then began teaching at New York University School of Law, where he has won a number of honors. “What’s made me a successful teacher is that I’m constantly litigating,” said Neuborne. “I think that if I had to do this without the discipline of litigation, my teaching would be much different and far less effective.”
Neuborne secured a total settlement of approximately $6.5 billion in Holocaust reparations cases involving the Swiss and German governments, Swiss banks, and German companies that used slave labor during World War II. The cases have exposed him to criticism from those who feel the lawyers’ fees were inappropriately high. Neuborne, who handled the Swiss cases pro bono but was reportedly paid more than $4 million for the German slave labor cases, points out that arbitrators determined fees based on the time and quality of the work.
Neuborne’s current passion is the Brennan Center for Justice, a collaborative effort of New York University School of Law, and the family and legal clerks of Supreme Court Justice William Brennan. He helped found and currently serves as legal director of the center, which has three major projects: the Democracy Program, of which he is the faculty director, the Poverty Program, and the Criminal Justice Program.
Neuborne also offers legal commentary on television. One night, while watching him discuss the O.J. Simpson murder trial, the writers of The People vs. Larry Flynt decided that he would be perfect to play Jerry Falwell’s attorney in the case. Neuborne was legal director for the ACLU at the time of the case and, thus, on the other side of the issue. Yet it’s a role he relishes to this day, particularly with the movie getting frequent play on cable television.
“Did you see me? I was on last night,” said Neuborne. Unfortunately, his performance has not led to additional movie offers. But he holds out hope. “I need a role. I had a tremendous time. Nobody my age should be allowed to have that much fun.”