Local legend Ron Meshbesher has tried some of the biggest cases in Minnesota history, and he’s still going strong and having fun at 77. He was also recently featured, by name and reputation if not in the flesh, in the Coen brothers’ film, A Serious Man, set in St. Louis Park in 1967. We spoke with him in early May.
You’ve represented thousands of clients in your 50-year career. How many stay in touch after the verdict?
Some do. I still get Christmas cards from about four clients I represented. My second criminal case back in 1963—I hear from this guy all the time. He was a very handsome guy. From Bombay originally, with that clipped, English-Indian accent, and on his way to American citizenship. He worked for a company that dealt in old war equipment: tanks and shit like that. He was pretty good at it, but they claimed he was embezzling some of the products and sending them to South America.
So I’m trying the case against guys I used to work with in the county attorney’s office, and we found out that one of their witnesses hadn’t exactly told the truth. I can’t remember the details, but we tried to find her to subpoena her. ... And we find out that she’s on her way to the airport. These guys are trying to get her out of town! My old buddies! But we reached her with the subpoena before she got on the plane, brought her back and cross-examined her. And I asked, “You were out at the airport? They wanted to send you away?”
You used that—
I used that against them. My client testifies that he didn’t do it. He’s a great witness. He says, “I’m telling you the truth: If I am convicted in this case, under my religion and family commitments, I must commit suicide.” He just blurted that out. The judge: “The jury must disregard that!” [Laughs]
That was a surprise?
Yeah, I could never ask that question. He just blurted it out in response to cross-examination from the prosecution. And he got acquitted.
He still around?
Still around. He moved to Washington, D.C., and became a dealer in used war equipment. Then he got involved in Toronto: apartment buildings and commercial buildings. Made a fortune. I get a Christmas card but he usually calls me once every two, three years. His name is Sunder. I say, “Sunder, what’s up?” He says, “I’m just thinking about you. I’m thinking about you. You saved my life. And I never forgot it.”
At what point did you think, “You know, I’m pretty good at this. I think I made a good career choice”?
When I first started at the county attorney’s office, I got lucky. There were only about 13 lawyers in that office. I was the baby by far, just 24 years old, right out of law school, and I wanted to get into the courtroom. I wanted to try cases. And I got one case that should’ve been a cinch winner—10 witnesses to a shooting in Minneapolis. The lawyer against me was a guy named Scoop Lohmann, who was a legend among lawyers. He was a war hero—World War I—and the first public defender appointed. It was a part-time job, he had a private practice, too. He was known as a guy really trying a case by the seat of his pants. His file was in his pocket all the time. And he absolutely tore my witnesses apart.
I learned one good thing from him: As a defense lawyer, if you’ve got 10 witnesses to identify the same thing, but they disagree a lot, you’re better off just calling the two best you got. He absolutely killed me. [The defendant] was acquitted and I thought, “Oh, shit.”
I thought, “This ain’t my business.” [Laughs] Then I lost my next case.
I tried a total of 45 cases, which is a lot of cases in three years. I was the eager beaver. I’d say [to the other attorneys], “You guys got a case to try?” And they’d think, “What a sucker.” They’d been doing it for years. But I tried them and I think I only lost three cases the whole time. One more after those two.
Why were you such an eager beaver?
I wanted to be a trial lawyer ever since I can remember. My uncle Si was a very successful trial lawyer in town. He was president of the local bar association, did a wide variety—business law, a few criminal cases—and he was my idol. He was also the only guy in my family who drove a big Cadillac. He represented Bennie Berger, who brought the Minneapolis Lakers here, he represented Mike Kelley, who had the Minneapolis Millers ballclub, and he represented Charlie from Charlie’s Cafe. I worked for him one summer, as a law clerk, my third year of law school. Learned a lot. I watched him try a personal injury case. He won. He was a real smooth guy in the courtroom.
So was that when you first wanted to be a trial lawyer?
No, I always wanted to be a trial lawyer.
But where did it come from?
Who knows? Radio, movies. My dad sort of ingrained it.
Once you became a trial lawyer, how did it differ from what you thought it was going to be?
Well, it wasn’t as easy as I thought it was going to be, I’ll tell ya that. [Laughs] You didn’t have a script to read.
But I just loved it and I still love it. I tried two cases last year. This year I’ve got a case that’s to be tried in July in Owatonna.
So from one lawyer, Uncle Si, there are quite a few Meshbeshers in the law today.
There’s only one Meshbesher family. I can’t find another name like it. I’ve looked all over.
Where does “Meshbesher” come from?
I read an article by some Jewish historians—it was in Hebrew and I had to get it translated—that said the name “Meshbesher” came from Mezibush, a little village near the Ukraine. It was in Hebrew the way he wrote it: Mezbesch. And it became Meshbesher.
“One who comes from Mezbesch.”
Yeah. And as much as I can gather from reading some Jewish historical stuff, you’ll never see another Meshbesher name except our family. I’ve looked at phone books in every city I go to and outside of this country. You’ll never see it. And if you do find one, it’s a cousin of mine that I know.
We have something in common, by the way. Both of our names were used by the Coen brothers in their movies. They used my father’s name, Bob Lundegaard, for William H. Macy’s character, Jerry Lundegaard, in Fargo. And yours, of course, for A Serious Man. How have people reacted to your inclusion in the movie?
They say, “How much did you pay for that commercial?” [Laughs] I did get some calls from people I hadn’t heard from for years. A guy I’d gone to law school with. He’s retired, living in San Diego. He called me, said, “Ron, I went to the theater [and when they said your name] I was laughing and people around me didn’t know what I was laughing at.”
Adam Arkin’s character, a lawyer, immediately recommends you to the main character, Larry Gopnik. I’m curious: Were you well-known in ’67?
Not as well-known as I became. I did have one case that I tried that got a lot of publicity in ’66. It involved a magazine of male nudes. My clients were a couple of gay guys, partners, who were publishing this material out of a printing plant in Minneapolis, sending it all over the country, and making a helluva lotta money. The government charged them with criminal obscenity. Twenty-eight counts. We did an investigation on that case like it was a murder case.
I had my investigator go all around the country, to major cities, to buy different [pornographic] magazines to develop community standards, which is one of the tests in obscenity: “What are the community standards?” I got some of the best witnesses in the field. Then on top of it, my investigator had the mailing list of these people who were buying these magazines. And contrary to what everyone was thinking, maybe 25, 30 percent were women. We tried that case for two weeks. To a judge. I waived the jury. And we got an acquittal on all 28 counts. There has never been a prosecution for that type of publication since. It’s a landmark case in the field of homosexual literature.
So were you expensive back then? That’s another thing Arkin’s character says: “Ron is … not inexpensive.”
I was a lot cheaper then. It had a $3,000 retainer [in the film], and $3,000 in 1967 was a lot of dough. It was probably a lot higher than I would’ve charged.
An argument can be made that your $3,000 retainer creates the havoc at the end of the movie. Earlier Gopnik tells the Korean student, “Actions have consequences,” but he finally gives in and takes the Korean student’s bribe to pay your retainer. And as soon as that happens everything goes wrong: the doctor calls with bad news, the tornado bears down on his son.
You’re the second person who ever told me that analysis. My wife said that, too. “You know you’re responsible for this whole thing?” [Laughs]
What’s your particular strength in court?
All of it’s important, but other lawyers I’ve worked with have told me my cross-examination is terrific. And I think I do a pretty good closing argument.
I respect jurors. Some lawyers think they’re stupid. I don’t. I think the jury system in this country is the most important part of our legal system. To have 12 people from all walks of life, who know nothing about the case, come in and make a decision is the right way to do it.