A Law All Her Own
As a 1960s radical, Barbara Handschu reined in repressive police tactics with her eponymous decree
Published in 2007 Upstate New York Super Lawyers magazine
on August 22, 2007
Updated on August 3, 2016
To many Americans, the concept of terrorism only dates back to 9/11 and the modern stereotypical terrorist is a conservative religious fanatic.
But there was a time when terrorism conjured a different image, from the opposite side of the political spectrum. When a ragtag assortment of equal rights activists, peaceniks, gays, pinkos (both real and imagined), Native Americans and anyone else outside the mainstream was fair game for domestic espionage. Especially in New York City, home of the infamous NYPD Red Squad—some of the nation’s most rabid defenders of the American way.
But the cops in the Big Apple had headaches of their own in the form of a tiny Jewish attorney not long out of law school, a woman unafraid to pick fights with those a whole lot bigger than herself.
Barbara Handschu was as much a part of the volatile ’60s and early ’70s as the Black Panthers, the Chicago Seven, the Young Lords of Spanish Harlem, Abbie Hoffman, William Kunstler and the Attica prison riots. In fact, her arc would reach each of these icons of the period, and she’d leave her name on a legal doctrine—the Handschu Consent Decree—that’s making waves even today.
The decree was the result of a lawsuit brought by Handschu, Hoffman and others in the 1970s to control the unwarranted surveillance practices of the New York City Police Department, and it is still being battled in federal court.
Handschu’s life as an activist attorney began with an uphill battle. Before she could get to the social storms that wracked America in the 1960s and early 1970s, Handschu had to enter the decidedly male world of the 1960s American jurisprudence system.
“There were six of us [women] out of 350 law students at the University of Michigan School of Law,” she recalls. “We couldn’t even live in the law quadrangle,” because of the school’s lack of accommodation for its rare female students.
But Handschu stuck to it. “I got into criminal cases because the times needed it,” she says, adding that she had “a sense of justice and an understanding that most who had the ability to use the justice system had money.”
In the late ’60s, Handschu joined the National Lawyers Guild, an organization she proudly describes as “more radical than the ACLU.” It was there and through her pro bono defense of activists like the Black Panthers and the Young Lords that she says she found police surveillance disturbingly common.
“We’d take pictures of them taking pictures of us,” she recalls.
Handschu herself was arrested in 1969 during a Chelsea squatter demonstration—for which she lost her job as a law secretary for Judge Hilda Schwartz. But the firing only had the effect of pushing her into criminal defense law.
Eventually, after 21 members of the Black Panther Party were acquitted of all charges of conspiring to blow up police stations and department stores, the full extent of police infiltration came out.
The young activist became lead plaintiff in Handschu v. Special Services Division, a 1971 lawsuit enjoining the NYPD’s Bureau of Strategic Services—the Red Squad—from conducting surveillance on lawful assembly. Handschu eventually won in 1985, and the settlement took the form of the Handschu Consent Decree. It stated that the police must avoid accumulating dossiers and capturing anyone on film or video who’s not suspected of engaging in illegal activity. The department had to abide by a set of guidelines to protect lawful dissent, and would need pre-approval from a board—the Handschu Authority—before surveilling or infiltrating a group.
Around the same time, Handschu was becoming personally involved with one activist in particular. He was a young Puerto Rican nationalist named Bobby Lemus. A member of the Young Lords, Lemus was arrested in the early ’70s “for burning garbage in Spanish Harlem,” as Handschu puts it. The act was in response to the absence of waste collection pickup in certain ethnic neighborhoods amid the push for gentrification under the Lindsay mayoral administration.
When Lemus got bailed out, the couple married, more as a positive public relations move to confer respectability than anything else. “We were living together anyway,” Handschu says with a shrug.
Lemus pleaded guilty and was put on probation, and the young couple moved west so Handschu could take on another cause. There’d been this riot in 1971, not far from Buffalo. Attica, the bloodiest prison uprising in America: 43 dead inmates, hostages, and guards. Lockdown came in the aftermath—twenty-three-and-a-half hours a day of it, says Handschu.
Working with the Attica Defense Committee (“We lived on bake sales”), Handschu was able to get her one client released from prison. In the process, she worked alongside the legendary defense lawyer William Kunstler.
“He loved me doing all the work,” she recalls of their co-counseling efforts. “He’d read my papers during the ride from the airport, then sound brilliant in the courtroom. He was a real down-to-earth, fun-loving guy with a piercing mind.”
While Handschu was springing prison inmates from lockdown, Lemus made his own escape from Buffalo—a city to which the Puerto Rican activist had never adapted. “There was no Latino community,” Handschu explains. He returned to New York City, and she never saw him again except in a photo exhibit, many years later, commemorating the Young Lords.
Today, Handschu doesn’t look like a battle-hardened radical; there’s nothing overtly political in her demeanor or lifestyle, save for the occasional anti-war march. It’s been years since she was arrested for being anti-anything. At 65 she’s still petite, with a constant, easy smile and a tangle of white hair. You can’t imagine her breaking bread with the Black Panthers. Or defending “the Piggybank Six.” (“There were actually seven, but the seventh was a police infiltrator,” she says of the inept crew of college-educated would-be bank robbers in the late 1960s.)
For years, Handschu has exclusively practiced family law and litigation, a specialty she considers to be a logical segue from her more colorful times. “My clients needed family law, too,” she says.
In earning a statewide reputation for her trial work and expertise in issues of child custody and geographic relocation, she was named the first female president of the New York chapter of American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers in the mid 1990s. She served as the organization’s national president in 2004 and has taught an annual ABA-sponsored workshop in family law litigation at the University of Houston Law Center for the last 20 years.
Handschu sounds decidedly mercenary when asked whether she usually represents moms or dads these days. “I tend to represent whoever dials me first,” she says with a chuckle.
But she hasn’t lost any of her passion. She has strong feelings about doing what’s best for the children, no matter which parent is her client. “I’ve definitely come to the point where I believe young children should not be moved far from an absent parent.” Or from extended family, for that matter: “You’re 3 years old and a grandparent says, ‘I’ll see you at Christmas.’ That’s a lifetime for a small child. You won’t even clearly remember that grandparent.”
And her clients seem to appreciate her principles and dedication. “She’s a very classy lady and a very hard worker, and is probably the best attorney for custody in New York,” says Kathy Tiftickjian, a former client who became a close friend after her divorce and custody case dragged on for years.
When Tiftickjian’s son was married in Denver last year, Handschu was an invited guest. As the grateful former client sees it, “Barbara gave me my third life.”
In spite of her current, low-profile practice, Handschu’s name is back in the papers. In 2002, the police and the city asked federal court to re-examine the decree in light of the 9/11 attacks. Police commissioner Raymond Kelly was quoted as saying, “Today we live in a more dangerous, constantly changing world, one with challenges and threats that were never envisioned when the Handschu guidelines were written.”
Since then, a seemingly endless series of skirmishes has played out in federal court. Mayor Bloomberg’s administration asked that the decree be relaxed in light of the terrorist attacks. In June, Judge Charles Haight Jr. reversed himself from an earlier ruling in which he’d placed firm limits on videotaping public protest.
Handschu has been only peripherally involved in her namesake case in recent years. She did attend a hearing in the spring, where she was told by Haight, “I feel as if I know you well.”
“Barbara leads the largest class in federal court history—everyone who lives and works and comes to New York City,” says Franklin Siegel, one of the attorneys fighting to preserve at least the framework of the Handschu doctrine. “She’s been a consistently principled presence on behalf of the people’s rights of free expression.”
Handschu is torn about the need for greater national security. “If we were in a government of any other president and attorney general …” she says, trailing off, but leaving the impression she might be more accepting if someone else was in charge. She stops and says simply, “The Patriot Act frightens me.”
But she doesn’t sound frightened. Sounds more like a fighter still up for another round or two.