Clearing Lenny Bruce
That’s just what Robert Corn-Revere did in 2003
Published in 2008 Washington DC Super Lawyers magazine
on March 23, 2008
Updated on August 4, 2015
What does Janet Jackson’s breast have in common with Lenny Bruce’s mouth? Robert Corn-Revere. He’s now a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Davis Wright Tremaine, where his practice focuses on First Amendment, Internet-related issues and FCC regulatory matters.
In September, he argued before the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the “wardrobe malfunction” that exposed Jackson’s breast during the halftime show at the 2004 Super Bowl was neither planned nor approved by his client, CBS. Therefore, the $550,000 fine levied by the Federal Communications Commission—where Corn-Revere had once been chief counsel to the chairman—should be overturned. (The outcome is pending.)
While this case has received wide public exposure and no small measure of notoriety—Entertainment Weekly dubbed it the top celebrity scandal of the last 25 years—Corn-Revere’s lasting legacy will likely be the posthumous pardon—the first ever in the state of New York—he won for Lenny Bruce. The groundbreaking comedian had been convicted in 1964 of violating a New York state obscenity law for giving an “indecent performance” during three stand-up comedy performances at a Greenwich Village coffeehouse.
Corn-Revere’s involvement began in 2002 when he had a series of discussions with Ronald Collins and David Skover, co-authors of The Trials of Lenny Bruce. They told him that most people erroneously believed that Bruce’s conviction had been overturned, when it hadn’t. Could anything be done, they wondered? Corn-Revere decided to find out.
“There was no model for a petition,” he says. “You can’t just call and get a form.” But research found that nine other states had granted posthumous pardons. So he sent a petition to then-Gov. George Pataki.
He argued that because Lenny Bruce died of a drug overdose in 1966, “it is beyond the power of courts to reopen the appeal he never perfected. But it is not too late for the executive branch to set the record straight … [and] to issue a posthumous pardon from a verdict that should never have been rendered.”
He continued in his plea, “Bruce’s raw, free-form comedic style … covered a wide range of topics, including racism, organized religion, homosexuality and social conventions about the use of language. … [A] pardon would be an important reaffirmation of the basic principles upon which a free society is based.”
Corn-Revere sent the petition to Pataki in May 2003. Seven months later, right before Christmas, he was driving from his house in rural Loudoun County, Va., to the Sports Authority store to pick up a pingpong table when his cell phone rang. “It was the counsel for Governor Pataki, who called to give me a 15-minute head start because I was going to start getting press calls.” Which he did.
“To put a stand-up comic in jail for ‘word crimes,’ for using language before a consenting audience was unheard of,” Corn-Revere reflects today. “And there’s never a wrong time to do the right thing.”