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Melvin Wulf, a Giant in the Field of Civil Liberties, Dies at 95

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Mahnoor Jehangir
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The former legal director of the ACLU, who argued landmark cases before the Supreme Court and mentored Ruth Bader Ginsburg, passed away at his home in Manhattan <br> Image Credit: The New York Times

Melvin Wulf, a constitutional lawyer who reshaped the American Civil Liberties Union into a more aggressive litigator, argued 10 cases before the United States Supreme Court and supported the future Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in bringing a landmark sex discrimination case, died on July 8 at his home in Manhattan. He was 95. His daughter Jane Wulf confirmed the death.

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As the legal director of the A.C.L.U. from 1962 to 1977, Mr. Wulf turned the organization from a passive one that mostly filed friend-of-the-court briefs in others’ cases into one that directly filed suit on behalf of people who said their civil liberties had been violated.

A Leader in the Civil Rights Movement

Mr. Wulf was instrumental in organizing the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee, a network of lawyers drawn from several groups, including the A.C.L.U., the N.A.A.C.P. and the American Jewish Committee. It provided legal representation for students, both Black and white, who traveled to the South to register Black voters during the Freedom Summer in 1964.

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“That, to me, was his most outstanding achievement,” Aryeh Neier, who was the executive director of the A.C.L.U. at the time, said in an interview.

Under Mr. Wulf’s leadership, the A.C.L.U. also opposed the Vietnam War, represented conscientious objectors and challenged censorship and discrimination.

A Mentor to Ruth Bader Ginsburg

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Mr. Wulf’s public profile was modest during his 15 years at the A.C.L.U., but it grew a bit in 2018 with the release of the film “On the Basis of Sex,” in which Justin Theroux portrays him, and which touches on his back story with Ms. Ginsburg, whom he had met at summer camp in the 1940s.

In real life as in the film, Ms. Ginsburg persuaded Mr. Wulf to give her the A.C.L.U’s backing in appealing the federal case of a bachelor, Charles Moritz, who had been denied a small tax deduction for the costs of a caretaker for his octogenarian mother — a break that a woman, a widower or a husband whose wife was incapacitated would have received.

Mr. Wulf also hired Ms. Ginsburg as the first director of the A.C.L.U.’s Women’s Rights Project in 1972.

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A Defender of Free Speech and Privacy

Mr. Wulf argued 10 cases before the Supreme Court, dealing with such constitutional issues as:

- The right of Students for a Democratic Society to organize on college campuses

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- The right of a Virginia newspaper to publish ads informing where abortions could be obtained in states where they were legal

- The unconstitutionality of revoking the passport of Philip Agee, an ex-CIA employee who became one of the first whistleblowers

- The unconstitutionality of drafting a young man solely because of his opposition to the American war in Vietnam

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Mr. Wulf also first formulated the concept of the modern constitutional right of privacy as essential to a woman’s right to use contraceptives and to her doctors’ to prescribe them, a concept that became the foundation of Roe v. Wade (1973), legalizing abortion.

After leaving the A.C.L.U., Mr. Wulf co-founded a law firm dedicated to assisting low-income clients facing infringement of their civil rights. He later became of counsel to another firm that specialized in civil rights issues, where his major cases involved intellectual property and free speech issues.

A Life Dedicated to Justice

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Melvin Lawrence Wulf was born on Nov. 1, 1927, in Brooklyn and raised in Troy, N.Y. His father Jacob Wulf was born in Latvia and his mother Vivian Hurwitz Wulf was born in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He had one older sister, Harriette Wulf Casnoff.

After finishing high school Mr. Wulf spent two years in the New York State Merchant Marine Academy. Intending to go into his family’s clothing business Mr. Wulf studied at Lowell Textile Institute from 1947 to 1950, but he transferred to Columbia University where he completed his undergraduate degree in 1952 and his law degree in 1955. From 1955 to 1957 he was a legal officer with the Navy.

In addition to his daughter Jane he is survived by another daughter Laura; two grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. His wife Deirdre Howard died in 2019. Mr. Wulf retired from law practice in 2011 at age 84 but remained active in the A.C.L.U. as a board member and adviser.

In a statement, the A.C.L.U. said: “Melvin Wulf was a giant in the field of civil liberties and civil rights. He dedicated his life to advancing justice and equality for all people. He will be greatly missed, but his legacy will live on.”

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