David Carliner; Active in Unpopular Causes

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 23, 2007

David Carliner, a Washington immigration and civil rights lawyer who spent his career pleading for the rights of the country's disenfranchised, died Sept. 19 of a heart attack at George Washington University Hospital -- the same university that had refused to admit him more than 70 years earlier because of his outspoken political views. He was 89.

In his private law practice and as the first chairman of the D.C. chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, Mr. Carliner took up causes that many considered unpopular or foolhardy. When few other lawyers saw merit in such cases, he challenged state and federal laws on segregation, mixed-race marriage, illegal immigrants and homosexuality. He was often on the losing side in court, but he lived long enough to see judges, legislators and public opinion adopt many views he had advocated years before.

In the 1960s, Mr. Carliner was chairman of the D.C. Home Rule Committee and helped shape a plan to give the city an independent government.

"Washingtonians owe warm thanks to the long, patient efforts of the Home Rule Committee and its chairman, David Carliner," a 1967 Washington Post editorial declared.

Mr. Carliner was something of a visionary and a rebel all his life. In 1934, when he was 15, he was arrested for demonstrating outside the German Embassy against the policies of Germany's new Nazi government.

As a senior at McKinley High School, he was accused of trying to incite a riot by calling for a student rally. The school's principal, Frank C. Daniel, asked the police to post a guard at every door and, according to a Post article, "to keep an eye on David Carliner, a senior he believes to be the leader of a chapter of the National Student League, alleged red affiliate."

The principal then suspended Mr. Carliner "until he is willing to stop agitating."

Teaching a civics lesson of his own, the 16-year-old student told The Post: "I learned somewhere that you should never lose your character. If I would accept Mr. Daniel's terms, I would lose my character."

Mr. Carliner was born in the District on Aug. 13, 1918, and was the son of a grocer. After high school -- his suspension was lifted after two days -- he was denied admission to George Washington University on the basis of a letter Daniel wrote to the university president.

After a year at American University, he enrolled at the University of Virginia and entered the law school before he completed his undergraduate degree.

In 1940, he was expelled from law school when he was arrested for distributing the writings of Communist leader Earl Browder. Mr. Carliner returned to Washington and graduated in 1941 from the National University School of Law (later part of GWU).

During World War II, he completed Officer Candidate School but was denied a commission, he maintained, because of his political views. After the war, he became one of the first lawyers to concentrate on immigration law, and by 1954 he handled his first high-profile case, Naim v. Naim.

In 1952, a Chinese immigrant named Ham Say Naim married a woman in North Carolina and settled in Virginia. Two years later, she sought an annulment on the grounds that interracial marriage was illegal in Virginia.

Mr. Carliner argued that the anti-miscegenation law violated the Constitution, but in 1955 the Virginia Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the state had the right to "preserve the racial integrity of its citizens" and "to regulate the marriage relation so that it shall not have a mongrel breed of citizens."

The U.S. Supreme Court finally struck down Virginia's interracial marriage ban in 1967.

From 1957 to 1960, Mr. Carliner filed a series of suits to overturn Virginia's prohibition on integrated seating at public events. In 1960, Arlington County schools finally allowed blacks and whites to sit together at public meetings.

After losing in the lower courts, Mr. Carliner won a landmark decision in 1965 when the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that a federal employee was wrongfully fired after he was arrested for soliciting gay sex in Lafayette Square.

In 1966, Mr. Carliner defended Yale professor Staughton Lynd, whose passport had been seized after he visited Cuba and North Vietnam. Mr. Carliner ultimately won broader rights for U.S. citizens to travel overseas.

In 1979, after President Jimmy Carter ordered federal agents to compile dossiers on 50,000 Iranian students in the United States, Mr. Carliner took up their cause and got the order rescinded.

In 1977, Mr. Carliner found himself embroiled in a legal case of his own when he tried to buy a house on Reno Road NW in Washington. When the owners sold to another family, Mr. Carliner sued, citing a conversation in which the homeowner told Mr. Carliner's real estate agent, "I'll let the house stand there and rot before I sell it to those Jews."

In the end, Mr. Carliner got the house.

Mr. Carliner was the founding chairman of the International Human Rights Law Group, which trained international human rights activists. He was the author of "The Rights of Aliens: The Basic Guide to an Alein's Rights," and was a member of the Cosmos Club.

He retired from his law firm, Carliner & Remes, in 2003.

His wife of 50 years, Miriam Carliner, died in 1994.

Survivors include two children, Geoffrey Carliner of Newton, Mass., and Deborah Carliner of Washington; four grandchildren; and one great-granddaughter.

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