The Los Angeles Herald Examiner recently displayed the headline "Linda Abrams and Her Private War against Big Brother." The theme of one lawyer's fight to defend individual rights against growing government interference is not a new one to those who know Linda Abrams. It is a fight that has led her to defend:
• a businessman whose second business the IRS declared a hobby,
• a grower slapped with a fine for selling his oranges at a lower price than the competition's,
• an answering service accused of fronting for prostitutes,
• former marijuana defendants needing their records expunged,
• a bus driver who failed to get ICC approval of his service—fetching little old ladies to and from Las Vegas.
It is cases such as these that prompted the Herald Examiner to write that, while "It seems the only thing attorney Linda Abrams' clients have in common is their remarkable diversity,…each of her clients seeks her help for exactly the same purpose: getting the government off their backs."
In only her fifth year of legal practice Abrams, whose office overlooks Beverly Hills, has established a successful law practice and a growing respect for her work. She leads a very busy life, also serving as the vice-president of the national Association of Libertarian Lawyers and the director of a Los Angeles-area supper club (a monthly meeting group for libertarians).
As a "libertarian lawyer" she sees her role as standing "between people and their rulers, protecting anyone with whom the government is interfering." In order to accomplish this task she has combined various legal disciplines into "the specialty of 'libertarian law'"—"a hybrid, made up of about two parts constitutional law and one part each of administrative and criminal law." Constitutional law derives its importance from the protection it can furnish individuals against government intervention. Often, she says, it "provides us with the chief defenses remaining." Abrams notes that "constitutional issues are far more pervasive than most people—and even many lawyers—suspect."
Yet her libertarian stance also creates some problems for Abrams. For example, she sees a conflict between a commitment to voluntary relationships and the legal system's provision for subpoenas to force testimony and for the initiation of lawsuits against private parties. So she refuses to engage in either legal practice. She believes that it is the right of each potential witness to choose whether or not to testify, and so far she has been able "to avoid this problem almost entirely" since her law practice is primarily "defensive in nature." Abrams thinks that defending individuals against government encroachment "is actually far less conflict-generating than most" types of legal practices, and, "like judo, its focus is the turning-aside of force directed at an individual."
On the other hand, Abrams firmly believes in using the very same tools in battles with the government—even more so when it is the government that has violated the law. One recent example involves a case where the owner of a discotheque, frequented by gay teenagers, was charged with violating an old and long-ignored ordinance forbidding minors to dance in public. Abrams filed suit on behalf of the owner against the city of Los Angeles and some of its police officers, charging that he had been falsely arrested and imprisoned, maliciously prosecuted, intentionally subjected to emotional stress, and deprived of his civil rights. (The city attorney even sent her client a questionnaire containing such irrelevant questions as whether he had ever had venereal disease.)
Linda Abrams's struggles have shown her the importance of two very subtle techniques that have been of great help in her legal battles. The first concerns her refusal to use the emotionally laden terms of the opposition. The use of such words as pornography or even adult literature ends up conceding the issues at hand, since they involve surrendering to the opposition's moral judgments. Recalling one of her first lessons at the UCLA law school, she mentions that "the one who frames the issues usually carries the day, so even the seemingly-small stubbornness of refusing to use the enemy's terminology can have significant psychological impact."
Her second technique involves "an understanding of the bureaucratic mentality and motivation." She points out that, for government employees, "the more a file looks like work or—heaven forbid—a decision involving responsibility, the more likely it is to fall to the bottom of the IN-basket or get shuffled from desk to desk indefinitely. Consequently I have taken pains to establish a reputation with those agencies against whom I have litigated that instills in my opposition the dread certainty that they will have to work through some three-day weekend in the near future if they continue to oppose my client."
Linda's introduction to libertarianism came during the summer after her first—and unsatisfying—year of law school at the University of California at Los Angeles. She became acquainted with a young man from San Francisco, a stockbroker who had, she says, "the healthiest, most straightforward, cleanest relationship with reality" of anyone she had ever known. When she discovered that he thought highly of Ayn Rand, she flew to New York to learn from his teachers. In the next two months her views had changed "180 degrees"—from those of a "Beverly Hills liberal" to those of a libertarian.
While Linda views her work as "challenging and exciting," she realizes that "'fighting city hall' is clearly always an up-hill struggle" and does not expect any overnight changes. As she says, "They've got the rules and they've got the guns." Anyone who breaks the law will "sooner or later" find that "someone shows up on your doorstep with a gun in his hand."
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Spotlight: Lawyer for Liberty".