| | MR Online Martin Stolar in his office. Credit: Elia Gran.

A Life in the Law on the Left: The Life and Legacy of Comrade Martin Stolar

We at Monthly Review have been among Marty Stolar’s clients from demonstration arrests, and among his co-counsel and colleagues at the National Lawyers Guild–New York City. We appreciated and loved him, and mourn his death.


On July 1, 2024, it was announced that the illustrious movement attorney Martin Stolar had died at the age of 81 in his home in New York City. A leading figure in the National Lawyers Guild and a titan of the progressive legal tradition, Stolar’s passing is an immeasurable loss for the political left and social movements in New York and across the country.

Stolar’s contribution to the left began as soon as he was admitted to practice law. Upon graduation from New York University Law School in 1968, Stolar refused to answer questions required by the Ohio State Bar Association regarding his prior association with organizations that sought to overthrow the United States government, as required by the Ohio state bar to obtain a license to practice law. The requirement for applicants to delineate all organizational associations, which originally included a question about prior membership in the Communist Party, was an overt McCarthyist mechanism of repression that effectively precluded the entry of leftists into the legal profession, having the effect of weakening social movements. After his otherwise uncheckered application was denied, Stolar sued the Ohio Bar Association to challenge the constitutionality of the requirement. That case, In Re Stolar, progressed through the federal appellate process until it reached the Supreme Court, which ruled in a 5-4 opinion in favor of the plaintiff on the grounds that the organizational association requirement was in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution. Notably and indicative of his deep political conviction, Stolar had already been admitted to practice law in New York state, meaning his participation as a plaintiff in the Ohio lawsuit was of no personal careerist gain, and was purely to challenge the state’s policy that excluded leftists from the practice of law.

This devotion to the practice of law on behalf of the left remained steadfast for decades. Since the beginning of his career, Stolar, who once remarked that he was “more effective as a political person representing the people who do get arrested,” was an advocate for activists from an array of social movements spanning wide enough to be a tapestry of the history of the left during his life. He was a founding member of the National Lawyers Guild’s Mass Defense Committee (MDC) since its formation in 1970, and over the course of decades represented members of the Black Panthers and Young Lords, as well as civil rights activists of a number of generations, antiwar activists against a number of imperialist projects spanning decades, Vieques activists, demonstrators at the 2004 Republican National Convention, Occupy Wall Street activists, Black Lives Matter demonstrators, and environmental and climate activists.

In addition to his work for the Guild’s MDC, Stolar’s representative record functions as an inquisition into late twentieth century radical history in the United States. Within his first years of practice as a 28-year-old in 1973, Stolar represented the “Camden 28,” a group of Catholic antiwar radicals (who referred to themselves as “the conscience of America”) on trial in Camden, New Jersey, for burning Vietnam War draft papers and breaking into a draft-board office to sabotage the effectuation of conscription. In what Supreme Court Justice William Brennan called “one of the great trials of the twentieth century,” Stolar’s representation resulted in a not-guilty verdict from the jury and was a devastating political blow against FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s maniacal crusade of repression against the anti-Vietnam War movement.

In 1985, after over a decade of litigating a class action lawsuit on behalf of Black Panther Party members against the New York City Police Department (Handschu v. Special Services Division) for its unconstitutional surveillance, infiltration, and entrapment practices against leftist and anti-racist activists, Stolar and his colleague Jethro Eisenten won a consent decree with the City that set forth a set of rules restraining NYPD’s tactics of repression. Known as the “Handschu guidelines,” the consent decree banned the commencement of any investigatory activity by the police into a political organization until the police could identify specific information that the organization was engaged in a crime. In what constituted a basic victory for rule of law, the Handschu guidelines continue to be of immense importance that provide left organizations with a degree of space to organize without the brutal wrath of no-cause investigation. Stolar’s clientele also included leaders of the Attica prison uprising, post-9/11 detainees, and countless others targeted, neglected, and brutalized by the capitalist state.

An attorney of a particular generation inspired by the radicalism and left political gains of the 1960 that included, among others, Michael Ratner, William Kunstler, and Lynne Stewart, Stolar’s life work was characterized by a devotion to the rigorous practice of law uncommon among those on the political left, and a devotion to the feminist, antiracist, antiwar, anti-imperialist, and environmentalist causes that are painstakingly (and increasingly) rare among those in the legal profession. Stolar’s partner Elsie Chandler, also a progressive criminal defense lawyer, stated in the years that preceded his death that he “was very clear that he’s a lawyer, not a friend or compatriot of his client.” However, a reflection on his practice renders the possibility of a more progressive relationship between advocate and client, one that is solidaristically premised on shared ideological struggle against the capitalist state.

The legacy of Stolar is expressed through the victories for the downtrodden won by the movements that were composed of his clients, as well as through the radical legal tradition to which he was foundational. Fittingly, in the months before his death, he was engaged in the defense of Columbia University students who had been arrested for their encampment protests against the university’s complicity in the genocide in Gaza, which sparked an international antiwar movement, and was counseling climate protesters arrested after occupying the offices of Wall Street banks for their financing of ecocidal fossil fuel expansion projects. At a time when people across the world are revolting against the capitalist class’s genocidal war in Gaza and commitment to an extractivist model that amounts to ecocide, the institutions, political gains, legal precedent, and tradition cultivated by Stolar will be crucial in ways that are beyond what can be readily seen in movements today. His memory will live on in these and other struggles to come, as well as in the world his clients are destined to win.