Described as “the courts’ most elegant pain in the neck” by the New York Times, activist lawyer Eleanor Jackson Piel has died at 102. Piel fought relentlessly for civil rights and civil liberties cases. She was one of the few women in her generation to enter the field of criminal law.
Piel practiced law into her 90s, according to the Washington Post. She won high-profile wrongful convictions cases, and helped clear a man who had spent 17 years in prison for a rape he did not commit. She obtained a stay of execution for two Florida death-row prisoners just 16 hours before they were scheduled to be electrocuted, said the Post. She later won their release.
During World War II, Piel represented Japanese Americans interned by the U.S. government. In the 1960s, Piel advocated for Sandra Adickes, a White teacher, in a civil suit. Adickes was arrested in 1964 for vagrancy after trying to dine with six Black students at a segregated Kress lunch counter in Mississippi.
Piel later represented a high-achieving 13-year-old student named Alice de Rivera against a prestigious New York public school, Stuyvesant High School, which was restricted to boys only at the time. Piel filed a suit for Rivera to be granted admission. Girls were finally admitted in the school in 1969, though Rivera had moved by this time, said the Post.
Piel spent a lifetime fighting against sexism and racism. In 1940, she was denied entrance to the University of California at Berkeley’s law school because the dean believed that “females always had nervous breakdowns,” the Post reported.
She attended the University of Southern California, where she made the law review. She then transferred to Berkeley, where she was the only woman in her graduating class. When she graduated, law firms weren’t hiring female attorneys, so she started her own private practice based first in Los Angeles and then in New York.
“I am persistent,” she stated to the Times, “and I like to challenge authority. No question about it.”
In an era where women lawyers were limited to handling divorces, trusts and estates, and other matters of family law, Piel broke ground for women by practicing in the criminal field.
“Criminal law was such a low level in the profession that anyone who gave it time was a sport,” Piel said to the Times. “I couldn’t understand why it was so disrespected. To me, facing the unknown and coming up with something on my feet that worked was heaven.”