Melvin L. Wulf, a constitutional lawyer who represented anti-Vietnam War activists, opposed government censorship of the Pentagon Papers and crusaded on behalf of civil rights, gender equality and personal privacy while serving as the longtime legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, died July 8 at his home in Manhattan. He was 95.
He had been in declining health after breaking his hip two months ago, said his daughter Jane Wulf.
As the ACLU’s legal director from 1962 to 1977, Mr. Wulf helped transform the organization’s litigation program, shifting its focus from writing amicus briefs for major cases to representing individual clients whose civil liberties were allegedly violated.
He argued more than a half-dozen cases in front of the Supreme Court, successfully advocating on behalf of clients that included a theological student who was punished for turning in his draft card, a left-wing student group that a Connecticut public college refused to officially recognize, and a Virginia newspaper editor fined for printing an advertisement for an abortion clinic.
“Few individuals have had such a profound impact on the ACLU and civil liberties as Mel Wulf,” Anthony D. Romero, the organization’s executive director, said in a statement. “He started at a time when the ACLU was still building out its litigation program, but that didn’t deter him from taking on some of the toughest fights of his time, never standing down in the face of government abuse of our rights and liberties.”
Since its founding in 1920, the ACLU has been associated with a stalwart defense of the First Amendment, including freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Mr. Wulf helped broaden its work, said Laurence H. Tribe, a Harvard University scholar of constitutional law, while taking cases dealing with the rights of women, racial minorities, the LGBTQ community and people with disabilities.
“Because of how Mel Wulf saw the organization’s role during his 15 or so years at its helm, the ACLU became synonymous with the protection of human rights generally,” Tribe wrote in an email. Mr. Wulf employed “litigation strategies that were grounded in lived experience,” he added, “and that transcended the largely academic and theoretical focus on the First Amendment that had characterized the ACLU in its pre-Wulf incarnation.”
In an effort to expand the organization’s work against segregation, Mr. Wulf recruited civil rights lawyer Charles Morgan Jr. to become the first director of the ACLU’s Southern Regional Office in Atlanta. Around that same time, in 1964, Mr. Wulf spearheaded an initiative to send lawyers to Mississippi to defend student activists participating in Freedom Summer, a volunteer campaign to register Black voters. Some 300 lawyers traveled south that summer, according to Aryeh Neier, a longtime ACLU official who served as the group’s executive director in the 1970s.
Mr. Wulf was “a very good appellate lawyer,” Neier said in a phone interview, and shaped the organization’s legal strategy in collaboration with tenacious civil libertarians including Osmond Fraenkel, Norman Dorsen and Marvin M. Karpatkin, who each served as general counsel of the ACLU.
Crucially, Neier said, Mr. Wulf played a key role in pushing the ACLU to defend individual clients when he issued a public statement in 1968 announcing that the group would defend five men — including pediatrician Benjamin Spock and the Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr. — who were accused of conspiring to encourage young men to evade the draft.
ACLU officials repudiated Mr. Wulf’s statement before reversing their position and offering to defend the “Boston Five,” amid a debate over whether representing the men meant taking a broader stance against the Vietnam War. (Spock, Coffin and two others were found guilty, but their convictions were overturned on appeal.)
In 1971, Mr. Wulf joined Dorsen, Fraenkel and other ACLU lawyers in filing an amicus brief on behalf of the New York Times and The Washington Post, which were temporarily barred by the Nixon administration from publishing the Pentagon Papers, a secret government history of the Vietnam War. The Supreme Court sided with the newspapers in a landmark victory for freedom of the press.
As legal director, Mr. Wulf also oversaw the ACLU’s work on gender discrimination, signing off on the launch of the organization’s Women’s Rights Project in 1972. The initiative, which resulted in several Supreme Court victories, was led by Mr. Wulf’s childhood friend Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the future Supreme Court justice, and Brenda Feigen, a lawyer who had helped launch Ms. magazine with Gloria Steinem.
By then, Mr. Wulf and Ginsburg had reconnected through a court case involving Charles Moritz, a bachelor and traveling salesman living in Denver. Moritz had hired a nurse to help care for his ailing mother and sought to deduct a portion of the expenses from his taxes. The Internal Revenue Service denied his claim, noting that the caregiver deduction was only given to women and widowers — offering what Ginsburg believed was a powerful test case against discrimination based on sex.
While working on the case with her husband, tax lawyer Martin D. Ginsburg, Ruth Bader Ginsburg sought institutional support from the ACLU. She wrote a letter to Mr. Wulf to persuade him to get involved, incorporating playful references to “Ruddigore,” a comic opera by Gilbert and Sullivan, which Mr. Wulf had performed in while working at a Jewish summer camp in the Adirondacks that she had attended as a child.
The case was “as neat a craft as one could find” to test sex-based discrimination, Ginsburg wrote, according to Jane Sherron de Hart’s 2018 book “Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life.” “We will take the case to the Tenth Circuit,” Ginsburg added, “and if our achievement is not glorious there, we will make a valorous try at the Supreme Court.”
Mr. Wulf agreed to finance the case through the ACLU, and in 1972 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit sided with Moritz, ruling that sex-based discrimination violated the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.
The case drew renewed attention after it was featured in the 2018 movie “On the Basis of Sex,” which starred Felicity Jones as Ginsburg. Justin Theroux played a brusque, blustering Mr. Wulf, much to his annoyance. A moot-court scene in which his character “was very harsh” with Ginsburg “never happened,” he told the website Above the Law. And according to his family, that was far from the only difference between Mr. Wulf and his Hollywood depiction.
“In the movie, the guy wore polyester suits, which my dad would never have been caught dead in,” his daughter Jane said in a phone interview. After all, she noted, Mr. Wulf’s father owned a menswear company that manufactured suits and coats. Mr. Wulf, who had worked on the suit-cutting floor, would dress “only in Brooks Brothers,” she said with a laugh, “very carefully tailored.”
The younger of two children, Melvin Lawrence Wulf was born in Brooklyn on Nov. 1, 1927. His father was a Jewish immigrant from Latvia, and his mother was a homemaker, herself the daughter of immigrants. When Mr. Wulf was 8, the family moved to Troy, N.Y., where his father had a clothing factory.
Mr. Wulf planned to enter the family business and studied for several years at the Lowell Textile Institute in Massachusetts. He changed his mind after a friend “turned him on to politics,” his daughter said, and he transferred to Columbia University, receiving a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1952 and graduating from Columbia Law School in 1955.
After serving as a Navy legal officer, he joined the ACLU in 1958 as a deputy to legal director Rowland Watts, whom he succeeded four years later. That same year, he married Deirdre Howard, an English-born writer and consultant on women’s health and population issues. In addition to his wife and daughter, Jane, survivors include another daughter, Laura Wulf; a sister; and a grandson.
Mr. Wulf was forced to resign after 15 years as the ACLU’s legal director because of what he described as “irreconcilable differences” with the organization’s leadership. In 1978, he started a public interest law firm with Alan Levine and Ramsey Clark, the former U.S. attorney general.
The firm successfully challenged a book ban at a Long Island school district and represented clients including Frank Serpico, the whistleblowing New York police detective, and Philip Agee, a former CIA officer whose passport was revoked after he became an outspoken critic of the intelligence agency. Mr. Wulf argued in front of the Supreme Court in an unsuccessful effort to get Agee’s passport reinstated.
In 1983, Clark, Wulf & Levine disbanded because of what the partners described as skyrocketing costs and limited financial returns. Mr. Wulf, who said he was trying to make enough money to put his daughters through college, joined another New York law firm, Beldock Levine & Hoffman, and worked there until retiring in 2009.
“I think it is economically impossible to sustain in this economy, or in any economy, an exclusively civil-liberties practice,” he told the New York Times after the demise of his partnership with Clark and Levine. “I think that if we couldn’t do it, it can’t be done.”