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Interview with Leonard Schroeter

It's difficult to talk about Leonard Schroeter's law career without discussing one topic in particular: civil rights. After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1951, Schroeter went to work for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), then headed by the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Decades later, in Russia during the Soviet era, Schroeter assisted the Samizdat" movement -- namely, underground writers of forbidden" literature and political criticism. He also served as the Principal Legal Assistant to the Attorney General of Israel, and founded the Seattle law firm Schroeter, Goldmark & Bender.

For many years, Schroeter has been a friend of Prison Legal News (PLN) and an advocate for the rights of prisoners. To mark its 15th anniversary, I recently met with Schroeter at his Seattle home to discuss his career, observations of prisoners' rights issues, and PLN's role in this cause.

PRISON LEGAL NEWS: What is your impression of the current state of prisoners' rights?

LEONARD SCHROETER: I think it's horrible. Nobody gives a shit about people in prisons. But of course, nobody ever did. There never was any decency. See, I believe at this point everything is worse in America on basically anything you can tell me about. I think the United States is a dying country. We're hated everywhere in the world. It's going to get worse much worse particularly in the core economic power. The power of the world is in China, not the United States. And the possibilities of what could happen to prisoners are going to get worse and worse. Nobody has ever much cared about them. I mean, this is the most miserable and sordid part of life. So, naturally, I worry about prisoners.

PRISON LEGAL NEWS: Do you recall the first time you discovered Prison Legal News?

LEONARD SCHROETER: I'm certainly sure that I have been familiar with it very close to when it started. Criminal issues were not a part of my early career. But I have always, literally since I was a child, been very committed to civil rights. I mean it. Even when I was eight, nine or 10 years old. I was a very kooky kid (laughing). When I was 14 years old, I tried to get my parents to let me join the Spanish Civil War (laughing). That's how political I was at the time. Anything related to civil rights and civil liberties, which of course means anyone who's put in jail, I was interested in. Because of that connection, I've always followed PLN. I probably have every issue somewhere here in my house.

PRISON LEGAL NEWS: You mentioned that your involvement in civil rights started at a young age. Do you remember what sparked your interest in the issue?

LEONARD SCHROETER: Well, first of all, civil rights wasn't even a term. Civil liberties, but not civil rights. When I was young I went to Indiana over Christmas. School was out. My parents, brother, and I went down there. At certain places, there were toilets for white people and toilets for black people. I was furious. I remember this vividly. There were other things, too. There weren't black kids in my school. Growing up middle-class, there weren't any black kids around at all. I don't think I knew any black kids until high school, and I didn't really have any black friends.

PRISON LEGAL NEWS: Did your experience working with Thurgood Marshall at the NAACP launch your law career?

LEONARD SCHROETER: Maybe. I'm not sure. That was a great time in New York. If I would have stayed there instead of moving out here to Seattle, Im sure I would have continued to work for Thurgood particularly until after Brown v. Board. I have always felt, in some way, maybe I should have stayed. On the other hand, I would never have had all of this experience with the Samizdat, or the fascinating work in Israel. From time to time, you make a break. I made a break and wound up forming a law firm. Ultimately, that firm -- Schroeter, Goldmark & Bender which is still here, was probably the largest plaintiff's firm in the United States.

PRISON LEGAL NEWS: Describe your work with the Samizdat movement.

LEONARD SCHROETER: Samizdat was an underground communication taken out of the Soviet Union. It was the written opposition underground. For many years, I represented some of the Samizdat writers. I had to have specific people in different parts of the world that I could send the manuscripts to underground. Usually I sent them in little canisters. That's something that I never wrote about because I couldn't do it until the middle of the 1980s. People would get into trouble, even if they were out of the Soviet Union, the Soviets would still harass them. I couldn't say anything about it. I had all these books, but I couldn't say anything. Finally, in the middle of the 1980s, I could write about the Samizdat. But I just didn't have the time to do it. Still, that was an incredible part of my life.

PRISON LEGAL NEWS: As someone who has worked as an attorney your entire career, what is your impression of PLN?

LEONARD SCHROETER: As far as I know, there's nothing else like PLN. It is much more professional than other publications. Paul [Wright] is very smart, and PLN is his thing. There's still nothing like it. I can't think of anything quite like it. Sure, there are a lot of publications about criminology and civil rights, but this publication is unique. There's no question about it. I know of nothing else like it. I've always tried to help it as much as I could.

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