Judge Simon E. Sobeloff, 1894-1973

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City Solicitor

During the first administration of Mayor Broening Sobeloff had developed a close friendship with Broening's secretary, Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin, and the two men maintained their friendship over the years. In the meantime, McKeldin emerged as a political power in his own right. He established a reputation as a liberal Republican with decidedly "advanced views on civil liberties and social-economic questions." With Sobeloff acting as his chief advisor and speechwriter, McKeldin ran a successful campaign for mayor in 1943. Upon entering office, McKeldin's first act was to appoint his longtime friend City Solicitor. The following year, the Mayor named Sobeloff to a commission to revise the city charter. [Read: "The City Solicitor's Office" from The Government of a Great American City]

World War II submerged domestic politics for the first several years of the McKeldin administration, but Sobeloff continued to advocate social justice and reform. Two issues arose as byproducts of the war: slum clearance and the citizenship rights of aliens. When the war began, Sobeloff's old nemesis, Judge Coleman, instituted a policy of deferring final action on applications for citizenship of those who came to this country from Germany after 1933. He argued that the immigration law did not say that citizenship must be granted, only that it may be, and that the world situation made it impossible to make a proper investigation of the applicants. Sobeloff represented five German born aliens seeking to become citizens who had fulfilled the conditions for citizenship. One was a Rabbi, another had already been accepted into the Womens' Army Corps, and a third was married to a naturalized citizen who was serving overseas. Sobeloff argued that refugees fleeing for their lives were more likely to be sincere in applying for citizenship to the country that gave them shelter, reminding the Court that much of America was settled by persons fleeing religious or racial persecution. Further, he argued that although Judge Coleman's action was a "postponement in form," it had the practical effect of denying citizenship. The judge remained intransigent and barred testimony by Earl G. Harrison, the United States Commissioner of Immigration, to show that the prevailing practice in this country was to admit enemy aliens who had fulfilled the requirements and received a recommendation from the authorities. That, coupled with Judge Coleman's standard refusal to take final action (which precluded appeal), provoked a sharp exchange, beginning when the City Solicitor characterized the judge's decision as an "arbitrary" rule which worked an unjust hardship on "the very victims of Hitlerism." Coleman retorted that he thought the attorney was "violating [his] oath as a member of this court." Sobeloff responded calmly, "I am performing my duty as I see it just as you are performing your duty as you see it," adding that he had "no apologies" for any statement he had made.

Sobeloff then filed for a writ of mandamus against Coleman with the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals on behalf of the five German-born aliens and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, charging that the judge's policy constituted an "abuse of judicial discretion." Before the Fourth Circuit, Sobeloff argued that, out of some two thousand judges authorized to grant citizenship, only one took Coleman's position. The Fourth Circuit agreed that Coleman had exceeded his authority and ruled in favor of the prospective citizens.

The war also created a crisis in housing, as thousands flocked to Baltimore and other cities to take jobs in war industries. In October 1944, Sobeloff submitted a report on slum clearance to the Mayor. The report recommended that the Baltimore Housing Authority take a leading role in slum clearance and renewal and that public and private groups unify their efforts under a permanent advisory coordinating agency. Arguing for public housing, Sobeloff asserted that private builders "cannot afford to build for a large number of persons in the low income group." He pointed out that 80% of the families affected earned under $2,000 per year, making them a group that "private builders cannot accommodate." His advocacy of public housing brought him to oppose a state constitutional amendment authorizing Baltimore to establish a Land Development Commission which would acquire land in blighted areas and resell it to private persons for redevelopment. His primary objection centered on the fact that the amendment made no provision for those who would be dispossessed by redevelopment. "No plan," declared Sobeloff, "for claiming blighted areas is sound which ignores the problem of rehousing the dispossessed families and simply leaves them to their fate," especially during a severe housing shortage. He went on to point out that "many of the displaced tenants are in the lowest economic level; low-cost housing should be provided for them," particularly since "few of them could afford to live in the houses proposed" by the plan. At this point, his vision remained ahead of society's - the amendment passed.

On other issues as well, his social perspective antedated that of the society at large. After the war, Sobeloff supported continuing nurseries and child care centers after federal funds were cut off. The crisis began in August 1945, when the Federal Works Administration announced that grants under the Lanham Act would cease as soon as the war ended. A compromise extended funds to March 1, 1946, but all federal support ended after that date. Federal commitment to child care had never been great, even during the war when women entered the work force in unprecedented numbers. After the war, it was assumed that women would return to the home, and the only women who would continue to work were those who needed to help support the family. Sobeloff was most sensitive to the needs of these women, but his efforts gained little backing. He also advocated another type of legislation that would only later attract wide support; in 1945, he drafted a recommendation for controlling air pollution.

Deteriorating relations with the Soviet Union in the immediate post war period brought out repressive tendencies in American society. In a manner that would later make national headlines, Sobeloff stood firm in defense of civil liberties. As City Solicitor, he sat on the City Board of Estimates. During a hearing before the Board, he defended the right of the Socialist Labor Party to use the northeast corner of Charles Street and North Avenue for political speeches, noting that religious groups traditionally used it for public gatherings on Sundays. Howard E. Crook, the City Comptroller, asked the representative of the Socialist Labor Party, "Is it true that your organization is opposed to the capitalistic system in America?" When the Socialist Labor representative replied affirmatively, Crook responded, "That's all I want to know." In vain, Sobeloff argued that if such meetings obstructed free passage or created a nuisance, then the city should ban all gatherings on the corner; if not, such meetings seemed an appropriate use of the corner, and the city should not concern itself with what doctrines the speakers expounded. He stood alone as the Board voted two to one deny use of the corner to the Socialist Labor party.

The Democrats returned to City Hall in 1947, but the new mayor, Thomas D'Alesandro, Jr., asked Sobeloff to stay on as City Solicitor, despite attacks from members of his party for retaining several Republicans in high offices. The City Solicitor planned to return to private practice on July 1, but the Mayor prevailed upon him to remain. In addition, D'Alesandro named him as General Counsel to the Housing Authority of Baltimore. Sobeloff did resign as City Solicitor in December, but he remained as counsel to the Housing Authority, and D'Alesandro retained him as a legal consultant, particularly on labor matters.

Throughout the late 1940s, Sobeloff remained active in many of the issues in which he had demonstrated concern - civil rights, civil liberties, and housing. At a meeting of the Advertising Club in Baltimore, Sobeloff lashed out at discrimination, chiding theater owners who allowed blacks into their establishments to appear on-stage but not as patrons. The prejudiced man, said Sobeloff, injures not only his target but himself, for his bigotry "degrades his humanity." He also opposed the Ober anti-subversive law, one of many state laws passed in the wake of the cold war and President Harry S. Truman's Loyalty Program. Refusing to be swept up in the hysteria, Sobeloff warned that the law failed to include safeguards to insure that its administration could not "be misused to molest and intimidate those who espouse unpopular but not disloyal causes."

Sobeloff and Senator Harry P. Caine (R., Wash.) appeared on the speakers program of the National Convention of Councilmen and Aldermen in 1950. Caine spoke first, attacking public housing as a subsidy being foisted on taxpayers for the benefit of a small group. When Sobeloff's turn came, the counsel to the Baltimore Housing Authority challenged Caine's assertion that public housing was always rejected when put to a vote, pointing out that 350 cities, including nearly all with populations over 500,000, had already initiated such programs. Farmers were subsidized, newspapers were subsidized (through favorable mailing rates), and many less worthwhile causes received subsidies, he argued: Why not public housing? Sobeloff found it extremely ironic that those who voted subsidies for "private builders and loan associations" would raise the specter of socialism when "we try to provide housing for our own underprivileged citizens." "A century ago," he reminded the audience, "the same arguments used by Senator Caine were used against" free public schools.

View a brief list of Sobeloff's Maryland cases.

 

Main Page | Early Career | Baltimore Trust Investigation | City Solicitor | Return to Private Practice | Solicitor General | Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals | Sobeloff's Personality | Additional Resources



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