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Catching Up With . . . Bob Herbst

Advocacy, Legal and Otherwise

by Brooke C. Stoddard '69


Catching up with . . . Bob Herbst
Title: Advocacy, Legal and Otherwise

Bob was born in Washington Heights, Manhattan. His father was a CPA, his mother ran the house. A few years later the family – with Bob’s younger sister – moved to Great Neck on Long Island. His father bought a two-site luggage and leather goods store, one location of which his mother managed. Bob went through the Great Neck public schools, which he considered excellent, and was elevated to captain of the debate team in time for college admissions applications owing to the fact, according to Bob, that most others did not show up.


“But the real reason, I think, I was admitted to Princeton,” he says, owes to a quick moment on the PSAT, as well as a good score. “On the back of the PSAT you could check off interest in the summertime Telluride seminars, two of which were at Cornell and one at Princeton. Evidently, I scored well enough, made application to a seminar, and the summer before high school senior year was admitted to a six-week course at Princeton called The Citizen and the State taught by two professors. Something clicked with me there. It was then that I first read law cases and I read a decision written by Supreme Court Associate Justice Robert Jackson declaring unconstitutional 1940s laws that demanded saluting of the American flag: ‘If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in matters of politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word their faith therein.’ 


“I thought these words were beautiful as well as brilliant,” Bob recalls, “and they set me on the crooked path to a legal career and ultimately, a civil rights trial lawyer.”


But the seminar alone didn’t exactly get Bob into Princeton; that was more serendipitous. Rooming during the seminar in the Graduate College, he was exploring the main campus one day and mistakenly entered West College, which housed the Admissions Department. Inquisitive, he soon found himself in the midst of a half-hour’s interview with Alden Dunham ’53, the Dean of Admissions, who evidently was favorably impressed. 


Arriving on campus freshman year, Bob attempted – unsuccessfully – to crack the ranks of the debate club and the singing groups. But before the year was out, The Prince saw credible talent and took him on. Also that first year he took a politics course taught by H. H. Wilson, a notable discontented man in those times of rising discontentment. “Wilson changed my mind about the Vietnam War, civil rights, and the American empire,” Bob recalls. “I wanted to change the world and I set my sights on being either a journalist or a civil rights litigator.”


By junior year Bob had settled into the Woodrow Wilson School, had met Ralph Nader and had suggested to the older Princeton grad that he write his thesis on him. Ralph demurred, suggesting instead the 1967 Social Security Amendments welfare provisions markups of the House Ways and Means Committee.  Bob gained access to the executive session transcripts in the Ranking Republican’s office.  The only other Committee member willing to be interviewed was junior member George H. W. Bush. 


The Prince took up Bob’s non-academic time and by senior year he was a columnist and an executive editor of the editorial page. He used the space to endorse coeducation and Humphrey for President, and to urge the Board of Trustees to sell all its investments in companies profiting from apartheid in South Africa, which, many years later and too late, it finally did. 


Next was Yale Law School. During the Kent State demonstration in Washington, he and our Classmate Bob Raymar (also Bob’s roommate at Yale Law), knocked on three Senate Office doors urging liberal Senators to run for President. Astounded, they found themselves in discussion with George McGovern who quizzed them on why they thought doing so was a good idea. It was a heady glimpse at government near the top.


Fresh with a law degree, and Republicans firmly in power, Bob went to Chicago to clerk for a notable federal trial judge. Then, after a short stint as Legislative Assistant to Cong. Liz Holtzman, for whose committee Bob worked on screening Gerald Ford for elevation to the vice presidency, it was back to Chicago and the United States Attorney’s office.  When a colleague was appointed United States Attorney in Philadelphia, Bob followed him to that city, where he continued to prosecute white collar crime and corruption cases. 


While in Chicago, Bob followed in his father’s footsteps by earning a single-engine pilot’s license. He is still flying today.  While in Philadelphia, Bob returned to Princeton to teach a seminar in the Wilson School on the investigation and prosecution of white-collar crime and corruption cases, placing his nine students in three prosecution offices in New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia.  


After six years as a federal prosecutor, Bob returned to New York, where he married Lynne, a psychoanalyst, and became a partner in a White Plains firm. But Holzman talked him into working for her again when she became District Attorney for Brooklyn, after which he set up his own criminal defense and civil rights practice in Manhattan.  Bob and Lynne had a daughter, Allyson, and eventually settled in Larchmont. 


He took on cases demonstrating police abuse of power. One was for a juvenile clubbed by a policeman for driving underage. Another sought justice for an Egyptian immigrant clubbed and handcuffed by a policeman because his food truck failed to start in a parking space the man was attempting to pull out of before the overnight unmetered parking term expired. Another brought suit against Bloomingdale’s on behalf of an employee who was beaten by a security officer for suspected (incorrectly) dishonesty. These cases – after complex appeals, offers of settlement, retrials, etc. -- brought remuneration to the beaten citizens and persuaded Bob that he could make a living as a civil rights lawyer. He took strip search cases and got the blanket strip search policy of the Nassau County Jail declared unconstitutional, ultimately obtaining compensation for thousands of detainees.  He took on employment and other discrimination cases, whistleblower cases, and cases of false allegations of child sexual abuse made during matrimonial and custodial disputes.  


From 2011 to 2013, Bob served as an Independent Counsel to the Special Court for Sierra Leone, investigating and successfully prosecuting four men for contempt (obstruction of justice).   “This Special Court, along with similar ones for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Court, are the first baby steps by the global community in creating workable legislative, executive and judicial institutions in a global political union up to the task of confronting the existential global challenges facing us today,” Bob says. “To its credit, the United States in 1787-’89 completely remade itself from a barely functioning confederation of states -- requiring unanimity for action -- to a federal constitutional union that operated on majority rule while protecting minority rights. This is the kind of leap the globe has to take in order to deal with its environment and other serious multinational problems,” Bob adds. “But the work in Sierra Leone was a real peak professional experience for me, especially trying a case for five weeks in a different judicial institution with its own rules and culture.” Bob has continued to take on prosecutive assignments for the residual tribunals in Rwanda and Sierra Leone. 


Around 2014, Bob took up pen again. “To this point I had been a silent Jewish critic of the Israeli treatment of Palestinians, but Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in 2014 against the Gaza Strip, where the destruction and killing was horrific, compelled me to look more closely at the facts on the ground in Israel Palestine and speak out against the systemic, pervasive and cruel oppression of Palestinians, which is anything but “Jewish.”  So I’ve been doing what I can, including writing and blogging and joining Jewish Voice for Peace.” In 2015, Bob spoke at the United Church of Christ (UCC) Synod in favor of what is called the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) Resolution, which passed.  The BDS movement, a non-violent call by Palestinian civil society for international pressure on Israel, much like the BDS movement which helped put an end to apartheid, has been gaining increasing traction. Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch and the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, issued reports labelling the Israeli regime of Jewish supremacy “apartheid” and a crime against humanity, and the UCC passed a stronger resolution labeling the oppression of Palestinians “apartheid” and a “sin.” 


Two books that Bob champions are biologist E. O. Wilson’s Social Conquest of Earth (2012) and Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985). The first (incidentally cited by Bill Clinton as one of the best books on politics he has read in recent years) argues that man’s principal evolutionary attributes are tribalism (preferring your own group whether it be political party, sports team, etc.) and altruism (considering yourself a member of a united humanity), these two attributes of course being agonizingly irreconcilable and responsible for much conflict in the world, as well as many of our own internal conflicts. “You can look at most every political, environmental, religious et cetera issue and see this conflict resounding – the recognition of being a part of the unity of all people versus the urge to act for the benefit of one’s self and one’s kind,” Bob says. “If we don’t evolve quickly and more definitively in the direction of altruism, we are toast. And by the way, I’d say one of the best books on politics I’ve ever read is the Postman book, which predicted and helps explain our current predicament, where the image has replaced the spoken word, shoving reasoned argument to the sidelines, and making politics a sport, an amusing entertainment, rather than the means by which we rationally contemplate and order our communal affairs.”


A few years back, after Allyson had mainly moved on – she is now a physician in Atlanta – Bob and Lynne subdivided their property in Larchmont and built a smaller and net-zero “Green” home. It has 14”-thick double-shelled insulated walls, 36 solar panels on the roof, and climate control by two geothermal wells drilled 500 feet down. They pay no utility bills. Altogether the project took six years, but Bob and Lynne can say they are giving back to the planet more than they are taking away.  

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