Catherine Roraback lived in a house at the bottom of our street, and at age 82 was our lawyer when we closed on our home. She was a country lawyer when we knew her, but the cases she took earlier in her career changed the country itself.
Roraback was a radical civil rights lawyer who was unafraid of defending those with unpopular ideas, or taking on controversial issues. She defended Black Panthers Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins, and members of the Communist Party prosecuted in the 1950s under the Smith Act. She famously defended a Planned Parenthood Clinic and doctor in New Haven who operated a birth control clinic in the early 1960s contrary to the laws of the time . She lost the case but it went to the Supreme Court on Appeal and she was co-counsel. The case was the landmark Griswold v. Connecticut, which in 1965 the Supreme Court determined by a 7-2 vote that "Together, the First, Third, Fourth, and Ninth Amendments, create a new constitutional right, the right to privacy in marital relations." This ruling established precedent for other right to privacy cases brought before the Court, including the basis for Roe v. Wade in 1973 where the Supreme Court ruled that "a woman's choice to have an abortion was protected as a private decision between her and her doctor."
She took on controversial cases at home as well as on the national stage, defending local teenager Peter Reilly on charges that he murdered his mother. Reilly was convicted, but a new trial revealed exculpatory evidence that had been suppressed and Reilly was released. She mentored women in the legal profession and was known as someone who gave and expected respect regardless of gender. She had a ready laugh and was a fearless champion of the underdog.
Catherine Roraback died last week at 87. She left an indelible mark on civil liberties law in this country and the right to privacy that most Americans expect but which is not assured. I was proud to be her neighbor.