John T. “Jack” Lavey, a Little Rock labor lawyer who fought many legal battles over civil rights in Arkansas and was one of the founders of the Arkansas affiliate of the ACLU, died yesterday. He was 81. His obituary, written by Ernie Dumas, continues on the jump.
A visitation will be from
5 to 7 p.m. 6:30-8:30 p.m. Thursday, March 27, at Ruebel Funeral Home, 6313 W. Markham St. A funeral mass will take place at 11 a.m. Friday, March 28, at Our Lady of the Holy Souls Church at 1003 N. Tyler Street.
[page]Born in Boston the son of a telephone lineman and union member, Lavey was a Marine Corps JAG officer for two years and then spent the next 54 years as a lawyer fighting for the jobs and rights of workers, minorities and the poor. Except in a few domestic cases, he never represented anyone else.
His most contentious lawsuit was against the state Highway Department, federal Highway Administration and the city of Little Rock on behalf of low-income residents in eastern Little Rock. His suit blocked the construction of the eastern half of the Wilbur Mills Freeway through relatively poor and black neighborhoods for more than four years and forced a redesign so that when it was finally built the road went through a deep cut in the land rather than expose the low-income neighborhoods to the noise and unsightliness of the Interstate. Lavey contended that the route for the expressway was chosen to be a barrier between the affluent parts of the city and the largely black and poor neighborhoods on the east and south sides and that it would lead to permanent segregation, further blight of the eastern side and urban sprawl on the city’s western reaches. His predictions proved correct.
John Thomas Lavey was born Oct. 19, 1932, in Boston to Francis and Theresa Lavey, he an Irishman and she a first-generation Italian American. He played football and worked his way through the College of the Holy Cross, a Catholic liberal-arts school at Worcester, Mass., and then the New England Law School in downtown Boston. He passed the bar in 1957 and while he was awaiting departure for Marine Corps training at Quantico, Va., he read with alarm stories about Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus using soldiers to prevent nine black children from attending Central High School at Little Rock. Ten years later, he would join the law firm of two men who opposed Faubus’s stand, former Arkansas Gov. Sid McMath and Henry Woods, later a U. S. district judge.
Lavey tried many cases in the Marine Corps the next two years and would be involved in disputes with superiors over racial discrimination in prosecutions.
From 1961 to 1963, he was legal assistant to John H. Fanning of the National Labor Relations Board in Washington. There he met and married Kay Gallager of Auburn, N.Y. in 1961. He became a field attorney for the NLRB’s general counsel at the Fort Worth regional office in 1963. In 1966, he joined the law firm of McMath, Woods, Leatherman and Youngdahl, which practiced personal injury and employment law, mainly for unions.
In 1969, Lavey was in a group of about six men who met at the home of businessman Fred K. Darragh to form the Arkansas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, for which he was sometimes a cooperating lawyer in civil liberties cases and which in 2010 recognized his lifetime of work protecting civil liberties with its Civil Libertarian of the Year award.
From 1969 to 1971, Lavey joined Philip E. Kaplan and two African-American civil rights lawyers, John W. Walker and Richard Mays, to form the first racially integrated law firm in Arkansas. He was chief counsel for the state Labor Department in the administration of Gov. Dale Bumpers.
Afterward, he hired Melva Harmon and John L. Burnett in a labor and civil rights practice, which continued with Burnett until his death. Lavey battled cancer the last seven years of his life and tried his last case at the age of 81, a few months before his death.
One of his highest profile cases of the last decade was the firing of Nolan Richardson, in which he and Walker represented the highly successful basketball coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks. Lavey contended that Richardson was unlawfully fired for exercising his First Amendment right to express his beliefs about racial discrimination. They lost the case.
When white business leaders in Lee County tried in 1970 to shut down the Lee County Cooperative Clinic, which a young black man named Olly Neal (later judge of the Arkansas Court of Appeals) had set up with federal funding and doctors funded by the VISTA program, Lavey sued the county hospital because it would not let doctors at the poor people’s clinic practice at the hospital or admit their patients, who were black. Lavey said the hospital violated the doctors’ and patients’ rights to due process, equal protection and freedom of association. A federal judge entered a consent decree in August 1971 in which the hospital agreed to give the VISTA doctors hospital privileges and to accept their patients. Leaders in the community then sought to have Gov. Dale Bumpers block funding for the clinic, but Bumpers, a friend of Lavey, continued it. The clinic still serves the poor people of the county.
When the integrated law firm of Walker, Richard Mays, Lavey and Ted Goodloe tried to defend black youngsters who were arrested and held on suspicion of something during racial unrest in Arkadelphia, the local judge, John Goodson, held the entire firm in contempt and barred them from practicing in the county for a year. The Arkansas Supreme Court voided the judge’s order.
In 1970, Lavey sued the city of Texarkana after its city manager, Paul Schriever, ordered the city’s Model Cities director to fire a black man and a white woman in the VISTA program because white neighbors complained that blacks and whites fraternized at their homes and worked together in organizing the neighborhoods. The racial turmoil in the city arising from the Model Cities program received national attention.
U.S. District Judge Oren Harris ruled that the city was legally justified in firing the two workers because the racial fraternizing had destroyed their effectiveness as city workers, but the U. S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in 1973 sided with Lavey and ordered them reinstated with back pay.
“Few principles of law are more firmly stitched into our constitutional fabric than the proposition that a state must not discriminate against a person because of his race or the race of his companions, or in any way act to compel or encourage racial segregation,” the court said in an often cited opinion on employment law.
The long and contentious battle over the Mills Freeway, then called the Eighth Street Expressway, began after the state had built a short segment in midtown. When it obtained federal Interstate designation and work was to begin on the big eastern segment between Interstate 30 on the east side and the Little Rock Zoo, Lavey sued, representing people in the poor neighborhoods and Arkansas Community Organizations for Reform Now (Acorn), which had organized the neighborhoods. Lavey contended that the design and route of the big roadway put a discriminatory burden on neighborhoods that were poor and black and that the government had not done a thorough study of the environmental impact of the superhighway on the neighborhoods. The route ran along the northern edge of the city’s old and by then racially mixed neighborhoods.
U. S. District Judge J. Smith Henley ruled in 1975 that the government’s environmental statement was inadequate and the appellate court agreed. The state did a new study and design, which put much of the route far below the surface, reducing the impact on the neighborhoods. But Judge G. Thomas Eisele approved the new impact statement in 1979 and work began. It was opened to traffic in late 1985.
Among Lavey’s many employment discrimination cases against governments and corporations were federal decisions in the 1980s and 1990s ordering an end to racial discrimination in hiring and promotions at the Teletype Corp. and ordering reinstatement and comparable pay for people who were denied promotions on the basis of their race or sex.
But he lost major cases, too, including Richardson’s appeal of his dismissal as the basketball coach in 2002 after he publicly aired complaints about his treatment by superiors at the university.
When the state Highway Department, which sought to destroy the union, ignored complaints from the Arkansas State Highway Employees Union Local 1315 for two employees, Lavey sued, saying the agency was obliged by law and a bargaining agreement to respond to grievances by employees and that it should also respond to complaints when they were made by the union that represented the workers. But the decision for Lavey was reversed by the U. S. Supreme Court, which said the agency was free to ignore the union and address the complaints only if they were made by individual workers instead of by the union. Justice Thurgood Marshall dissented and accused the other justices of “cavalierly” disposing of “substantial First Amendment issues” raised by Lavey.
In a 1987 suit against the Army, Lavey contended that a female worker at the Pine Bluff Arsenal did the same work as men but was denied equal pay and promotions. The federal courts agreed and ordered the Army to give the woman a retroactive promotion with cost-of-living raises and to treat women employees equally.
Lavey was rated as one of the best labor and employment lawyers in Arkansas and the country. He often conducted labor and employment law seminars for the Arkansas Bar Association and lectured at the University of Arkansas Bowen School of Law.
He is survived by his wife, Kay; two daughters, Meg Phelan and husband Bill of Chicago, and Beth Cork and husband Alan of Minneapolis; a son, Mark Lavey and wife Tracey of Salt Lake City; a brother, Frank Lavey of Boston; a brother-in-law Bob (Joan) Gallager and sister-in-law Pat Gallager of Auburn, N.Y.; and ten grandchildren, Will, Emily and Mary Kate Phelan, Kelsey, Michael and Sean Cork and Jack, Sam, Matthew and Kate Lavey.
He was a member of Our Lady of Holy Souls Catholic Church. He was a member of the Board of Directors of the History Institute of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and of the Central High School Museum.
Visitation will be from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday, March 27, at Ruebel Funeral Home, and funeral at 11 a.m. on Friday, March 28, at Our Lady of the Holy Souls Church. A reception will immediately follow. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Arkansas Civil Liberties Union, 904 W. 2nd Street, Little Rock, AR 72201 or the History Institute of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock c/o Department of History, UALR, 2801 S. University, Little Rock, AR 72204.