Roslyn Litman, ACLU ‘stalwart,’ leaves lasting legacy
Roslyn “Roz” M. Litman was physically petite, but “pound for pound and inch by inch, she was the most formidable defender of civil liberties this country has ever known,” according to her longtime friend and colleague E.J. Strassburger.
Litman, a Pittsburgh attorney who served on the national board of the American Civil Liberties Union and represented the ACLU in a landmark United States Supreme Court lawsuit in 1989 seeking to ban religious displays at the Allegheny County Courthouse and Pittsburgh’s City-County Building, died on Oct. 4. She was 88.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1928, Litman moved to Pittsburgh in 1945 to attend the University of Pittsburgh. She began her legal career in 1952, graduating first in her class at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. At that time, large law firms were still reluctant to hire women, and Litman had difficulty finding employment. Undeterred, she and her husband, David, founded their own firm, and there she built a reputation for being one of the most skilled trial attorneys in the city.
“I thank my lucky stars that I was mentored by her,” said Witold “Vic” Walczak, the legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. Litman hired Walczak to work at the pro-civil liberties organization 25 years ago and became his close friend and teacher. From Litman, Walczak learned basic trial skills, and continued to consult with her as he prepared for various trials throughout the years.
Recognizing that ACLU attorneys throughout the country had little trial experience, Litman arranged discounted training for them annually through NITA (the National Institute for Trial Advocacy), a leading provider of legal advocacy skills training.
“Her death leaves a huge void in the ACLU,” Walczak said. “It’s hard to overstate. She was small of stature but gigantic of intellect, talent and commitment.”
Litman not only served on the executive committee of the ACLU’s national board, but continued to be profoundly involved on the state and local levels as well.
“She almost never missed a Pennsylvania ACLU board meeting or a Pittsburgh ACLU board meeting,” Walczak said. “And she was front and center at every meeting in a positive way.”
Litman was a “stalwart” in her commitment to the principles of the ACLU, according to Michael Louik, who worked alongside her there as well as at the Academy of Trial Lawyers, where she was honored with the Distinguished Service Award in 2004.
“She instilled in you how important it was to be involved,” Louik said. “She really believed it was best for our country.”
She was recognized for her legal skills and service many times over the years with awards, including the University of Pittsburgh Law School Distinguished Alumni Award (1996); Woman of the Year, University of Pittsburgh Women’s Association (2001); and the University of Pittsburgh Distinguished Alumni Fellow Award (2008). She served as an adjunct professor of Trial Advocacy at the University of Pittsburgh Law School, and as president of the Allegheny County Bar Association and of its Federal Section. She was a charter member of the Academy of Trial Lawyers of Allegheny County, and a past member of the House of Delegates of the American Bar Association and of the Board of Governors of the Pennsylvania Bar Association.
She worked on a variety of ACLU cases, including a case against the University of Pittsburgh for same-sex partner health benefits, recalled Strassburger, who served with her on the board of the ACLU for 15 years. In a 1989 case on the separation of church and state that involved a display of a Chanukah menorah and a Christian crèche, she successfully got a federal court to rule the display of a crèche, as a religious symbol, as unconstitutional.
Despite the ACLU being far from popular in certain circles, Litman remained loyal to the organization.
“She was tenacious and fierce, and didn’t compromise her principles at all,” Strassburger said.
A longtime member of Tree of Life Congregation, in recent years Litman joined Temple Sinai. She was also “very proud of the Litman family’s connection to the shul in Braddock,” according to Strassburger. Until very recently, the Litman family ensured that High Holiday services continued at Braddock’s Ahavath Achim, despite serving only about 40 congregants, many of whom were part of the Litman family.
“Roz graduated from Pitt Law School in the early ’50s, making her one of the first 100 women to become lawyers in Allegheny County, along with other Jewish women legal pioneers including Anne X. Alpern and Marian Finkelhor,” said local attorney Estelle Comay. “As an active, prominent practitioner here in Pittsburgh with a national reputation, she became a role model for women like me who decided to become lawyers.”
Litman is survived by children Jessica, Hannah and Harry, and grandchildren Joshua, Elijah, Ari, David, Lila and Toby. She is also survived by nieces and nephews. She was the sister of the late Ruth Obernauer.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.