Early Career in Baltimore
The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Simon Sobeloff was born in East Baltimore on December 3, 1894. His father worked as an upholsterer, but also served as "precinct executive" for the local Republican Party. Educated in public schools and at Baltimore Talmud Torah, the young Sobeloff so impressed Miss Jennie Price, his teacher and the principal at Public School 43, that she gave him his middle name, Ernest.
At the age of twelve, he went to work as an office boy in the law office of two brothers William F. and Henry J. Broening, for a salary of $1.50 a week. The next summer, believing himself underpaid, Simon took a job with two lawyers and a real estate man and got a raise to $2.00 a week. But, as he told it, he never quite got the full amount. Unwilling to bear more than an equal part, each of his employers paid him $.66, so his "take home pay" never rose above $1.98. During the 1907 campaign for mayor, he delivered speeches for the Republican candidate, E. Clay Timanus, winning a reputation as "the orator in kneepants." His speechmaking caught the eye of Congressman John Kronmiller (R., 3rd Dist.), who gave Simon his first political appointment - as a page in the House of Representatives for the Sixty-first Congress. A page earned the "fabulous amount" of $75 a month, which enabled him to help his parents financially. He also got a chance to witness history from the floor of Congress when Progressive insurgents, led by George W. Norris, revolted successfully against the dictatorial powers exercised by Speaker Joseph Cannon. In 1911, William Broening won election as State's Attorney and appointed Sobeloff docket clerk, with a salary of $5 a week. Later his salary doubled, and Broening loaned him the money for tuition to attend the University of Maryland School of Law [Catalog from 1915 announcing Sobeloff's graduation p.22].While still in law school, he clerked for Morris Ames Soper, then Chief Judge of the Supreme Bench of Baltimore. In 1914, young Sobeloff was admitted to the bar a year before finishing law school (a common practice at that time), after receiving one of the highest marks on the bar examination. Sobeloff was soon on his way to establishing himself in his private practice. In 1918 he felt sufficiently secure to marry Irene Ehrlich. His former patron, Broening, won the race for mayor the following year, after which the new mayor made Roland Marchant his City Solicitor and appointed Sobeloff to the post of Assistant City Solicitor. Sobeloff remained in the office until 1923 when the Democrats captured city hall, at which point he resumed private practice. [Read a sampling of cases from Sobeloff's early legal career]
When Broening and the Republicans returned to office in 1927, it seems that Sobeloff was his first choice as City Solicitor, but political necessity dictated placating the Marchant wing of the party and the job went to A. Walter Kraus, Marchant's law partner who, like Sobeloff, had served as an Assistant under Marchant during the first Broening administration. The Mayor convinced Sobeloff to accept an appointment as Deputy City Solicitor. As it turned out, Sobeloff functioned much as City Solicitor, handling the bulk of the city's litigation and serving as Broening's closest advisor. One local paper observed that "the mayor is said to rely more on Sobeloff than he does on any other member of his administration." The Evening Sun described him as "probably the busiest man at city hall," noting that, although he held the title of Deputy City Solicitor, "so far as we are able to judge, it is he who does all the work of getting the administration out of the innumerable snarls that its general muddleheadedness is constantly getting it into." The paper offered his success at doing so as "proof of his power as a lawyer and a diplomatist." Yet another paper had some fun at the unfortunate Mr. Kraus' expense:
If it is a ruling in law they need? Walter's the boy to dash it right off.
All legal problems he handles with speed, Provided, of course, he can find Sobeloff
As Deputy City Solicitor, Sobeloff encountered many of the issues of reform left unfinished by the Progressive Era. He advocated a minimum wage, argued in court against higher fares for United Railways (a local transit system), fought for legislation requiring new standards for meat inspection, and headed an anti-noise committee. After 1929, reformers faced a new problem, the Great Depression, and Sobeloff pioneered the search for solutions to the unprecedented social dislocations it caused. Four years before the New Deal came into being he drafted and campaigned for a state unemployment insurance plan. During the 1929 session of the state legislature, he managed the city's legislative program with such skill that the "Oswald" column of The Baltimore Sun proclaimed him "King of the Legitimate Lobbyists." The following year, Broening chose him to head the Municipal Commission on Stabilization of Unemployment, after Sobeloff had played an instrumental role in convincing the Mayor to appoint such a commission.
At this point the young lawyer actively engaged in city and state politics. He wrote the speech with which Broening announced his candidacy for governor in 1930. Moreover, The Baltimore Post credited "that shrewd and suave diplomatist Simon Sobeloff" with persuading David Robb, an advocate of prohibition from western Maryland, who planned to run against Broening in the primary, to run instead for State Attorney General on the Broening ticket. Further demonstration of his political skill came when both the wet and dry factions of the Republican Party asked him to serve as head of the state platform committee in 1930. Personally sympathetic to repeal, Sobeloff recognized the need for a compromise plank to maintain party unity. He did the actual writing himself, crafting a plank which neither endorsed nor disapproved of repeal of prohibition; the artfully worded document allowed Robb "to be as dry as he pleased" and Broening to maintain his popularity with the wets in Baltimore.
In 1930, Morris Soper, by then Maryland's senior federal district judge, approached Sobeloff about replacing Amos W. Woodcock, who had resigned to become Federal Director of Prohibition, as United States Attorney for the District of Maryland. At first, Sobeloff hesitated because of prohibition. Yielding to the urging of Soper and other friends, he finally accepted. On October 1, Senator Phillips Lee Goldborough recommended to U.S. Attorney General William D. Mitchell that Sobeloff be appointed to succeed Woodcock. Aside from Soper, the nomination received support from several judges of the Supreme Bench of Baltimore and the leaders of the Baltimore Bar. However, the junior federal judge, William C. Coleman, declared his opposition. He refused to state his reasons publicly, remarking only that he opposed the candidate along "general lines." In a letter to the Attorney General, he stated the specific grounds for his objection. He believed it inappropriate for a Jew to hold the office of District Attorney because the "job called for a person of some social standing, otherwise he could not attract the right kind of assistants," and besides, there were so many Jewish bootleggers in Baltimore, that he thought it "unwise to appoint a Jew." In spite of Coleman's opposition, President Herbert Hoover announced on December 24 that he would send the Sobeloff nomination to the Senate January 5, 1931. The Senate confirmed Sobeloff on January 29, and he promptly appointed Daniel Randall, Coleman's candidate for the office, to be his assistant. Apparently he could indeed attract "the right kind of assistants." [Read about Sobeloff's appointment as the U.S. Attorney. Courtesy of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.]
Spectacular arrests and prosecutions of organized bootleggers and criminals, tempered by his refusal to prosecute minor offenders of the prohibition laws, marked his tenure as United States Attorney. Years later, Sobeloff would recall that enforcing prohibition was "distasteful" but it was the law of the land. In carrying out his duty, he attempted to try the big cases, not "some small grocer who sold a gill of liquor." Moreover, he showed no tolerance of prohibition agents who stepped outside the law to obtain evidence or arrests. He gave enforcement officials a series of six lectures on methods permitted by law for obtaining evidence and making raids. On one occasion, he refused to defend a prohibition agent arrested for switching license plates in violation of a state law in order to avoid detection. He asserted that we have arrived at an "unfortunate" state of affairs when federal officers claim that "they are above and beyond state law." Later, when the federal agency issued orders prohibiting such action in the future, Sobeloff argued that the charges against the offending agent should be dropped. In another case, agents, acting on a telephone tip, arrested a man and his wife upon finding a bottle with alcoholic dregs in their apartment. After investigation, Sobeloff found that the tip came from the couple's landlord with whom they were engaged in a lawsuit. He ordered the charges dropped. "If the paid informer is a nuisance," declared Sobeloff, "the self-serving volunteer is an abomination." On the other hand, when crowds of angry citizens attacked prohibition agents on Hull Street in Baltimore, Sobeloff went to State's Attorney Herbert R. O'Conor and demanded that the assailants be prosecuted. Similarly, when gangsters from Philadelphia landed two boatloads of illegal whiskey at Cambridge, Maryland, he prosecuted and sent them to jail.
It was not only his personal opposition to prohibition that dictated his attitude towards enforcement. Mercy tempered all of his dealings as a prosecuting attorney. He turned over to juvenile court the case of two boys aged sixteen and seventeen accused of post office theft, rather than prosecuting them under a stringent federal law. When aroused, however, he could be a tough and aggressive prosecutor. He fought successfully for a court order allowing government seizure of B&M, a fraudulent patent medicine purporting to be a cure for tuberculosis.
His position as district attorney also brought him face to face with the issue of censorship. In a manner that foreshadowed later decisions to carry out his office in accord with the dictates of his conscience, Sobeloff ordered customs officials to release copies of Aristophanes' Lysistrata and Dr. Marie Stopes' Wise Parenthood, which had been seized because the Bureau of Customs listed them as obscene. With respect to Lysistrata, he said "a book, whether classic or not, should not, it seems to me, be condemned as obscene simply because a hypersensitive person might select here and there a word or phrase that offends a strained sense of modesty." After reading it, he found "nothing in the text of this book that would be considered by persons of normal sensibilities obscene, shocking, or offensive." The fact that it had "commended itself to intelligent readers" for two thousand years was "something not to be ignored." Nor did he believe that Stopes' book, which dealt with birth control, fell within the definition of obscenity. After reading it, he concluded that it was "a dignified, serious and authoritative work." That, combined with the recognition it recieved from the medical profession and sociologists, made it impossible for reasonable people to consider it "obscene or immoral." These decisions did not reflect the fully developed First Amendment argument he would later hold; they did, however, represent a career-long willingness to use his office to prevent the law from becoming an instrument of repression and an equally firm resolution to do so regardless of the potential consequences to his own career.
Even after becoming United States Attorney, he continued to serve on the Municipal Commission on Stabilization of Unemployment. In February 1933, he drafted a bill to provide for a statewide unemployment insurance plan, to be paid for equally by employers and employees. Collections from workers and employers would begin immediately, but no payments would be made until later, thus permitting a reserve to build up. Both in its design to divide the cost evenly between labor and business and its delay in beginning disbursements, the plan anticipated the national Social Security Act. These two aspects demonstrated the limited nature of reform in the 1930's. On the other hand, the bill was crafted to win the maximum possible support and the second condition in particular attempted to insure that the plan could sustain itself and thereby make any future expansion of the program possible. In spite of this cautious approach, the legislators of Maryland were not ready for such a plan. Although the proposed legislation passed the House of Delegates, it died in the Senate.
The Depression raised other problems as well. The clothing industry in Baltimore had been plagued by a history of labor trouble. The Depression exacerbated the situation, while making the need to keep people at work all the more pressing. The Baltimore Clothing Manufacturers' Association and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America entered into a city-wide arbitration agreement in January 1934 prohibiting strikes and lockouts. Because of his reputation among both labor and management, both sides agreed to confer on Sobeloff the sole power to settle disputes, making him, as one newspaper phrased it, "virtual czar of the clothing industry."
On March 12, 1934, he resigned from his position as United States Attorney amid an outpouring of praise for the job he had done. In dismissing a federal grand jury, Judge Calvin W. Chestnut declared that, "never in my memory has the office been conducted with greater efficiency or finer discrimination, and, I may add, upon occasion with a better sense of humor." Baltimore newspapers rushed to second the opinion. One commented that, "He didn't forget that the district attorney is an officer of the court, whose duty is to see that justice is done, rather than to secure convictions, just or unjust." The editorial concluded that "he put in jail a great many people who ought to be there, but we do not believe he sent to jail a single man who oughtn't be there." Another observed that he won praise from both wets and drys by prosecuting bootleggers and clamping down on overaggressive prosecutors. Granting that it was his duty to enforce the Volstead Act, it asserted that he did so in "as cleanly a way as anyone could."
After resigning, Sobeloff established an office in the Union Trust Building and went back into private practice. He never had a partner, always preferring to have his own firm, but he established one of the largest practices in the city. Private practice did not prevent him from continuing to serve the public. He remained on the unemployment commission, continued as "clothing czar," strove for a federal anti-lynching law, and investigated the failure of the Baltimore Trust Company. One liberal newspaper predicted that Sobeloff would run for governor in 1934 maintaining that he had conducted the business of district attorney with "such intelligence and fairness" that he would be a formidable candidate.
These years saw Sobeloff take a prominent role in the cause of racial justice. Nineteen thirty-three witnessed an upswing of violence directed against blacks. That fall, a particularly brutal lynching took place on Maryland's Eastern Shore. The following year, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People proposed a federal anti-lynching bill, which Edward Costigan and Robert Wagner sponsored in the United States Senate. Sobeloff testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, pleading for passage of the bill. He presented what several observers termed a "brilliant" defense of its constitutionality. Unfortunately, with no support from President Franklin Roosevelt, the backers of the bill failed to break a filibuster by southern Democrats; the bill was doomed.
State politics beckoned once again as the 1934 elections neared. The former district attorney did not run for governor, but he did take part in formulating the state Republican platform which called for unemployment and old age insurance. Because of the platform, Maryland was one of very few places where Republicans triumphed in state elections that year. Governor-elect Harry W. Nice appointed Sobeloff both to a "superadvisory committee" to study social legislation and to head the unemployment insurance committee. In 1936, using the Sobeloff plan as a model, the administration introduced unemployment insurance legislation which exceeded the requirements of the newly passed federal Social Security Act. Opposition from business interests, led by the Baltimore Association of Commerce, successfully watered the bill down to meet minimum federal standards.