In this short essay, I share the professional highs and lows of famed civil rights lawyer Michael Meltsner, and then pause briefly to reflect on what Michael’s top three in both categories say about him. One would have thought that Furman v. Georgia, the 1972 decision that invalidated the death penalty as it was then administered, would make the list of Michael’s greatest accomplishments, and that Gregg v. Georgia, the 1976 decision that brought the death penalty back, would be among his greatest disappointments. But neither made the list. Ironically, the case for which Michael Meltsner is most famous wasn’t one of his greats at all. That is not to say that these cases didn’t matter. They did. But what Michael Meltsner’s highs and lows reveal are a larger set of core values. An unwavering commitment to justice and equality. A rejection of legal constructs that allow the law to dodge those moral imperatives. A determination to make a difference. A desire to use power for good. And an abiding faith that good can triumph even when the odds are enormously stacked against you. The highs and lows of Michael Meltsner are worthy of remembrance in their own right, but also worthy of note for giving depth and detail to the character of a man we already knew had it in spades.

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This essay is a contribution to A Festschrift Honoring Michael Meltsner.

Fest·schrift: a volume of writings by different authors presented as a tribute or memorial especially to a scholar.