She argued before the Supreme Court six times representing New York State, took on civil rights cases for the N.A.A.C.P. and taught at Fordham for decades.
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Maria Marcus, a law professor who as a public interest lawyer defended civil rights in the South and successfully argued six cases before the United States Supreme Court representing New York State, in one instance winning unemployment benefits for striking workers, died on April 27 at her home in Manhattan. She was 88.
Her death was confirmed by her daughter Valerie Marcus.
Professor Marcus argued the cases before the Supreme Court representing the New York attorney general. She was an assistant attorney general from 1967 to 1978 and chief of the office’s litigation bureau from 1976 to 1978.
In early 1979, the court agreed, 6-to-3, in New York Telephone v. New York State Department of Labor, that the state was empowered to require companies to pay unemployment benefits to striking workers. (Professor Marcus argued the case in 1978.)
The justices rejected the argument by the phone company that because the law implicitly favored labor over management, it had to yield to federal labor laws calling for governmental neutrality. In its ruling, the court affirmed an appellate court’s decision that held that even though the law placed the state on the side of labor during a strike, Congress had not imposed a uniform national policy on jobless benefits for strikers, leaving it to the states to decide.
According to the Supreme Court Historical Society, of the 160 women who have argued before the court since 1880, only eight appeared more than Professor Marcus. She was tied for ninth place with five lawyers, including Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for the most arguments by a woman before the court from 1880 to 1980.
She taught at the Fordham University School of Law from 1978 until her retirement in 2011. She was only the second woman to become a tenured full professor there.
Professor Marcus moderated Fordham’s award-winning moot court program for 42 years. In 1995, a team of hers won the National Moot Court Competition sponsored by the New York City Bar Association and the American College of Trial Lawyers.
She was credited with writing one of the earliest law review articles on domestic violence, “Conjugal Violence: The Law of Force and the Force of Law,” in 1981.
Judge Nicholas Garaufis of Federal District Court in Brooklyn, who was a co-counsel on the unemployment benefits case before the Supreme Court, described Professor Marcus in a phone interview as a “rigorous litigator who was a perfectionist, but a tremendously patient mentor.”
Matthew Diller, the dean of Fordham’s law school, wrote in an email that her “main legacy is in the generations of students whom she taught — stressing the values of integrity, clarity and precision and a sense of joy in the intellectual back and forth of reasoned argument that is legal advocacy at its best.”
Maria Eleanor Erica Lenhoff was born on June 23, 1933, in Vienna. Her father, Arthur Lenhoff, was a judge on the Austrian Constitutional Court, the nation’s highest tribunal. Her mother, Clara (Gruber) Lenhoff, was a homemaker.
On the day that Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany in 1938, the family fled, first to Switzerland, then to England and finally to the United States. Her father, a Jew, was on the Gestapo’s wanted list for his legal rulings requiring religious equality in universities — decisions that Professor Marcus later likened, in an article, to America’s civil rights case law as “Austria’s Pre-War Brown v. Board of Education.”
“Drawing on this experience, she had a profound sense of the importance of justice and the rule of law,” said William M. Treanor, the dean and executive vice president of Georgetown University Law Center. “I learned a great deal from her work, which combined extraordinary erudition with a commitment to law as a force for good.”
Professor Marcus earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Oberlin College in Ohio in 1954 and graduated in 1957 from Yale Law School. There she met and married Norman Marcus, who became general counsel to the New York City Planning Commission. He died in 2008.
In addition to her daughter Valerie, who is the vice president of legal affairs at RCA Records, she is survived by two other children, Nicole and Eric Marcus, and six grandchildren.
Professor Marcus served as associate counsel for the N.A.A.C.P.’s national office from 1961 to 1967 and litigated significant civil rights cases in the South. She collaborated with Robert L. Carter, the general counsel, and Medgar Evers, the N.A.A.C.P. leader in Mississippi.
She was vice president of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York from 1995 to 1996 and in 1973 headed an association committee that recommended that the City Council pass legislation to bar discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Professor Marcus, colleagues said, had an uncanny knack for memorizing the names and faces of her students on the first day of class. After she retired, she continued to moderate Fordham Law’s Moot Court Board for another decade.
Professor James Kainen recalled in a Fordham obituary that her performance would prompt a frequent lament by the Rev. Joseph A. O’Hare, the former president of Fordham.
“Every year during his tenure,” Professor Kainen said, “President O’Hare would come to one of our faculty meetings and never failed to bemoan his inability to hire a football coach who would compile a record approaching that of Maria’s moot court teams.”