New England’s last standing anti-corporate “occupation” was about to become history. Then a ponytailed, self-described “geriatric hippie” lawyer read up on some New Haven history that blew his mind—and saved the fort, for now.
That lawyer is Norm Pattis. On a few hours’ notice he whipped together an 11th-hour legal complaint to try to stop the city from removing Occupy New Haven protesters and their five-month-old encampment on the upper Green by high noon on Wednesday. He brought his plea to federal court as the clock ticked toward the deadline—and convinced the judge to give the protesters another two weeks and a shot at making their case at length.
In the process, Pattis singlehandedly put a moribund local protest on life support.
And Pattis, one of Connecticut’s most passionate and quotable rebellious voices (“part of a dying breed of slash and burn trial lawyers,” according to an F. Lee Bailey quotation cited on his website), has given Occupy a new target.
In his legal complaint he has taken on New Haven’s oldest and perhaps least-known group of powerbrokers: The Committee of the Proprietors of Common and Undivided Lands at New Haven, a.k.a. the “Proprietors of the Green.” He has done so on behalf of homeless people and radical, unconventionally attired (think helmets & American flags) protestors.
In other words, to borrow the terminology of the movement he represents, Pattis is taking on the “1 percent” on behalf of the “99 percent.”
Pattis has made a colorful career out of taking on the 1 percent, or established power, after a brief career writing editorials for Connecticut’s most notorious right-wing newspaper publisher.
He has made a career of representing the “99 percent.” “People who are easy to overlook, convenient to ignore, and outside the mainstream,” as he put it.
That’s the kind of people Pattis grew up living among in attics and temporary quarters, after his father shot a man in an armed robbery, took his mom and then young Norm on the lam, then eventually split.
But more about that later. First the matter of Pattis vs. The Proprietors. And the sleepless night.
Pattis, who’s 56, was excited to see the Occupy Wall Street movement erupt last October. He and his wife joined demonstrations at Zuccotti Park in New York City and at the Brooklyn Bridge. A man who considers the political system so broken that he votes for Clarence Darrow in each Congressional election (“He may be dead, but at least I know what I’m getting”), he called the movement “one of the most refreshing things I’ve seen in my lifetime.”
Then two weeks ago a local Occupy protester called Pattis. Some of the occupiers had been arrested at a protest against Pfizer in Groton. They needed a lawyer. Pattis agreed to help.
The same occupier called Pattis this Monday evening about the pending eviction.
Pattis recalled thinking: “Why not put my talents where my mouth is?”
“I certainly have a big mouth,” he figured.
He decided to represent the protesters for free. Then he dived into a “crash course” on the Green’s ownership.
Previously, Pattis had been only vaguely aware that a private, largely secret, self-perpetuating group descended from New Haven’s Puritan colonial founders owns the city’s 16-acre central park, while the government polices it on their behalf. Once he dug into the subject, he was startled at what he found.
“I thought I was reading science fiction,” he said. He thought: “Let me see if I’m getting this right: Colonial descendants own the Green and have since the 1630s. They have a private committee that governs it. They select one another in private. They serve lifetime terms. They issue regulations and tell the city to enforce them. Even the fucking godfather in Sicily had to do more than that to get his orders followed!”
Pattis tried to sleep after his crash course Monday night. He couldn’t. He “tossed and turned” in bed getting his mind around the ownership of New Haven’s central public square and considering a plan of attack.
The next morning he threw together that plan: this 12-page request for a temporary restraining order preventing the city from enforcing the notice to vacate on behalf of the Proprietors. Pattis argued that the eviction would violate protesters’ Constitutional rights to free speech. He argued that the city’s rules aren’t “narrowly tailored” enough to be fair. Then he threw in a classic Pattisian three-point attempt: He asked the court to dissolve the Proprietors organization itself on the grounds that its existence violates Section 18 of the first article of the Connecticut Constitution.
It wasn’t personal, Pattis said. He knows some of the proprietors are civic-minded well respected. Such as the chairman, Yale law professor and former U.S. Solicitor General Drew Days (pictured), who braved mobs to fight for civil rights in the 1960s.
It’s the principle.
“I’m sure the Proprietors are great people,” Pattis said. “But it’s a pretty scary world” they help run.
Pattis also found time to craft a broadside against the Proprietors on his popular and busy blog. “Who Owns New Haven’s Green?” the post’s headline asks. (Read it here.) His answer: A committee that “operates as a sort of geriatric Skull and Bones Society, a secret society open to membership only upon invitation of those deemed acceptable to current members. ... a colonial vestige that it is governed by folks elected in secret and holding office for life. No wonder the City wants the Occupiers off the green. The 99 percent own less and less in this country. We don’t even own New Haven’s green.”
(Defenders of the group see them as volunteers who take their civic responsibilities seriously. Click here to read Independent readers debating both sides of the Proprietors question. The article includes Drew Days’ extensive comments on how the group operates and why.)
Pattis prevailed Wednesday morning in U.S. District Court in Bridgeport by convincing Judge Janet Hall that the free-speech and “narrow tailoring” arguments are valid enough to require a hearing in two weeks before the city can tear down the encampment. His flamboyant, hyperbolic style stands in marked contrast to the measured, cautious, unflappable attorney on the other side, city Corporation Counsel Victor Bolden.
Immediately following the hearing Pattis returned to a hero’s welcome at Occupy New Haven on the Green. Click here to read about that; click on the video at the top of this story for a snippet.
After that welcome, as the occupiers took the streets for a victory march, Pattis answered questions from reporters and received thanks from stragglers on the Green. He crowed about the dark color of his shoes. They were white when he left home that morning, Pattis said. Then he went to court “and kicked the city’s ass.” (He had made the joke about his colleague Kevin Smith’s shoes shortly before during his bullhorn address to the occupiers.)
When the next potential rear-kicking takes place on March 28 before Judge Mark Kravitz (a former First Amendment lawyer who represented media companies for the prominent firm Wiggin and Dana), Pattis plans to ask to have the existential Proprietors’ question referred to the Connecticut Supreme Court.
In doing so, he is redefining the central question in the ongoing Occupy New Haven drama: Whose Green Is It?
Until now, that question has had a narrow definition. It meant: Should a protest group be able to camp indefinitely in a public park? Judge Hall made it clear in court Wednesday that she believes that once New Haven draws up consistent rules on a camping policy, the protesters will probably lose on that question.
Pattis has added a second definition: Should a private, self-selected group own and be in charge of a central public space?
Clearly he is aiming not just to keep Occupy New Haven alive, but to take down a big target: New Haven’s ultimate authority figures.
“I’ve got issues with authority,” Pattis remarked. “You can’t be a geriatric hippie and not have issues with the world the way it is.”
On The Lam
Pattis said his father, an “illegal immigrant” from Crete, had problems with authority, too. He didn’t want authorities to throw him in jail.
The way Norm understood the story, his dad was carrying out an armed robbery in Detroit in 1954 when he shot someone. “He never told me whether he killed him or not. I don’t think he stuck around to find out.”
Instead, dad took his girlfriend to Chicago. The girlfriend became Norm’s mom. The family drifted; mom and dad tried the “Ozzie & Harriet thing.” Didn’t stick. Dad split when Norm was 7. Norm wouldn’t see him again for 35 years.
Mom was a clerk with Blue Cross Blue Shield. She didn’t have much money. She and Norm moved often. They lived in “attics and rooming houses” with unmistakable 99-percenters. Some of them, like the woman who would never leave the house and stayed glued to a police radio, were unmistakably eccentric, as well. Pattis said he felt a kinship with them.
He was a poor student at school. One summer he fell in love with a young woman with whom he planned to move from Detroit to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district (aka Hippie Central) in 1972. But first he decided he needed to finish high school. He enrolled in night school to accelerate. An assistant principal there threw a novel suggestion him: What about college? She got him a scholarship, he did well on tests, and he entered Eastern Michigan University.
He doesn’t remember her name. She changed his life. He never made it to San Francisco. It was the first of a series of life-changing detours.
He learned how to study. He later transferred to Purdue. He subsequently received a fellowship for the Ph.D. Program at Columbia; “a shocker,” he recalled.” He ended up teaching political philosophy at Columbia. His specialty: the 18th century and the Scottish enlightenment.
One day he decided he needed to immerse himself more in the real world. “I felt I was losing track of my own century.” He saw a listing for an editorial writer position at the then-two daily papers in Waterbury Connecticut, the Republican and the American (since combined). “How cool is that?” he thought. “Get paid to read the news and write about it.”
In the case of the Republican and American, that meant doing it for William Pape, a right-wing Republican who saw editorial columns (and often front-page headlines) as bullhorns. Pattis lasted two years. He argued with Pape a lot. He couldn’t always serve up the ordered editorials. But he left with a deep respect for the publisher. “Pape is an honorable man who is wrong about practically everything. But he’s passionate about it.”
Next stop: writing editorials about state issues for the Hartford Courant. For three years, until he decided: “I didn’t want to sit on the sidelines all the time. I wanted to learn how to kick some ass.”
That meant UConn Law School, then, upon his 1993 graduation, working for one of New Haven’s most controversial law firms, run by civil-rights attorney John R. Williams. Pattis lasted at this job, suing cops and other authority figures, until 2005. He left to buy the Whitlock Farm Booksellers in Bethany and open his own firm. Where he has continued making headlines. He will defend cops, too, if they get in trouble; he got former city Detective Clarence Willoughby acquitted, for instance, on nine charges of larceny and forgery. His dramatic discovery of a 1998 cassette tape stored in the basement of police headquarters saved the seemingly doomed badge of Officer James Evarts, who stood accused of lying about a drunk-driving arrest. (Pattis is pictured at those charged hearings.)
Pattis is known for taking on controversial, unsympathetic, high-profile clients. He represents Jason Zullo, one of the four East Haven cops indicted by the feds for violating Latinos’ civil rights. He represented the Hamden paramedic accused of sexually assaulting a woman in the back of an ambulance. He represented death-row inmate Daniel Webb, for instance, seeking an injunction against lethal injunction based on a state constitutional claim. The question, as he put it: “Whether you can poison a human being, kill him and call it justice.” He didn’t prevail on that claim. He has prevailed on others. He won $2.1 million for a prisoner named Kevin King because prison guards beat him when he tried to escape. He recently convinced the state Supreme Court to overturn Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s takeover of Bridgeport’s elected school board. Again, on a constitutional claim.
He’s hoping the state constitution will prove his friend again as he takes on New Haven’s Proprietors.
Meanwhile, Pattis has remained a prolific opinion writer, with op-eds, a Connecticut Law Tribune column, and his blog. He is about to publish his second book. The first was called Taking Back the Courts (Sutton Hart Press). The second concerns juries and justice.
Pattis said he has an idea for a possible third book, also about the little guy against the big guys. It would trace the life of Norm Pattis.
Thomas MacMillan contributed reporting and video to this story.