Att’y “Slash & Burn” Rides To Occupy’s Rescue

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.

“Science Fiction”

Thomas MacMillan PhotoPattis, 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.

Thomas MacMillan PhotoIt 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.”

Melissa Bailey PhotoThat 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.

Post a Comment

Commenting has closed for this entry


posted by: acumen on March 15, 2012  3:53pm

And here we go … .
The only outcome of the movement in New Haven, as it seems, is the opportunity for a bright attorney to break what have been working for 400 years. In my opinion he lost it for the Occupy Movement. Instead of creating a political momentum he created a nuisance.

New Haven - the only “occupy friendly” town in New England - now has a devastated green, disguising display of unresolved social issues, and the reality of ever growing costs of that endeavor.

While you are bickering about your camp, the Super Packs are still running our politics and most likely will influence the election this year. We still pay taxes disproportionally compared to those who had the money to legalize their ability deceive the society. Try to use your brains for that. That is a bigger and deserving challenge compared to what you currently are: a burden for the folk in New Haven and a nuisance for a casual observer.

posted by: Curious on March 15, 2012  4:00pm

Three points.  I will keep it short and sweet, because the Independent has shown themselves incapable of being unbiased when it comes to Occupy.

1. Norm Pattis sounded great until I read that he regularly throws his votes away.  That’s nothing but irresponsible.

2. If anyone from the city is reading this, the Green is national historic place, and structures and eyesores like Occupy are expressly banned.  The feds don’t enforce that, but maybe the city can, in the name of keeping the Green on the national historic register.

3. Why couldn’t the Occupiers figure out that instead of sending four of their number to protest at Pfizer in Groton, which is closing as they move shop to Cambridge MA, they could have had their entire camp protest at the giant Pfizer research center that sits maybe five blocks away right at 1 Howe Street, between North and South Frontage?  I thought this was Occupy NEW HAVEN.  There’s a multi-floor research center on Howe Street, with a giant PFIZER sign on it.  They run ads all over town, on buses, on billboards.  Why go all the way to Groton when you could be having an actual impact in your community?

posted by: robn on March 15, 2012  4:03pm

I can’t believe that Judge Hall even considered the second argument. This is a situation of a private land trust which allows public use of their land; NOT public land run by a private group. Norm Pattis has no standing.
What a circus!

posted by: Curious on March 15, 2012  4:18pm

Robn, interesting point.  You know, the Proprietors HAVE to allow public use of that land, as it is now.  If they decided to keep people off the Green, it would cost them a fortune in fencing and/or security.  They couldn’t make that land private even if they wanted to, say to prove a point.

posted by: robn on March 15, 2012  4:31pm


The land IS private. What you probably mean is “inaccessible”.

posted by: Anderson Scooper on March 15, 2012  5:31pm

@ Robn—

I strongly believe we the people own the New Haven Green, and not the Five Proprietors despite their feudal claim. (Btw, what an extraordinary claim, in this modern world. Do Anne Calabresi, Drew Days III, Robert Dannies, Jean Arterton & Julia McNamara really think they own New Haven’s town square? According to Drew Days, yes they do!)

So personally I am glad that Pattis and the Occupiers are going to court to settle that question. My guess is Pattis wins against the Proprietors, but that the Occupiers still have to go.

If the Five were forward-thinking, they could always put their self-importance aside, back down on the ownership nonsense, and help establish a reformed group of Green stewards. (You know the kind that meet in public, don’t necessarily elect themselves, and certainly not to lifetime terms.)

Frankly it gets scary if the court were to side with the Proprietors claim. What if it’s decided they hold the land not just in trust for the public, but somehow absolutely? What then might prevent the Yale-dominated group from sometime ceding the land to Yale?

Or what if they decided to cash out and sell part of the Green to developers? (Hopefully people realize that Old Saybrook resident Julia McNamara made a small fortune in helping to sell the New Haven Saving Bank to First Alliance? After the transfer she held 319,600 shares! )

Anyway, it’s a great court case and one that will be interesting to watch. And on the Proprietors side I believe it’s a lot less about preserving the Green and 17th century tradition, but much more about preserving their entitled club. (I mean what could be more royal in all of Connecticut!)

posted by: robn on March 15, 2012  10:48pm


Never mind the seizure of private land; I find the politicization of the green much, much, scarier than It being run by 5 responsible stewards. For the last 20 years, New Haven citizens haven’t been able to elect fiscally responsible stewards for the city as a whole. What makes you think we can doI better with the green?


Next time Norm Pattis invites me over to dinner I think I’ll lock him out and lay claim to his house. Alls fair once you’ve crossed the threshold right? ;)

posted by: HhE on March 16, 2012  8:07am

Once again, robn, well said.  Your comments are, I opine, the gold standard.

Anderson Scooper, exactly what royal privilege do the Proprietors gain, save a job well done?  I find it very hard to argue against something that has worked so well for over three hundred years.

posted by: Anderson Scooper on March 16, 2012  8:48am

@ Ron—

“The seizure of private land”? Good grief! The Green has been New Haven’s public square for centuries, maintained by taxpayers money btwBMWnd I’m not about to cede ownership to a 17th century claim. This is not an eminent domain issue. It’s a dispute over rigthtful ownership.

Besides being “tapped” into an elite club, (which used to depend on family name and money, but now seems more about resume), what have folks like Julia McNamara done to entitle themselves to real ownership? Have they spent their own money to maintain the property for the last decade? Or the decade before that?

Finally this idea that we the people, or government even, can’t be trusted to run and maintain a park for the common good? That we need landed gentry to save us from ourselves? Well to me that’s not true American thinking.

Good debate however. And as I said on a previous thread I feel as if we might be talking about getting rid of the Electoral College, or even the penny for that matter….

posted by: RevKev on March 16, 2012  8:55am

We have real and serious issues here in New Haven and across the country but the so-called “people’s movement” chooses THIS as their fight?!!! A friend and long time NH resident said, “I’ve never had anyone come and take a look around and say, ‘I bet if you get rid of the Proprietors of the Green ALL of New Haven’s problems would be fixed.’”

I had so much hope for this movement. Now it just feels like a bunch of misguided adolescent kids looking for a fight but not knowing who the fight should be with.

99% of New Haven’s 99% say the Occupiers need to get off the green and let’s go do some REAL work to change our society!!!

posted by: robn on March 16, 2012  10:18am


The proprietors aren’t making a feudal claim. Their claim to ownership of the land is as valid as any other land title. The following illustrates why Norm Pattis shouldn’t have been given an injunction against the city’s removal of ONH and it why he’ll eventually lose.

1) Drew Days spoon fed Victor Bolden clear legal precedent from 1982 resolving that camping in a space doesn’t equal free speech. (Clark v. Community for Creative Nonviolence)

2) Norm Pattis claims that the Proprietors ownership of the Green violates Article First, Section 18 of the Connecticut Constitution, which states that “No hereditary emoluments, privileges or honors, shall ever be granted, or conferred in this state,” however, there is no hereditary privilege. The proprietors have no familial relationship to one another. Their ownership hasn’t been granted; it just is what it is since the property was settled and the communal ownership condensed into the proprietorship. Later legal recognition of the Proprietors as a non-profit is simply a tax matter.
3) Norm Pattis has no standing to sue because we already have elected officials that are our liaison to the Proprietors and in this particular case, they happen to agree with them that ONH should leave.
4) If our elected officials happen to disagree with the Proprietors to some dramatic extent about public benefit, there is already a legal process in place for such a scenario and it’s called eminent domain. However, the city would lose an attempt to seize the Green because they would be hard pressed to prove that simply changing the stewardship of recreational land for basically the same purpose warrants seizure of private land for the public good.

This is just all theater…and good theater at that!

posted by: Bruce on March 16, 2012  10:38am

This is absurd.  The green, which is probably my #1 favorite feature of the entire city, is enjoyed by all and the proprietorship has functioned just fine for hundreds of years.  Sorry, but you cannot just pop up tents and lay claim to space that doesn’t belong to you. 

How anyone could construe this arrangement as some sort of elitist power consolidation is beyond me.  The reference to “the Godfather” is particularly offensive and misdirected.  Mobsters kill and cheat people to accumulate mass personal wealth.  These guys are just maintaining a patch of grass so kids can play ball.

posted by: robn on March 16, 2012  11:43am


The Green IS a public square, just not a publically owned public square. Your wanting private property to be public property doesn’t make it so, nor does the history of de facto public use make it so.

posted by: Anderson Scooper on March 16, 2012  1:50pm

@ Robn—

Before the courts have even ruled, you keep stating as fact that the Proprietors out and out own the New Haven Green, and begging your forgiveness I just don’t think that is true. (90% of New Haveners think it to be public property!)

Do the current proprietors own it in trust? Do they have fee simple on the land? Or has true ownership accrued to the New Haven taxpayers who have been using and maintaining the land for decades and decades?

Can’t wait to here what the courts decide and hopefully they don’t punt this issue for another fifty years.

posted by: W. Greenhouse on March 16, 2012  3:24pm

I think Anderson Scooper and robn are talking past each other.  The most sensible outcome as far as the status of the green would be a finding that the people of New Haven have an easement to use it in the ways it has been traditionally used for centuries; at equity, the propietors’ rights to sue private persons for trespass *are* weakened when they neglect to use such rights.  “De facto public use,” as robn puts it, does not eviscerate private ownership (except in exceptional circumstances such as adverse possession of an absentee landlord’s stuff), but it often does create equities for the public who have been using the property.  Then the question would be whether Occupy’s encampments fit within the parameters of any existing easement on the land; I’d need to know a lot more than I do about the green’s history to be sure how that would go.  Did revival meetings or similar ever set up camp on the green?

As far as the title in the land, if the proprietors had title under British law, that cannot simply be disregarded at a whim.  The 1816 U.S. Supreme Court case of Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee dealt with the subject of the supremacy of federal treaties over state law; in the case, Virginia’s state law nullifying Tories’ title to land was declared unconstitutional because it conflicted with a federal treaty agreeing to honor British landlords’ titles from the colonial period.

For Occupy, it would be a particularly ironic triumph if the proprietors were unable to prove their title—they could find themselves “foreclosing” the proprietors in the name of the City of New Haven!  It wouldn’t necessarily keep them from being evicted, of course, as they would then need to contend with municipal and state laws on vagrancy.  Squatting on public land still tends to be illegal.  How noble the law that prohibits equally the rich and the poor from sleeping under bridges, etc., etc.

posted by: OccupyTheClassroom on March 16, 2012  3:43pm

Two things:

1. This just goes to show the citizens that you CAN fight eviction and foreclosure.

2. As long as you all keep reading and talking about this, you are occupied. Occupied with this idea.

And those are two main points of the movement.

posted by: Chatham Square Resident on March 19, 2012  11:55am

There are many members of the 99% in New Haven who would like Occupy New Haven to vacate the Green at this juncture and find other, more productive ways to make their voices heard.

If you agree, please sign the petition that has been started here: