Daily Archives: September 1, 2020

Tribute to Attorney Ed Barshak, Early Pioneer in Massachusetts Indigent Defense

Edward J. Barshak, a titan in the Massachusetts legal industry and a trailblazer in the fight for the right to counsel, passed away last month. He was 96 years old.

Barshak spent his career pushing to create a better legal system for all people. He is an important figure in the history of indigent defense in Massachusetts, serving as the main litigator in Brown v. Commonwealth, the landmark Supreme Judicial Court decision that created a right to counsel for criminal defendants under the Massachusetts constitution. Six years later, the United States Supreme Court found that the federal Constitution bestowed the same rights in Gideon v. Wainwright.

Attorney Barshak served as the chair of the Massachusetts Defenders Committee, the precursor to the Committee for Public Counsel Services, for several years in the mid-1970’s.  He forcefully fought for federal funds for the MDC, demanding that public defenders receive the same level of funding as prosecutors.  He was a leader in establishing the Committee policy that staff attorneys would not represent co-defendants and obtained the backing of the SJC in support of that policy.  Finally, he also was instrumental in the establishment of the Roxbury Defenders Committee.

His career is filled with examples of stepping up to represent those who needed an attorney to fight for them against the power of the state.   When attorneys were accused of associating with communist activities during the Red Scare, Barshak rose to the occasion and represented them.  When a person was federally charged after advocating resistance to the Vietnam War draft, Barshak represented him – advocacy that led to the conviction being vacated by the First Circuit.

Barshak served as president of the Boston Bar Association from 1974 to 1976 and was honored with the BBA’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014. While heading the BBA, he helped create the Legal Advocacy and Resource Center, which continues to connect low-income individuals with free legal advice and referrals. He was also instrumental in the creation of the Judicial Nominating Committee.

“1970’s Boston was a time of upheaval and controversy. The city’s future stood on a knife edge, with communities torn apart by the contentious desegregation of Boston Public Schools and resulting busing crisis,” the BBA wrote, when giving Barshak the Lifetime Achievement Award. “At the time, the BBA was not known for weighing in on community issues. Ed, with a steadfast belief in the nobility of the legal profession, believed that lawyers could help guide progress and make a difference.”

Barshak also served as a Director for the Lawyers for Civil Rights, Chair of the Massachusetts Board of Bar Examiners and also Chair of the Joint Bar Committee on Judicial Appointments

In 2016, the Edward J. Barshak Fund for Justice was established to provide litigation resources for anti-discrimination cases brought by the Lawyers for Civil Rights.

Barshak was the recipient of the NAACP Boston Branch Special Award for Legal Assistance on a Continuing Basis. He also won the Anti-Defamation League’s William O. Douglas First Amendment Freedom Award.

Anthony J. Benedetti
Chief Counsel
Committee for Public Counsel Services
44 Bromfield Street
Boston, MA 02108