Jay Leiderman, a California defense attorney known for his whistleblower advocacy and defense of political dissidents and hackers, was confirmed dead in Ventura County on Thursday. He was 50 years old.
Dubbed the “Hacktivist’s Advocate” by The Atlantic in 2012, Leiderman gained national attention for his pro-bono work for clients accused of crashing corporate and government websites, including members of the group Anonymous.
They were rarely good cases.
Leiderman’s hacking clients had a nagging habit of openly admitting to the things they were accused of doing. One spent a decade evading police in several countries, giving interviews all the while on the lam. (The client was captured in June.) Still, their causes struck a chord with the Queens-born attorney, who’d long held to a rebellious legal philosophy. After a city in California passed a law criminalizing homelessness, the same client knocked down its website for under an hour. Where the FBI saw a felony computer crime worth up to 15 years in prison, Leiderman saw a peaceful protest over an unjust law; a protest, he noted, that caused no perceptible harm.
Leiderman often fought hacking cases in the press, drawing allusions to Civil-Rights-era sit-ins. Disrupting service at segregated lunch counters, he resolved, was hardly different from inconveniencing a bunch of website visitors. “It’s really easy to tell legitimate protests, I think,” he said. “And we should be broadly defining legitimate protests.”
Leiderman, who’s survived by his nine-year-old son Lydon, died of an apparent heart attack on Tuesday, his brother Craig said in a brief statement. Ventura’s medical examiner said an exact cause of death would likely take months to certify.
Before his work with hackers, Leiderman defended a Ventura man who’d been arrested in a drug bust, and whose cellphone an officer searched without a warrant. The California Supreme Court eventually heard the case but ruled the officer’s actions constitutional. The decision sparked a rush by state legislators to try and shield electronic devices from warrantless searches. Two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a contrary landmark ruling. In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that cellphones are “such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life” that, were aliens to visit Earth, they “might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.”
A life-long Deadhead and punk music fan, Leiderman successfully defended a slew of clients arrested under anti-drug laws. He once took on clients who had their kids taken away after police found marijuana hidden in their home. And he won. He took a shine to medical marijuana patients and was a fierce advocate for over a decade, writing a book on the topic in 2011 for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. In 2013, he joined other activist lawyers in founding the Whistleblower Defense League. At its launch, he accused the Justice Department and the FBI of targeting journalists and political dissidents using tools of oppression, harassment, and fear.
“People are being subpoenaed, indicted, and incarcerated,” he said, “simply for exploring the truth.”
In an essay on his website, Leiderman defended lawyers who get a bad rap for taking on unpopular clients, including those charged with unspeakable crimes. The guiltier the client, he believed, the greater the need for skilled representation. “I can only state that what follows is my own brand of patriotism,” he said. “I defend those charged with crimes because it is both my duty as a lawyer, and as an American.”
A funeral, followed by a burial, will be held on Sunday, Sept. 12, at the Robert Schoem’s Menorah Chapel in Paramus, NJ.
Update, 9:30pm: This story was updated with a cause of death provided by a family member.