Jay Leiderman, a California defence attorney known for his whistleblower advocacy and defence 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 fleeing authorities in several countries, giving interviews, all the while on the lam. (The client was just 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 one of its websites offline for half an hour. Where the FBI saw a felony computer crime worth up to 15 years in prison, Leiderman saw a peaceful protest against an unjust law — one that, he noted, had 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 thought, 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.”
Alright, we're offering to represent any hacktivists prosecuted in and around our 'hood for free. It's the least we can do for freedom.
— Jay Leiderman (@JayLeidermanLaw) June 30, 2011
The cause of Leiderman’s death has not been declared and will likely take months to certify, the medical examiner’s office said. The Ventura Police Department had no comment. Calls to Leiderman’s law office went unanswered.
Before his work with hackers, Leiderman defended a Ventura man who’d been arrested in a drug bust, and whose mobile phone 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. The U.S. Supreme Court issued a contrary ruling two years later. In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that mobile phones 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 took on clients who had their kids taken away after police found marijuana hidden in their homes. And he won. He served as a fierce advocate for medical marijuana patients, in particular, for more than a decade, writing a book on the topic in 2011 for the National Organisation for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. In 2013, he joined other activist lawyers in founding the Whistleblower Defence League. At its launch, he accused the federal government of silencing political dissenters using weapons 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 heinous crimes. The guiltier the client, he wrote, 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 an American.”