Home>Highlight>Frank Askin, legendary ACLU counsel and Rutgers professor, dies at 89

Former Rutgers Law Professor Frank Askin. (Photo: Rutgers University Law School).

Frank Askin, legendary ACLU counsel and Rutgers professor, dies at 89

Two-time congressional candidate was fired by Bergen Record for attempting to unionize

By David Wildstein, July 06 2021 8:29 pm

Frank Askin, an iconic constitutional scholar and activist who spent 36 years as the general counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, died on July 1.  He was 89.

Askin was twice a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in New Jersey’s 11th district.  He challenged Rep. Joseph Minish (D-West Orange) in the 1982 Democratic primary and lost by a 75%-25% margin.   Running on the Essex County Democratic organization line in 1986, Askin won the Democratic nomination with 89% of the vote.  He faced freshman Rep. Dean Gallo (R-Parsippany) in the general election – Gallo had unseated Minish two years earlier — and lost by 39,757 votes, 68%-32%.

As a teenager, Askin worked as a community organizer in a bid to integrate Jim Crow tennis courts in his native Baltimore.  At age 12, he had operated the manual score board for the Baltimore Bullets – now the Washington Wizards – a team owned by his uncle, Abe Pollin.

Before going to law school, from 1958 to 1961, Askin was a reporter and editor of the Bergen Record.  The newspaper fired him after he sought to unionize the staff under the American Newspaper Guild.

He spent 50 years as a professor at Rutgers Law School in Newark before his retirement in 2016.  As a law student in the early 1960’s Askin was a student of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  Askin introduced Ginsburg to the ACLU legal director, and the two worked together until Ginsburg’s nomination to the federal bench by President Jimmy Carter.

In 1967, following the Newark riots, Askin chaired a Rutgers panel to admit more Blacks and women.

Askin was the founder of the Constitutional Rights Clinic at Rutgers Law.  He was the lead attorney in a U.S. Supreme Court case involving the Pentagon’s surveillance of Vietnam War resisters and disputed a New Jersey State Police policy to stop and search travelers with long hair on state highways.

He once sued the Federal Bureau of Investigation after a teenager from Morris County became the target of an FBI probe after she wrote to Communist Party organizers as part of her research assignment for a high school paper.  He challenged illegalities of the Selective Service System in the 1960s.

In 1972, Askin ran for delegate to the Democratic National Convention on a slate pledged to George McGovern but lost to an uncommitted slate supported by the Essex County Democratic organization.

From time to time, Askin took short leaves from Rutgers to work on the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Labor-Management under Rep. Frank Thompson (D-Trenton) and on the staff of House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-Michigan).

Askin served on the national ACLU board for 40 years.

His memoir, Defending Rights: A Life in Law and Politics, was published in 1997.

His father, Abraham Askin, owned a bar in the Hotel Biltmore, which later gained fame in a Lansford Wilson play – and later a Norman Lear-produced TV sitcom – Hot l Baltimore.

A resident of Newark and West Orange before retiring to Florida, Askin is survived by his wife, Marilyn, three children, and six grandchildren.  His daughter, Andrea, is deceased.

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