Stefan Presser, 52, who in his 19 years as legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania used the courts to protect a wide array of clients and civil rights – from challenging police racial profiling of drivers on the New Jersey Turnpike to advocating for the well-being of foster-care children in Philadelphia – died on Oct. 6 after a long battle with brain cancer.
"He had an almost biblical sense of justice and fighting injustice," said Larry Frankel, legislative director at the ACLU, who had worked with Presser for the past dozen years. "I would characterize his commitment to civil liberties as a model for any of us who believe in freedom and equality."
During the past two decades, the Chestnut Hill resident litigated some of the city and state's most hot-button cases. He often took unpopular positions, including defending the rights of white supremacists to express their views. And, in the wake of Sept. 11, he often found himself battling what he saw as the violation of individuals' constitutional rights in the government's efforts to confront the threat of terrorism.
Several times throughout his tenure, he obtained injunctions against the Philadelphia police department after having argued that they were going into troubled neighborhoods and rounding up large numbers of people without probable cause.
"Stefan was totally dedicated to vindicating civil rights, and seeing that the poorest and the most needy among us get what they are entitled to," said David Kairys, a Philadelphia-based civil-rights attorney who often worked alongside Presser. "He was single-minded. He was so dedicated, sometimes it put people off on the other side. But he was just very certain that he was right and his clients' rights should be vindicated."
A staunch proponent for the separation of church and state, Presser argued in federal court in 2003 that a plaque listing the Ten Commandments should be removed from the Chester County courthouse.
Born in Brooklyn, Presser graduated from Yale University in 1976 with a degree in sociology and from New York University School of Law three years later. He spent several years at the Houston office of the ACLU before coming to Philadelphia.
A lifelong opponent of capital punishment, he established the Death Penalty Clinic at the Temple University Beasley School of Law, in which he taught for more than a decade, offering students the rare opportunity to aid in the representation of a client on death row.
"I think he inspired a lot of our students to do public-interest work," said Robert Reinstein, dean of the law school. "He even taught while he was undergoing chemotherapy treatment. He didn't miss a class. He was really excited about teaching this fall. Tragically, he was just too weak because of the disease."
A longtime member of Germantown Jewish Centre, Presser was active in the Reconstructionist minyan there, and frequently spoke about civil-liberties issues at the synagogue.
Rabbi Leonard Gordon said that while Presser had come from a background that stressed cultural Judaism, throughout his life he had evolved a deep connection to the Jewish religion.
"He was an unreconstructed idealist," said Gordon. "When he saw an injustice, he was figuring out to fight it."
Presser is survived by his wife, Sandy Sherman; a son David; daughters Rachel and Natania; and a brother, Stanley Presser.
On Sunday, Nov. 13, at 3 p.m., Germantown Jewish Centre has planned a memorial event to honor Presser's work and life.