A WIN CAN DO WONDERS: After winning Judge Ernest Murphy’s libel case against the Herald, Cooper was deluged by hundreds of inquiries from potential clients.
On January 20, 2005, in an emotional opening statement to a Suffolk County jury, Howard Cooper declared that a Boston Herald series, which began in February 2002, had been so unfairly damaging to Superior Court Judge Ernest Murphy that the judge “has been seen crying in front of lawyers, in front of court officers.”Twenty-nine days later — after deliberating for 25 hours and confounding the conventional wisdom that Murphy’s high-profile libel suit was a long shot at best — the jury awarded the judge nearly $2.1 million. And Howard Cooper’s life changed.
He found himself deluged by “hundreds” of inquiries from potential clients seeking help in media-related cases — 95 percent of which he quickly discarded. He became a sought-after speaker at panels and seminars. Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly named him one of its 10 “Lawyers of the Year” for 2005. Among the courtroom spectators in the Murphy case was an attorney for the Islamic Society of Boston (ISB), an organization impressed enough with Cooper to hire him for a conspiracy-and-libel lawsuit that could dwarf the Murphy case by the time it’s done generating headlines.
At age 46, and after two decades of practicing law, Cooper is something of a household name in media circles — although exactly what adjectives surround that name might vary. After beating the Herald in court and bringing the ISB suit against the tabloid and Channel 25, as well as their sources, he is an unpopular figure in some local newsrooms. And as a Jewish lawyer representing the ISB, Cooper is perched in the middle of an explosive case that threatens to pit Muslim against Jew, bringing the intractable Middle East conflict into court.
Cooper isn’t comfortable with a reputation as the media’s worst nightmare, asserting that “I’m not interested in being a plaintiff’s libel lawyer. I’m interested, to the extent possible, of [representing people] where a real wrong has been done and the legal system is available to correct it.”
And although there is a school of thought that says good lawyers should be dispassionate advocates for their clients, those who know him say Cooper’s intense faith in his cases is a big part of what motivates him.
“Howard tends to fall in love with the cause he’s pursuing,” says David Yas, publisher of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly. “He’s a believer . . . in clients he takes on.”
Salma Kazmi is the assistant director of the ISB, which is contending in its sweeping lawsuit that the Herald, Channel 25, and some activists combined to undermine its new mosque, planned for Roxbury, by linking the organization to terrorists.
Kazmi says Cooper “is personally convinced that [the ISB officials are] innocent” and that “his ability to advocate is directly linked to the fact that in his mind, he’s completely convinced.”
Cooper has made some enemies and will make some more given his controversial caseload. But many of those familiar with his work tend to see him as the real deal — a passionate, sincere, and surprisingly idealistic advocate who is no fun to face across the aisle.
A Newton native, Cooper had a legal career embedded in his DNA. His father, who spent 42 years in the area as a “general practitioner,” was his role model. When he was about 12, he went to court to watch his father defend a man accused of stealing a ring from a jewelry store and recalled that “it was the most exciting thing I had ever seen.”
After getting his law degree from BU in 1984, Cooper went to work at Hale and Dorr before founding the Boston firm Todd & Weld with a small group of attorneys in 1991. (The downtown firm now has 35 lawyers.)
He estimates that about a quarter of his practice has been devoted to criminal-defense work, although he also spent time as the Boston Police Department’s legal representative prosecuting internal-affairs cases, and has represented students brought before college disciplinary boards for everything from plagiarism to sexual assault.
While Cooper had a brief stint as a journalist — he interned in the Albany UPI office while an undergrad at Union College — he does not have extensive media-related experience in the courtroom. He defended the Valley Advocate, in Springfield, in a libel case in the late 1980s. And in the wake of the Murphy case, he is now representing the plaintiffs in a defamation lawsuit against Northampton author Augusten Burroughs, whose 2002 bestseller Running With Scissors has been turned into movie slated to hit theaters this year.
Cooper and Judge Murphy knew each other; in fact, as lawyers, they once worked on a the same side of a case. But the two men hadn’t spoken for a few years when Cooper saw the Herald’s 2002 series criticizing Murphy for lenient sentencing practices. The Herald also reported that he once said of a young rape victim: “She can’t go through life as a victim. She’s 14. She got raped. Tell her to get over it.”
Cooper wrote a letter to Murphy expressing his support, which triggered a chain of events that led to his representing the judge. From the outset, most observers felt that Murphy had little chance of winning, particularly since, as a public figure, he would have to surmount the daunting obstacle of proving that the Herald had acted with actual malice.
For his part, Cooper says “I’ve defended people caught on video cameras robbing banks. Those are long odds. . . . My view was that if a jury heard this case, then the Herald would be held accountable.” In a dissenting opinion, Murphy himself characterizes Cooper as “a worrywart” who was far from confident about the outcome of his case. “He can’t see the glass as half full,” the judge adds. “He just can’t believe he can win.”
Whatever his real expectation, after hammering away at lead Herald reporter David Wedge, portraying Murphy as a man whose reputation, health, and career had been destroyed by reckless reporting, and attacking the paper for tabloid sensationalism, Cooper got his client a $2.09 million verdict, not counting the accruing interest.
The case is now on appeal and being handled by another lawyer. (Cooper says “appellate advocacy [is] not my strong suit.”) And there’s still plenty of legitimate debate about whether the jury verdict was justified. But nearly everyone agrees that Cooper, who was extremely well prepared and passionate in his advocacy for Murphy, gave a first-class performance in that courtroom. In interviews with a few jurors after the verdict, it became apparent that Cooper had convinced them that the “tell her to get over it” quote was inaccurate and that the paper’s repeated use of the quote essentially represented malice — no mean feat for any attorney.
Even Bruce Sanford, the attorney representing the Herald on appeal, acknowledges that Cooper “did a clever job of confusing the issues in a libel case. . . . The challenge there for a plaintiff’s lawyer is to cleverly confuse some of the issues and facts so that the jury thinks there’s some falsity.”
“He won a case that was thought to be unwinnable,” says Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly’s Yas, “and potentially changed the way people look at libel and slander cases.”
The mosque pit
Cooper says that when he was initially queried by an ISB attorney about taking the mosque case, “my first reaction was to say ‘you know I’m Jewish.’ And his reaction was, ‘is that a problem for you?’ ”
The newest incarnation of the ISB litigation, which was filed last October, is a greatly expanded version of two separate libel suits filed by officials of the society. In a breathtakingly ambitious legal strategy, they contend that the Herald, Channel 25, terrorism analyst Steven Emerson, and officials of the David Project and Citizens for Peace and Tolerance conspired to stop the Roxbury mosque project by falsely connecting the ISB to terrorism. The defendants have responded by arguing that the plaintiffs are trying to destroy free speech by intimidating people from raising the issue of whether the operation has dangerous ties to Islamic terrorism.
One observer calls the complex suit — still in its early phases with pending motions to dismiss — “this incredible colossus.”
“Is it unusual to allege a conspiracy between a media outlet and its sources?”, asks Cooper. “The court will decide whether it’s an appropriate legal theory.”
To say that the suit and surrounding issues are potentially divisive is a major understatement. The Boston Globe has reported that the battle “has deeply chilled Muslim-Jewish relations in Boston.” And the plaintiffs’ offer to take the case to private mediation received a chilly reception from the defendants and other interested parties.
“The best thing [Cooper] could do right now is to withdraw the lawsuits so real dialogue could resume on the issues,” says Andrew Tarsy, the New England regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.
However intense the controversy, Cooper typically views himself on the side of the angels.
“I believe that what I am doing is in keeping with the highest tradition of what I understand the Jewish culture to be about,” he says. “That is standing up and combating intolerance wherever you see it.”
A very different interpretation comes from an observer who says of the ISB: “If I’m them, a Jewish lawyer is a capture.”
It’s difficult to get those who might have an unfavorable view of Cooper to speak on the record. Officials at the Herald, at Channel 25, and at some organizations that have voiced concerns about the mosque declined to comment for this story. Their lawyers have also been understandably circumspect.
Even so, a picture emerges, from admirers and adversaries alike, of a talented and tireless advocate who leaves little to chance.
“There’s not a lawyer in Boston that works harder than Howard Cooper,” says Murphy. “Very adaptable in the courtroom, very good on his feet.”
Robert Dushman, the Herald’s lead attorney during the Murphy trial, says “his style is more theatrical than mine . . . and I think jurors who grew up watching cases on TV come to expect that. [But] I’d give him very high marks for preparation, for knowledge of the case . . . Obviously, he’s very comfortable in a courtroom.” Attorney Joseph Steinfield, who is representing Channel 25 in the ISB case, also says “I have great respect for his skills as an advocate.”
Ted Merritt, an assistant US attorney who’s known Cooper since he was his camp counselor nearly four decades ago, gets back to the true-believer idea that some say is the core of Cooper’s career.
“What comes through from him a lot is his passion,” says Merritt. “He’s able to sincerely believe his client or his case is the right thing. Howard’s the kind of lawyer I would turn to if I wanted my case prosecuted and advanced.”
On the Web
Mark Jurkowitz’s Media Log: http://www.thephoenix.com/medialog
The Islamic Society of Boston: http://www.isboston.org/v3.1/default.asp
Citizens for Peace and Tolerance: http://www.hatefreeamerica.com/