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The Radical Life

Judge Gus Reichbach’s papers reflect a life of activism

Reichbach during his UB days. Below: Gus’ widow Ellen Meyers (left) at the UB Archives.

Reichbach during his UB days. Below: Gus’ widow Ellen Meyers (left) at the UB Archives. Photo: University Archives  

By Lauren Newkirk Maynard

As a UB freshman, Gustin “Gus” Reichbach (BA ’67) was a quick-witted kid with a heavy Brooklyn accent and a crew cut. He graduated four years later, during the height of the civil rights movement, with a political science degree (magna cum laude), a thick mane of unruly curls and a head full of radical views.

Reichbach went on to make history. After earning a law degree—and a police record—at Columbia (where he was arrested for disorderly conduct), he built a remarkable career as a respected, yet controversial, lawyer and judge. While awaiting acceptance to the bar, he most famously represented Abbie Hoffman and some of the Black Panthers. He was later dubbed the “Condom Judge” during the AIDS epidemic for providing prophylactics to prostitutes outside his courtroom. In 1999, he was elected to the New York State Supreme Court; he also served on an international war crimes tribunal in Kosovo.

Reichbach died of cancer in 2012, at the age of 65. Controversial to the end, he wrote an op-ed in The New York Times shortly before his death in favor of medical marijuana, bravely admitting his own use. Soon after, his wife, Ellen Meyers, donated his personal and professional papers to the University Archives. Meyers also established a student scholarship in Reichbach’s name, first awarded last year to music performance major Michael Tielke.

At UB, Reichbach was president of Alpha Epsilon Pi, a national Jewish fraternity, where he made lifelong friendships with two other high-powered alums: international lawyer Allan Gerson (BA ’66) and real estate investor Paul Nussbaum (BA ’67). Last October, they and Reichbach’s other college pals and contemporaries joined Meyers, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the Special Collections of the University Archives to remember Gus at a campus celebration of the Gustin L. Reichbach Papers.

From a young age, Nussbaum and Meyers recalled, Reichbach displayed a steadfast sense of justice. “He lived by the gut,” Gerson said. Reichbach’s words and deeds—captured in letters, election pins and posters, even a bound volume of trial notes from his years on the bench—stand as a rich resource for scholars studying law, politics, history, international relations and more. Like his legacy, the list goes on.