Honoring Eleanor Jackson Piel

March 6, 2023

In 2022, the world lost a legal legend with the death of civil rights lawyer Eleanor Jackson Piel at age 102. In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re remembering Piel and celebrating her contributions to the legal profession.

She was known for her work on wrongful convictions and death row appeals as well as for her longevity, with a career that spanned seven decades. Piel practiced law until she was in her early 90s, first as a solo practitioner in Los Angeles before moving to New York in the 1950s. From the start, her perseverance was critical to her success. Piel graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, and applied to Berkeley Law but was rejected; the dean who interviewed her explained that “females always have nervous breakdowns.”

Instead, Piel attended the University of Southern California for her first year of law school, then transferred to Berkeley. When she earned her law degree there in 1943, Piel was the only woman in her class. She began practicing during an era when not many women went into law. She “encountered sexism, racism, and other ‘isms’ in her years,” yet she helped a diverse group of clients score wins. Piel initially worked as a clerk for Judge Louis E. Goodman of the Federal District Court in San Francisco. When the case United States v. Masaaki Kuwabara came before Judge Goodman in 1944, Piel’s civil rights law experience began.

The case involved Japanese-American draft resisters who had been indicted “because they had declined to be conscripted by the country that had interned them.” Piel’s research helped Judge Goodman quash the indictment. After World War II, Piel worked for the International War Crimes Tribunal in Tokyo. She also helped rebuild Japan’s economy under General Douglas MacArthur. By 1948, she was back in the United States, with a solo practice in Los Angeles focusing on criminal cases. Shortly after winning acquittal in a criminal case, she married Gerard Piel and moved to New York. Their 1955 wedding announcement in The Los Angeles Times was headlined “Three Youths Freed and Lawyer Wed.”

Throughout the 1960s, Piel handled numerous civil rights and women’s rights cases. She fought for Sandra Adickes, a white teacher from New York who was denied service at a Mississippi lunch counter because she was with a group of Black students. And Piel won a victory for Alice de Rivera, a 13-year-old math prodigy who wanted to attend Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High School, then an all-male school.

Piel’s notable cases also included her work with Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project. They secured the release of Vincent Jenkins, a man imprisoned for 17 years for a rape that he did not commit.

We’re grateful to Piel for her lifelong commitment to civil rights and civil liberties. And we thank her for serving as a role model — though she had none herself — to generations of women lawyers.