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Stephen Sachs, former Maryland attorney general, dies at 87

Stephen H. Sachs, center, flanked by two men who would succeed him as Maryland attorney general — Douglas F. Gansler, left, and Brian E. Frosh. (Submitted Photo)

Former Maryland U.S. Attorney and Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs, whose controversial prosecution of Vietnam protesters was followed by his championing of the rights of the mentally disabled and indigent, died Wednesday at his Baltimore home. He was 87.

“He did not shy away from taking on difficult challenges,” Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh said of Sachs in a statement Wednesday.

“He was a champion of civil rights,” Frosh added. “He was a superbly talented lawyer that could hold his own, whether arguing before the (U.S.) Supreme Court or in front of a jury.”

Sachs, as U.S. attorney, prosecuted nine Catonsville activists in 1968 who had burned draft files to protest the Vietnam War.

The “Catonsville Nine” were convicted of destroying U.S. property, destroying Selective Service files and interfering with the Selective Service Act. They were sentenced to two to three-and-a- half years in prison.

Their convictions became a rallying point for Vietnam protestors. A sign in Catonsville, erected by the state in 2018, praises them for “inspiring similar acts of civil disobedience across the country.”

Sachs, who served as U.S. attorney from 1967 to 1970, defended the prosecution in 2018.

“Respect for the law is what keeps this country together,” Sachs told The New York Times. “So therefore I can’t accept people who violate the law, even if their motives are, to them at least, pure. A guy who robs a bank because he wants to give alms to the poor, it’s a bank robbery.”

As Maryland attorney general from 1979 to 1987, Sachs declined to defend what Frosh called “the state practice of warehousing” the developmentally challenged and mentally ill, which led to needed reforms. Later, in private practice, he tried in vain to find and bring a case before Maryland’s top court that would lead to its finding of a state constitutional right to counsel for indigent litigants in civil cases.

“Steve Sachs was a legend in state attorney general circles,” said Douglas F. Gansler, who served as Maryland attorney general from 2007 to 2015.

“He was the pioneer and forefather of the modern Maryland attorney general’s office,” added Gansler, who is running for the 2022 Democratic gubernatorial nomination. “We all try to build on his legacy.”

In 2008, Sachs led an inquiry into the Maryland State Police’s surveillance of peace and anti-death penalty advocates in 2005 and 2006.

Sachs concluded in 2008 that an overzealous MSP force, apparently oblivious to the constitutional rights of peaceful protesters, conducted improper undercover surveillance of the advocates without any reasonable suspicion they were involved in any past, present or future criminal activity.

Sachs, who conducted the inquiry at then-Gov. Martin O’Malley’s request, assailed an “end justifies the means” mindset of state police investigators who conducted the covert surveillance over a 14-month period.

After leaving the attorney general’s office, Sachs served as a partner at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr LLP.

U.S. Rep. Anthony G. Brown, D-Md., worked as a young lawyer with Sachs at the law firm in Washington and called him “an extraordinary mentor.”

“Steve worked every day to ensure that everyone plays by the same rules and did so with respect and integrity,” Brown said in a statement Wednesday.

“He fought for the underdogs and was their champion,” added Brown, a candidate for the 2022 Democratic nomination to succeed the retiring Frosh as Maryland attorney general. “I knew him as a man of keen intellect and generosity. His insights on law and life were always thoughtful and grounded in service.”

Sachs argued three times before the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of Maryland, winning each time. The cases were Smith v. Maryland, 1978; Maryland v. Louisiana, 1981; and Maryland v. Garrison, 1986.

Sachs is survived by his daughter, Elisabeth, son, Leon, and grandchildren.

His wife, Sheila K. Sachs, died in 2019.

Funeral arrangements were not available by press time.