Austin Cooper stood and faced the magistrate. A young woman with no lawyer was on the verge of being found guilty of being a streetwalker, and Mr. Cooper, a second-year student at Osgoode Hall Law School, could not stay silent.
“May I speak for the young lady?”
A police officer had seen her stop a man on the street and follow him into a house. The officer went in after them and confronted the man. In court, he reported to the magistrate what the man had told him.
Is the man in court? the 22-year-old law student asked.
No, the officer replied.
Then his words are hearsay, the student declared. “I suggest there is not enough evidence to convict the accused, and move for dismissal.”
The magistrate agreed: “Case dismissed.”
It was classic Austin Cooper – a bold stroke that expressed a passion for justice and a sharp eye for courtroom strategy. His career as a criminal defence lawyer would go on to span 60 years. Over the decades, he won virtually every major honour for advocacy from the law profession in Canada, including the esteem of his peers, who saw him as an exemplar of integrity, professionalism and humility – with a core of steel.
Mr. Cooper died Sept. 24 at 84 of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, leaving his sons Peter, Douglas and Paul.
“Austin Cooper represented everything that’s good about the legal profession,” said Robert Armstrong, a retired judge of the Ontario Court of Appeal.
His humility was striking. “I’ve often thought that Austin definitely was the best criminal lawyer in the country,” defence lawyer Clayton Ruby said, “but without ever proclaiming that he was the best.”
He defended capital murder cases pro bono, before Ontario offered legal aid, his law partner Mark Sandler said. He also represented the state in a memorable case in which Wisconsin sought the extradition of Karleton Armstrong, a Vietnam protester who with three others set off a bomb in a university building in 1970, killing a researcher. When Mr. Cooper entered the court, spectators “oinked” at him and shouted “pig.”
He did not object when those spectators called him a “hired gun.” “They didn’t appreciate we have a structure in our society, the court system, where both sides of the question, of the accusation, are argued out,” he told author Jack Batten. “If we didn’t have that system, believe me, society as we know it would collapse. It’s the hired-gun concept that makes the system work.”
He defended Keith Richards, guitarist for the Rolling Stones, who was charged with heroin possession for the purpose of trafficking while recording in Toronto in 1977. Even with a guilty plea to a lesser charge of heroin possession, Mr. Richards faced a near-automatic jail sentence. But Mr. Cooper used a clever dual strategy: He argued that, as a tortured genius, Mr. Richards was more prone to addiction; he also argued that his client was unexceptional in trying to treat and overcome an addiction, and deserved compassion, not jail. The judge ordered Mr. Richards to give a free concert for the blind.
An early desire to make things right
Austin Morley Cooper was born on Feb. 10, 1929, just before the start of the Depression. He was raised in the affluent Rosedale neighbourhood of Toronto, the oldest of three sons of Bert Cooper, a dry goods merchant, and Esther, a homemaker. His mother, a university graduate, often did public speaking, and pushed her son to excel in it, too. He was accepted into the prestigious University of Toronto Schools for high school.
After graduating with a degree in commerce from the University of Toronto, he was not sure whether to join his father’s business (a store in Cabbagetown known as “Little Eaton’s” because it carried everything) or, as a friend suggested, to try law school. His son Douglas says that not long before his father died, he told him he had flipped a coin to decide (although Mr. Cooper’s brother Gordon says the story may be apocryphal). Either way, law won.
Mr. Cooper’s heroes at law school were two liberal U.S. Supreme Court judges, Benjamin Cardozo and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., whose collections of writings he bought and read over and over. Especially close to his heart was Mr. Cardozo’s speech on values: “The submergence of self in the pursuit of an ideal, the readiness to spend oneself without measure, prodigally, almost ecstatically, for something intuitively apprehended as great and noble … this is what religion means.” For Mr. Cooper, that ideal was the law.