Sarah Wunsch, Dogged Defender of Civil Liberties, Dies at 75


Sarah Wunsch, a civil liberties lawyer who championed citizen protections on issues of race, gender and free speech and helped persuade New York’s highest court to declare that men could be prosecuted for raping their wives, died on Aug. 17 at her home in Brookline, Mass. She was 75.

The cause was complications of a stroke she sustained three years ago, her spouse, Christine Ernst, said.

As deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts for almost three decades, Ms. Wunsch brought innovative challenges before the courts, aimed at safeguarding a wide range of public behavior, including panhandling for small amounts of change, tattooing, wearing certain hairstyles in school and videotaping on-duty police activity.

She even ghostwrote a letter to the state legislature on behalf of her bull terrier, opposing a bill that would have forced owners to muzzle and chain some dog breeds while in public.

When the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, ruled in 1984 that married men may be prosecuted for raping their wives, it marked the first time the highest court in any state had invalidated an explicit statutory exemption for marital rape.

Before the ruling, a husband in New York could be convicted of raping his wife only if the couple were legally separated or living apart by court order. With the court’s unanimous decision, New York joined 17 other states that had abolished the marital rape exemption in some or all cases through legislative action or by a top court’s reversal of an earlier decision.

“A marriage license should not be viewed as a license for a husband to forcibly rape his wife with impunity,” Sol Wachtler, an associate judge who would later be named the appeals court’s chief judge, wrote. “A married woman has the same right to control her own body as does an unmarried woman.”

Ms. Wunsch, who had filed a supporting brief for the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of 26 women’s organizations seeking to abolish the exemption, called the ruling “an important step in the continuing effort to end violence against women.”

In 1983, as a lawyer for the constitutional rights center, she helped persuade a federal judge to grant an injunction blocking regulations that required federally subsidized clinics to tell parents when minors received prescription contraceptives.

Her advocacy also led to a ruling in Massachusetts that protected the destitute by establishing that peaceful requests for spare change or other kinds of help were protected forms of free speech.

“If we ever end up a society where you can’t ask for help, we’re in deep trouble,” The Associated Press quoted Ms. Wunsch as saying after the ruling.

In another Massachusetts case, she and her colleagues at the civil liberties union successfully argued that tattoo art was protected by the First Amendment and that a state ban on tattooing was unconstitutional.

She also challenged discrimination against hairstyles at a local school, racial profiling at Boston Logan International Airport and the infringement of the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

Sarah Rose Wunsch was born on Nov. 18, 1947, in Brooklyn to Harvey and Helen (Gellis) Wunsch. Her mother was a librarian, her father a mechanical engineer.

Raised in Westport, Conn., she graduated from Cornell University in 1969, worked as a librarian and taught social studies to eighth graders. Her early commitment to advocacy, honed at Cornell, eventually attracted her to the legal profession. She earned a degree from Rutgers Law School in New Jersey.

Before joining the civil liberties union, she worked as a lawyer for the Union of Electrical, Radio and Mechanical Workers and for the constitutional rights center in New York. She was also director of the Cambridge Human Rights Commission in Massachusetts.

She retired in 2018.

In addition to Ms. Ernst, she is survived by her brothers, David, Carl, James and Gerald Wunsch.

In 1997, when the state legislature was considering whether to propose a bill mandating that owners muzzle and chain certain breeds of dog in public, Ms. Wunsch submitted testimony in the name of her pet bull terrier, Czonka (pronounced ZON-ka), denouncing the proposal as “the equivalent of racism in the dog world.”

“I am a bull terrier, and I am proud of it,” the prepared testimony stated. “I am also a pacifist; I run home when I hear another dog growl, even when I’m not the target of the growl. So, I really resent it when legislators start making prejudiced statements about an entire breed. Even my friends the pit bulls can be perfectly nice dogs. It’s not the breed. The problem lies with bad human owners and individual dogs.”

Carol Rose, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said in an email: “Czonka’s testimony won the day. Massachusetts never enacted a statewide muzzle requirement for bulldog breeds. Certain municipalities did, but Gov. Deval Patrick signed a law prohibiting specific breed-based laws in 2012.”

Living in Brookline, a neighborhood not far from Fenway Park, Ms. Wunsch was a Boston baseball fan. Still, there were times when her loyalty was tested, and she couldn’t help but cheer for the underdog.

“If the Red Sox were clobbering the other team,” Ms. Ernst said, “she’d start rooting for that team because she felt badly for them.”

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