Crusader for Justice: Peter Mutnick, 1949-2008

By Ted Friedman Special to the Planet
Thursday July 31, 2008 - 10:08:00 AM
Peter Mutnick
Peter Mutnick

Peter Mutnick was mad as hell and he wasn’t going to take it anymore. So he sued UC Berkeley and the city all the way to the Supreme Court. He died peacefully last week in the Oncology Unit at Alta Bates at the age of 59. He was a frequent contributor to the Daily Planet’s opinion pages. 

Although the court refused to consider his challenge to the city and UC’s role in the Downtown Development Plan, he emerged as a self-made legal beagle, able to prepare and submit briefs to the Supreme Court (even if he did consult with Lawrence Tribe, a leading constitutional scholar at Harvard). 

The continuing e-mail correspondence he had with Tribe, while buoyant, was, if anything, unusual (Mutnick argued with him on equal footing) and it ended with Tribe musing, “Why am I talking with you?” 

Why was he talking with Mutnick? After all, Mutnick wasn’t a fellow law prof, or even an attorney (it’s doubtful Tribe knew). He just had the knack of dialoging at the highest level with college professors and attorneys or anyone intelligent whom he would contact cold. 

Maybe he got this by being the son of a well-known civil rights attorney (his father collaborated with William Kunstler) and a librarian (from his mother he inherited a love of books). 

Born in 1949 in Plainfield, New Jersey, he attended the prestigious Han Academy after impressing his grade school teachers. He taught himself calculus at 12, a hint of later polymathism, entered the University of Michigan early and was on the fast track to a doctorate in physics when he was voluntarily hospitalized from what was described as schizophrenia; whatever it was, it ended his academic career. 

He had a longtime friendship with Henry Stapp, senior professor of theoretical physics at Lawrence Lab, who discussed his research with him and acknowledged Mutnick’s contributions in his papers. 

As his final days approached, Mutnick worked feverishly trying to reconcile Judaism with Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity. He was reading the works of Professor Samuel Sandmel, the late, great ecumenist rabbi, shortly before he died.  

Although the son of Marxist atheists (his father’s family was Jewish and his mother’s Christian) he had no Jewish education, but as he did calculus, physics and philosophy, he passed Judaism 101 and changed his name to “Cephas.” 

He is survived by two sisters, Barbara and Deborah, and several nieces and nephews, all of New York City. A memorial will be held on the balcony in the Med in September.