Daniel Sheehan’s Riveting Legal Memoir Is a Real Education

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Daniel Sheehan grew up mostly in small upstate New York village towns in a home dominated by his father Pat Sheehan’s alcoholism. The elder Sheehan had returned home from World War II battlefields a broken man. He found a job as a nighttime prison guard but dedicated his weekends to being a good cheer drinker at the local bar. Danny’s mother, Margery, struggled endlessly to rescue enough money from her husband’s paycheck to feed and clothe her children.  After moving the family to California, at some point the struggle overwhelmed her and Danny (the name, he points out, that was on his birth certificate) was sent back to New York with his father in hopes that the father would stay away. Fortunately, a kindly aunt and uncle in upstate New York took him in for his crucial adolescent years. We never really come to know quite how Sheehan came to be the wunderkind that he was, but there can be no doubting the epic scale of the intellect, emotional balance, physical talent, and sheer will that fueled his young adulthood.

I spent my entire high school experience devoted to one objective: proving to everyone—most importantly to myself—that I was “of value.” My mother, my sister, my brother, and even my father had, in effect, abandoned me and had never seen me play in a single athletic contest or act in a single play during my entire high school career. I was very upset about that at first. But ultimately, my unique situation forced me to learn how to become totally self-reliant and independent. I channeled all of my energy and all of my attention into demonstrating to everyone that I could be the best at anything I did. And I was.

He could not have picked a better place than Warrensburg Central High School, home of New York State’s famed Coach George Khoury, to strut all his stuff. Sheehan was a star athlete on Khoury’s championship teams in three different sports, even while also being a leader of student government and acting in student plays! All this was done for its own sake, no doubt, but also in service to his dominating ambition of becoming an astronaut. When we meet the author at the outset of his book, the hugely qualified Air Force Academy aspirant is about to get his first great political disillusionment. From here his life follows an improbable trajectory that eventually sees him all but installed at Harvard College in his junior year, where his academic chops prove to be such that Harvard Law School grants him another scholarship to enroll.

Daniel quickly became a legal star while at Harvard Law, where he co-founded the Harvard Civil Rights Law Review (with New York City’s talented political gadfly Mark Green), muscled together the famed Biafra Airlift, and litigated five cases, two of which turned out to be landmark moments in the law (Eisenstadt v. Baird, a critical precursor to Roe v. Wade, and In re: Pappas, which produced a foundational First Amendment decision protecting the confidentiality of journalist’s news sources). But this is a guy who played football, held a near 4.0 grade point average, acted in school plays, and took ROTC training (which produced his second great disillusionment) while he was an undergraduate at Boston’s premier working class university, Northeastern.

Very early on in the book we see that Sheehan has that rare combination of brains, chutzpah, and good timing required to challenge the unstated but nevertheless common alliances between the police, prosecutors, and judges. In fact, the non-independence of some members of the judiciary is a persistent background theme of the book. When, after forcing the recusal of two clearly biased judges in the epochal Karen Silkwood trial, he finally sees the trial handed over to a fair-minded judge, his response is “Holy shit! I thought. What do you know? What do you know? An honest judge!”

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