Irl B. Baris, 88; lawyer, First Amendment advocate

By Robert A. Cohn, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Irl B. Baris, a longtime St. Louis attorney who litigated some landmark cases and was a former president of the the American Jewish Congress of St. Louis and Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel Congregation, died Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016.  He was 88 and a lifetime resident of greater St. Louis.

Irl Burton Baris was born in St. Louis on Sept. 19, 1927, the son of Henry and Esther Stepansky Baris.  He was married to Shirlene Schenberg Baris for 56 years.  They had four children.

Mr. Baris was a 1944 graduate of University City High School. He earned a bachelor of arts degree in political science at Washington University in 1947 and, in 1948, a doctor of law degree from the Washington University School of Law, where he was the youngest student in his class.  He practiced law in St. Louis from 1948 onward and remained an active member of the Missouri Bar throughout his life, according to his son, Jon Baris.

Mr. Baris interrupted his law practice to serve in the Army, when he was chief clerk in the Judge Advocate General’s Office during the Korean War. 

He was the sole owner of the Baris Law Firm.

One of his early partners in his law practice was the late Melvin L. Newmark, whose son Michael N. Newmark remembers Mr. Baris with admiration and fondness.  

“Irl was a brilliant and compassionate lawyer and a strong advocate for his clients,” Newmark said. “As a young lawyer, I was privileged to work with him. He taught me a lot about the practice of law.  He was a model lawyer and a great teacher.”

Mr. Baris was a member of the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis, which presented him with its Distinguished Lawyer Award.  Among his many honors and awards was the 2009 Distinguished Law Alumnus Award from Washington University. Mr. Baris served in the City Council of University City from 1958 to 1962, participating in many community organizations.  He was active in civil rights and civil liberties movements, including many unpopular causes and clients, firmly believing that everyone was entitled to the best possible legal counsel.

Mr. Baris successfully argued Spinelli v. United States (1969), a landmark decision for many years, involving probable cause. He was also successful before the U.S. Supreme Court in reversing an obscenity conviction in Hartstein v. Missouri (1971), involving the book “Candy.” 

In addition, Mr. Baris prepared incorporation documents for the Dismas Clark House for the “Hoodlum Priest,” the Rev. Charles Dismas Clark, which became a model nationally for halfway houses for convicts released from prison.  He also served as its secretary for many  years.  The facility was the subject of the 1961 film “The Hoodlum Priest.”

Mr. Baris met the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. through his civil rights activities.  He represented celebrities such as actor Tom Laughlin (“Billy Jack”) and musician Stephen Stills of Crosby Stills & Nash.  He also represented numerous high-profile figures alleged to have been active in organized crime. 

Mr. Baris was included in “Best Lawyers in America” since its first edition was published. He was also an active member of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.  He served as an adjunct professor at Washington University School of Law for nearly three decades.  Mr. Baris also gave lectures to professional and community organizations and students.  

In the Jewish community, Mr. Baris was a past president of the American Jewish Congress, St. Louis Chapter (now the Midwest Jewish Congress) and a former chair of the Church-State Committee of the Jewish Community Relations Council.  

He was also president of Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel Congregation in 1977 when Gerald Gordon was murdered by a neo-Nazi sniper on its parking lot.  Mr. Baris was praised as a calming force during that stressful period for the congregation.

He was also a Young Adult Division leader of the Jewish Federation-Jewish Welfare Fund Campaign dating back to the 1950s.

In addition to his wife, survivors include the couple’s four children, all of the St. Louis area: Judy Grosz (Keith), Robert (Donna Spiegel), Mitch (Lynda) and Jon (Melissa); as well as 10 grandchildren. 

Funeral services for Mr. Baris were held at Congregation B’nai Amoona, where Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose, Rabbi Ari Kaiman and Hazzan Sharon Nathanson officiated.  Burial was private.  Memorial contributions preferred to the American Heart Association, 460 N. Lindbergh Blvd., St. Louis, Mo. 63141, or to a charity of the donor’s choice.