Hired by Thurgood Marshall, Professor Meltsner was first assistant counsel to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in the 1960s, where he handled major civil rights cases before the federal courts. Among his clients were the North Carolina doctors and dentists who ended Southern hospital racial segregation, Mohammad Ali and numerous death row inmates challenging capital punishment. After co-founding the clinical program at Columbia Law School, he served as dean of Northeastern University School of Law from 1979 until 1984. His memoir, The Making of a Civil Rights Lawyer, was published in 2006. Among his other writings are: Cruel and Unusual: The Supreme Court and Capital Punishment; Public Interest AdvocacyReflections on Clinical Legal Education; and Short Takes, a novel. His most recent book, With Passion: An Activist Lawyer’s Life, recounts his life growing up in New York and his struggle to make sense of coming of age during a turbulent era. His 2011 play, “In Our Name: A Play of the Torture Years,” has been performed in New York and Boston to great acclaim.

In 1977, Professor Meltsner, who is also a marriage and family therapist, was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. He has served as a consultant to the US Department of Justice, the Ford Foundation and the Legal Action Center and has lectured in Canada, Egypt, Germany, India,the Netherlands and South Africa. In 2000, he was named a fellow of the American Academy in Berlin and conducted research on German constitutional law. He returned to the School of Law in 2005 after five years as a visiting professor and director of the First-Year Lawyering Program at Harvard Law School. In 2010, he received the Hugo Bedau Award for excellence in death penalty scholarship. In 2012, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by John Jay College (CUNY) and described as the "principal architect of the death penalty abolition movement" in the United States. In September, 2017 he was selected to deliver the prestigious Alfange Lecture at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Professor Meltsner is currently teaching a seminar on constitutional litigation and a course on the law governing freedom of speech. He is a regular contributor to the press on a range of legal topics.

Fields of Expertise

  • Capital Punishment
  • Civil Rights
  • Consitutional Law
  • Criminal Law
  • Supreme Court

Selected Works


Selected Articles

Selected Commentary

Selected Chapters and Other Works

  • “Innocence Before DNA,” in Wrongful Convictions and the DNA Revolution: Twenty-Years of Freeing the Innocent, ed. D. Medwed (Cambridge University Press, 2017).
  • “In Our Name: A Play of the Torture Years” (2011).