The Agitator

The Agitator

When he isn’t teaching math to U of T students, he’s in court representing such motley clients as OCAP’s John Clarke, the Marijuana Party and axe attack victim Wyann Ruso. Peter Rosenthal’s double life

The Agitator: Peter Rosenthal
Rosenthal at his university office
Early in the afternoon of November 3, 2004, Wyann Ruso took her husband’s unregistered shotgun to police at 42 Division in Scarborough. Giuseppe “Joe” Ruso had threatened to kill her over an affair he thought she was having with a co-worker. The police promised Wyann a quick arrest; however, when she arrived home at 4:45, concerned about the welfare of their severely disabled 29-year-old daughter, Joe was waiting. Though muttering threats, he managed to control his rage during dinner and a 6 p.m. walk through the neighbourhood with Wyann and their daughter in her wheelchair. Once back home, Joe cornered Wyann in the garage, demanding the phone number of the man she was seeing. When she refused, he exploded. Grabbing an axe in one hand and her hair in the other, he struck her repeatedly across her head and neck until she fell, bleeding and unconscious. Picking up a hammer, he smashed her face.

Miraculously, Wyann survived, and Joe later pleaded guilty to attempted murder. On this February morning in 2007, Wyann is to read a victim-impact statement in Courtroom 2-7 on University Avenue as Joe slumps, eyes downcast, in the prisoner’s box. Present as a spectator is Wyann’s lawyer, Peter Rosenthal. In October 2006, he negotiated for Wyann an undisclosed settlement from the Toronto Police Service by arguing that her injuries resulted from their delay in arresting Joe. Now Rosenthal sits on the edge of his seat like a nervous parent watching a frightened child perform in public for the first time, as Wyann, in a quavering voice, describes her life since the assault. Twice she “died” as medical teams fought to revive her. The bones of her face were so crushed a doctor said they looked like cornflakes. Her ear was nearly severed, resulting in hearing loss. Her vision is impaired; she can’t fully open her mouth, and her face is disfigured by scars after 10 surgeries with more to come. Nightmares keep her from sleeping, and then, of course, there’s the emotional trauma: “I cannot begin to describe how it feels when your husband, someone who is supposed to love and protect you, turns against you in such a violent manner.”

When the judge impatiently stops Wyann halfway through her statement to complain that she is rambling, Rosenthal uses the recess to help her edit it. After the session, he whisks her away from a wall of advancing reporters into private chambers; later he brokers a deal allowing them to photograph her leaving the court in exchange for asking no questions. With his client safely ensconced in a car, he holds a mini–press conference. As Wyann tells me, eyes brimming with gratitude, “Peter didn’t have to be here this morning, but he came as my friend. When I wanted a lawyer, my co-workers at the postal station told me about Peter and he visited me in hospital. He’s the best, and I say that from my heart.”

As a lawyer and a Marxist, Rosen­thal has spent decades fighting for the marginalized against vested authority, often in support of unpopular and lost causes. Last January, he tried without success to get the Ontario Court of Appeal to lift the ban on squeegee kids. A month later, in a hearing before Ontario’s Alcohol and Gaming Commission, he championed Victor Jiang, manager of the Cabbagetown Restaurant, threatened with losing his liquor licence over charges of on-premises drug dealing and drunkenness. In Rosenthal’s interpretation, which ultimately failed to persuade the commission, Jiang and his low-income customers were being targeted by the forces of gentrification spearheaded by the Old Cabbage­town BIA. From 2004 to 2006, Rosenthal represented a group of Stoney Point natives in the Ipper­wash Inquiry into the death of Dudley George. Currently, he’s defending Shawn Brant, a Mohawk activist, against criminal charges stemming from the blockade of the 401 and the CN rail line from Montreal to Toronto.

What’s unusual about Rosenthal as a lawyer is the variety of his cases—civil, criminal, constitutional. What’s unique is that he’s also a math prof. All his courtroom work has been moonlighting.

The Agitator: Peter Rosenthal
Rosenthal on his way to court
I first met Rosenthal last February in his U of T office, surrounded by floor-to-ceiling books and binders, photos of colleagues and a blackboard chalked with esoteric equations. A stocky five-foot-10, he was dressed more casually than his students—in blue jeans and brown plaid shirt tossed over a T-shirt commemorating Dudley George. His voice is imprinted with the broadened vowels and softened r’s of New York (where he was born), while the shaved head, rimless glasses and twin hearing aids testify to the passage of 66 years. Though he was possibly the busiest person on campus, he radiated the feeling that he had all the time in the world. It was an impression enhanced by a disarming, gap-toothed, Alfred E. Neuman “What, me worry?” grin. “My central vocation is mathe­matics,” he confirmed. “My legal work lets me support the causes I believe in.”

Sometimes Rosenthal’s dual lives have clashed like opposing freight trains. In 1976, before becoming a lawyer, he assisted in appealing the expulsion of a Chinese medical student before U of T’s governing council because he thought it involved racial prejudice. When the appeal failed, students erupted in a noisy protest. “Stop them!” then-president John Evans ordered Rosenthal. “No, you stop them!” he replied, later acknowledging, “It did cross my mind that my promotion to full professor was just then reaching his desk.”

It was in 1969, outside the U.S. consulate on University Avenue, that Professor Rosenthal’s career as a lawyer first took root. He was standing on a concrete planter denouncing the Vietnam War through a bullhorn when an officer demanded he step down. He refused. He was arrested, handcuffed, carted off in a paddy wagon and thrown into a cell with 26 other protestors. “We were climbing the bars and shouting at the cops,” he admits. “It was a bit like a party.”

In the chamber of sober second thoughts, Rosenthal realized how uncool it would be to be shackled for life to a criminal record. He hired a lawyer but then interrupted him so often at trial that both were relieved when he decided to represent himself. He won on the charge of obstructing an officer but was convicted of causing a disturbance; he won that later on appeal.

Equal to the victory was the adrenalin rush of having defeated an enemy on its own turf. Rosenthal began volunteering as a legal assistant for left-wing causes, eventually encountering activist lawyer Charles Roach. “Peter has a total identification with the underprivileged, and he was helpful on a variety of cases,” says Roach. “I was impressed with his social analysis, which interested him more than polemics. He has a genius for focusing his great mind the way few lawyers can.”

With Roach’s encouragement, Rosenthal entered law school in 1987 as a full-time student while on sabbatical. He received his call to the bar in 1992, and today he has an office in the firm of Roach, Schwartz & Associates, located above a bakery on St. Clair West. Along with six other lawyers, he receives a percentage of income earned, with the rest pooled for basic expenses. Rather dolefully he told me, “I hope I don’t cost the firm money.” When I relayed this to Roach, he seemed surprised: “It’s true that Peter does a lot of pro bono work, but economically he’s one of our most productive lawyers. He makes fees when he works on government commissions and settlements when he works against them.” Rosenthal’s wife, Carol, a family physician, bridges that perceptual gap: “Peter doesn’t care about money, and he’s always digging into his own pocket for transcripts and taxis. He never has any idea how much he earns.”

One of Rosenthal’s more high-profile pro bono cases began in 1995 when several Ontario Coalition Against Poverty members were arrested on a charge of trespass. David Tsubouchi, then Ontario’s minister of community and social services, had suggested that poor people should compensate for the Tories’ 21.6 per cent cut in welfare by haggling with their grocers. Thus inspired, OCAP organizer John Clarke and a few others went to Loblaws to talk turkey with Galen Weston’s employees. “Peter planned to argue ‘officially induced error,’ meaning we’d just been following the advice of a Crown minister,” says Clarke, adding sardonically, “The charges were dropped after a Crown attorney became mysteriously ill.”

More significantly, last January Rosenthal won $10,000 from Toronto Police Service for John Clarke and $5,000 each for two other OCAP members for rights violations following their arrest after the June 15, 2000, anti-poverty rally at Queen’s Park turned ugly. “Peter has given us millions of dollars of pro bono representation,” says Clarke. “It isn’t some kind of chess game with him. He’s deeply compassionate, and it’s common to see him wiping tears. He’s also remarkably forgiving of people who do terrible things. The notion of the ruthless left-wing radical prepared to exact collateral damage is not Peter at all.”

Rosenthal’s dual commitments were bred in the bone. His father, Harold, was a New York City high school math teacher and his mother, Esther, a left-wing radical with a late career as a statistician. Her mother, Sonia, took part in the Russian Revolution of 1905, and after that failed she immigrated to America with her faith in the Bolsheviks unshaken. The three Rosenthal boys—Peter, Eric and Walter—were second-generation, red-diaper babies who grew up in a brick row house in Queens. In 1953, when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed as Communist spies, the Rosenthals mourned them like personal friends. “I was 12 and I remember identifying with their kids and thinking how I’d feel if my own parents were executed,” says Rosenthal. Throughout the Cold War, the Queens house was often thrown open to anti-nuclear protestors. During the Southern lunch counter sit-ins of the ’60s, Peter and Eric devoted most Saturdays to picketing their local Woolworth in support of integration. Though Esther was the stronger activist, Harold remained a staunch champion during the toxic McCarthy years when left-wing teachers were being fired. He also imprinted his sons with his love of mathe­matics by making brainteasers and prime number challenges a normal part of family fun. “My father taught me that mathe­matics is beautiful,” says Rosenthal.

During high school, Peter discovered peer pressure was more persuasive than parental aspirations: “You could be a nerd or one of the guys, which meant you didn’t get good marks.” Though he was accepted into Queens College, his first year was a disaster—all Cs and Ds, followed by an abysmal 12 out of 100 in calculus. That was a wake-up call. Upon graduation he earned two scholarships: a Woodrow Wilson Graduate Fellowship, which he declined in favour of a four-year National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship. By then, he had married his high school sweetheart, Helen Black, also a math student. They moved to the University of Michigan, where he received his doctorate and Helen gave birth to their first son, Alan, now 43. In 1967, Rosenthal accepted a position at U of T and moved his family to Scarborough; Jeffrey was born a few months later, followed by Michael in 1970. “I didn’t think much about the fact I was changing countries, though I’m very glad I did because I’d much sooner live here,” Rosenthal says. He became a Cana­dian citizen in the late ’80s after seven years of bureaucratic stalling, which he attributes to his reputation for being a rabble-rouser.

As a mathematician, Rosenthal’s research specialty is the theory of operators on Hilbert space, an abstract, infinite-dimensional space useful in the study of quantum mechanics and engineering, among other things. In contrast to his eclectic legal work, it’s a narrow but well-defined field in which he has an international reputation. “It’s hard to explain to others the particular joy of mathematics, so solid and absolute, with its pure logical construction,” says Rosenthal. Heydar Radjavi, a professor emeritus at the University of Waterloo and co-author of two of Rosenthal’s three books, testifies: “Peter’s work is frequently cited and deferred to by peers, and he’s an excellent communicator of ideas. I think of mathe­matics as being like art and music, and Peter shares that.”

Rosenthal met his second wife, Carol, who’s nine years younger, when she enrolled in 1976 as a U of T graduate math student. After he’d legally separated from his first wife in 1979, Carol introduced him to some of her older friends in an attempt to matchmake. They lost contact when she went to med school, then bumped into each other a few years later on Bloor Street. In explaining her attraction, Carol says, “Peter’s a really warm human being who believes all people are good. Everything he does stems from that.” They have two children: Daniel, 21, and Esther, 19, both university students. When Rosenthal’s two oldest boys—Alan and Jeffrey—attended U of T, they lived downtown with Peter and Carol, and both families get together for celebrations.

The living-dining area of the Rosenthals’ renovated, yellow-brick south Annex house is furnished with a wall of books and oversized leather sofas. Though Peter has a study upstairs, he’s a gregarious man who prefers to work at the long oak dining table surrounded by family and friendly drop-ins. Today the table has been cleared of its math books and legal papers, allowing him to serve a lunch featuring an egg white omelette, bagels, cream cheese and lox. In a household where the two adults work three professions, cooking and deli shopping are survival skills. Though blintzes are Rosenthal’s specialty, his low-cholesterol omelette is a nod toward mortality, as are his early-morning swims. Once an enthusiastic athlete, he suffered his first heart attack at 43 and had a pacemaker installed when his heart stopped a couple of times after that. Of much greater daily concern, in court and in class, is his increasing deafness. At home it at least serves one peripheral purpose. “It allows us to protect him from midnight phone calls about somebody in jail,” says Carol. “He comes away from those with tears in his eyes, and of course he absolutely has to help the person because he simply can’t stand injustice.”

According to friends, Rosenthal’s greatest weaknesses are his inability to say no, his excessive optimism, his stubbornness and his habit of sometimes bringing the full weight of a mind adept in higher math and the cut-and-thrust of the courtroom to bear on mundane matters. These character traits—passionate disregard and tunnel vision that insists on seeing a light at the end—are essential tools for a 21st-century, North American Marxist whose phone number is passed among protestors and panhandlers, and whose formal opponents are the police, politicians and the all-powerful. Each victory is sweet with human rewards, and sometimes there’s even a chance to change the law of the land.

June 27, 2007, is a black-suit, black-gown day for Rosenthal. Though this morning’s debate in Courtroom 1, before three judges of the Ontario Court of Appeal, doesn’t have the human drama of, say, clashes over the rights of an axe attack victim, a win here will have far-reaching political consequences. Like Hemingway’s Old Man, Rosenthal has caught himself a mighty big fish, and now he’s trying to keep the sharks at the attorney general of Canada’s office from tearing chunks out of it. In October 2006, in Ontario’s superior court, he caused the strikedown of a clause of the Canada Elections Act that refused government funding to political parties receiving less than two per cent of the national vote, or less than five per cent in ridings where they run candidates. As a result, his six clients—the Communist Party of Canada, the Marijuana Party, the Green Party, the Christian Heritage Party, the Canadian Action Party and the Progressive Canadian Party—are entitled to $1.75 per vote each year, based on election results. The attorney general’s office is appealing on the grounds that the two and five per cent thresholds are essential. As the AG’s team argues, What if pool hall regu­lars or students took advantage of their removal to create a Beer Party in order to collect election money?

In a drawl closer to a purr than a growl, Rosenthal calmly assures the court that there are still checks against frivolous appli­cations. To deprive legitimate small parties of their constitutional rights because of potential infractions by others is unjust. In any event, the total cost of funding all the qualified small parties would be a paltry $189,000 compared to the $5 to $10 million each of the big parties receives.

Though judgment is reserved, Rosenthal has reason for optimism. Four years ago, he successfully persuaded the Supreme Court of Canada to strike down a similar Elections Act clause requiring political parties to run at least 50 candidates in order to gain or maintain official registration. This allowed his clients to issue tax receipts and receive other benefits.

“That was very important for small parties,” says Rosenthal. “It’s gratifying to be able to affect the political system as well as make a difference in the lives of individuals.” Like Wyann Ruso, with whom he keeps in touch. “She’s a remarkable woman. I was pleased to get a quick settlement for her so she didn’t have to spend years reliving her story.” Partly based on her impact statement, Joe Ruso is now serving a 10-year sentence. Meanwhile, Rosenthal continues to divide his time between the perfection of higher math and the helter-skelter of lives oppressed by the social system, while exuding the “What, me worry?” air of a man who finds peace in doing good.