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Vern Countryman
Born (1917-05-13)May 13, 1917
Roundup, Montana, U.S.
Died May 2, 1999(1999-05-02) (age 81)
Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.
Education University of Washington B.A
University of Washington School of Law LL.B.
Occupation Royall Professor of Law
Known for Bankruptcy expert; Opposed McCarthyism

Vernon ("Vern") Countryman (May 13, 1917 – May 2, 1999), was a professor at Harvard Law School and social critic who was an expert on bankruptcy and commercial law.

Early years and education

Vern Countryman was born in Roundup, Montana. His father, Alexander Countryman, was the under sheriff of Musselshell County and his mother, Carrie Harriman, a homemaker. The family moved to Longview, Washington, where Vern excelled at high school athletics and was class president both his junior and senior years.[1]

In 1939, he was graduated with a B.A. in political science from the University of Washington and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. In 1942, he graduated from the University of Washington Law School,[2] where he was president of the Washington Law Review editorial board (overlapping with Donald R. Colvin).[3]

On November 9, 1940, he married Vera Marie Pound (July 19, 1917 – December 2, 1994), with whom he had two daughters: Debra Green and Kay Briggs. Like Vern, Vera was born in a small town in Montana (Washoe) and had moved to Longview, Washington, with her family.

Legal career

William O. Douglas

Countryman worked as an attorney with the National Labor Relations Board in Seattle before serving as a clerk from 1942 to 1943 for Justice William O. Douglas (October 16, 1898 – January 19, 1980) of the U.S. Supreme Court.[4][5] He then served with the Army Air Force in Italy during World War II, rising to First Lieutenant.[6] After his discharge in 1946, he served as Assistant Attorney General of Washington State and, from 1946 to 1947, as an instructor at the University of Washington Law School.

In 1947–48, Countryman was a graduate student at Yale Law School before joining the faculty. He was an assistant professor of law from 1948 to 1950 and an associate professor from 1950 to 1955.[7]

Countryman was a prominent bankruptcy scholar, following in the footsteps of Wesley Sturges (November 3, 1893-November 1962) and his mentor, William O. Douglas.[8] His casebook with J. William Moore, Debtors' and Creditors' Rights: Cases and Materials,[9] which was first published in 1947 and went through four editions by 1975, "took a novel approach to the subject, by providing the evolution of both the non-bankruptcy and bankruptcy systems of creditors' remedies, thereby facilitating a comparative evaluation of their merits."[10]

Conflict with Washington State's Canwell Committee

While at Yale, Countryman wrote a number of articles on creditor and debtor rights and one book, Un-American Activities in the State of Washington: The Work of the Canwell Committee (1951), which was an attack on that state's version of the House Un-American Activities Committee;[11] the state committee purged the University of Washington faculty of communist sympathizers.[12]

Countryman was denied tenure by Yale, despite the Law School faculty's positive recommendation, because of that book, which the university President, A. Whitney Griswold (October 27, 1906 – April 19, 1963), was said to have considered of insufficient academic quality to merit tenure.[13] Many faculty members, however, believed the decision was based on Countryman's left-wing politics and the tenure denial was therefore a cause célèbre.[14] Yale offered an extension of Countryman's contract to improve his scholarly output for reconsideration, but he resigned instead.

In the early 1950s, Countryman also locked horns with leading commentators in his promotion of free speech. Conservative author William F. Buckley, Jr. (November 24, 1925 – February 27, 2008), called Countryman's 1952 critique of God and Man at Yale a close runner up to "the most acidulous review of the lot."[15]

From 1955 to 1959 Countryman practiced law as a partner with Shea, Greenman & Gardner in Washington, D.C.,[16] before becoming Dean of the University of New Mexico School of Law in 1959.[17]

In 1959, he published a collection of opinions by Justice Douglas prefaced by a brief biographical sketch.[18] The opinions span the spectrum of individual freedom and the application of the Bill of Rights.[19]

Professor at Harvard Law School

In 1964, Countryman accepted an offer to become a professor at Harvard Law School.[20] At Harvard, he advocated the rights of debtors. He was also a specialist in commercial law, secured transactions law and civil liberties.[21] In 1973, he was named the "Royall Professor of Law," the oldest professorship at the law school. In 1987, he became a professor emeritus.[22]

He was a founding trustee of the National Consumer Law Center, which annually presents the "Vern Countryman Award" to honor lawyers who have contributed to the rights and welfare of low-income consumers.[23]


  • Demonstration at Faneuil Hall to protest indictment of the Berrigan brothers: Noam Chomsky speaking with Vern Countryman and George Wald at left and Howard Zinn at the far right, January 1971 (Photo: Jeff Albertson Photograph Collection (PH 57)), Special Collections and University Archives, Library of the University of Massachusetts: Amherst.

Selected writings


Countryman, Vern (1951). Un-American Activities in the State of Washington: The Work of the Canwell Committee. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. ISBN 1117931129, ISBN 978-1117931128.

---, James William Moore (1947). Debtors' and Creditors' Rights (Albany, NY: Matthew Bender & Co.).

--- (1974). The Judicial Record of Justice William O. Douglas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674284814.

---, Ted Finman and Theodore J. Schneyer (1976). The Lawyer in Modern Society. New York, NY: Little, Brown & Co. ISBN 0316158003, ISBN 978-0316158008.

---, Andrew Kaufman and Zipporah Wiseman (1982). Commercial Law: Cases and Materials (Law School Casebook (series)). New York, NY: Little Brown & Co. ISBN 9780316157964.

---, Jack F. Williams and Frank R. Kennedy (2000). Countryman & Williams on Partnerships, Limited Liability Entities and S Corporations in Bankruptcy (series). Aspen Law & Business. ISBN 978-0735513587, ISBN 0735513589.


---, "The Organized Musicians (Part I)," 16 U. Chi. L. Rev. 56 (1948).

---, The Organized Musicians (Part II), 16 U. Chi. L. Rev. 239 (1949).

---, "For a New Exemption Policy in Bankruptcy" part of the Symposium on Bankruptcy: Current Problems of Administration: Part II, 14 Rutgers L. Rev. 678 (1959-1960).

---, "Clear and Present Danger, a review of The Committee by Walter Goodman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)," New York Review of Books, December 5, 1968.

---, "The Russians are Coming!, a review of The FBI in Our Open Society by Harry Overstreet and Bonaro Overstreet (Norton)," New York Review of Books, July 31, 1969

---, "Why a State Bill of Rights?" 45 Wash. L. Rev. 453 (1970).

---, "The Use of State Law in Bankruptcy Cases (pts. 1 & 2)", 47 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 407, 631 (1972).

---, "Executory Contracts in Bankruptcy: Part I," 57 Minn. L. Rev. 439 (1973).

---, "Bankruptcy and the Individual Debtor – And a Modest Proposal to Return to the Seventeenth Century," 32 Cath. U. L. Rev. 809 (1983).


  • "The Growing inability to dissent, a discussion with Vern Countryman". KPFA, April 11, 1968 (Civil liberties attorney discusses the increasing pressure to curtail free speech in America.)


  1. Obituary: "Vern Countryman," Roundup (MT) Record-Tribune & Winnett Times, May 19, 1999, p. 12.
  2. "In Memory," Columns: The University of Washington Alumni Magazine, September 1999 (Entry for "Vern Countryman, '39, '42, Cambridge, Mass., age 81, May 2 [1999]").
  3. Masthead, 15 Wash. L. Rev. & St. B. J. 99 (1940)(showing Vern Countryman a member of the Law Review).
  4. Douglas, William O. (1981). The Court Years, 1939-1975. New York: Vintage Books. p. 170. ISBN 0394749022. Retrieved March 11, 2017. "I tried that system for a couple of years and ended up with two extraordinary men, Stanley Soderland and Vern Countryman." 
  5. Ravo, Nick. "Vern Countryman, 81, Professor and Commercial Law Expert," N.Y. Times, May 17, 1999.
  6. Long, Tom. Obituary: "V. Countryman, Retired Specialist In Business Law," Boston Globe, May 11, 1999.
  7. The Yale Biographical Dictionary of American Law (2009). Roger K. Newman, ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Entry by David K. Skeel, Jr., for "Vern Countryman.", p. 131. ISBN 978-0300113006, ISBN 0300113005.
  8. Frank, John P. (1959). "Review of Douglas of the Supreme Court by Vern Countryman," U. of Chicago L. Rev.: Vol. 27(1): 184-189.
  9. New York, NY: M. Bender.
  10. Boshkoff, Douglas (1965). Book review: "Cases and Materials on Debtor and Creditor, by Vern Countryman" Indiana L. J., 40(2): 280-283.
  11. "Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest," University of Washington Web site ("The University, for example, fired three professors for their political affiliations, put three more on probation, and generally compromised principles of academic freedom. In firing professors, it became the first university in the United States to assert that membership in the Communist Party, in and of itself, made someone unfit to serve as a professor.")
  12. Kienholz, Michelle L. (2012). The Canwell Files: Murder, Arson and Intrigue in the Evergreen State. iUniverse. p. 148, entry for "Vernon (Vern, Verne) Countryman". ISBN 1475948808, ISBN 978-1475948806.
  13. "The Heyday of Legal Realism, 1928-1954," Yale University Web site (2016), Entry for "Vern Countryman Associate Professor of Law, 1948-55."
  14. History of the Yale Law School: The Tercentennial Lectures, Anthony T. Kronman, ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), pp 150-151, Gaddis Smith, "Politics and the Law School" (description of decision of Yale Law School to not offer tenure to Vern Countryman). ISBN 0300128762, ISBN 9780300128765.
  15. Buckley, William F. Jr. (1986). God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of Academic Freedom. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing. p. xxxv (Introduction to the Twenty-fifth Edition: Vern Countryman's review in the Yale Law Journal a close runner up to "the most acidulous review of the lot.") ISBN 089526692X, ISBN 978-0895266927; and Countryman, Vern (1952). Review of "William F. Buckley, God and Man at Yale." The Yale Law Journal, 61.2: 272-83 ("Once upon a time there was a little boy named William Buckley. Although he was a very little boy, he was much too big for his britches.").
  16. See, e.g., American President Lines v. United States, 265 F.2d 552 (3d Cir. 1959)(Vern Countryman lead counsel for plaintiff.)
  17. University of New Mexico, School of Law Bulletin, 1962-63, p 5, "The Faculty and Staff of the Law School," entry for Vern Countryman.
  18. Gould, William B. Book review: "Douglas of the Supreme Court," 45 Cornell Law Quarterly 161 (1959).
  19. Douglas of the Supreme Court: A Selection of His Opinions (1959), Vern Countryman, ed. New York, NY: Doubleday. Kirkus Reviews. ISBN 1135418470, ISBN 978-1135418472.
  20. Kaufman, Andrew L. "In Memoriam: Vern Countryman," Harv. L. Rev., 113(5): 1071-1074 (Mar. 2000).
  21. Skeel, David A. Jr. "Vern Countryman and the Path of Progressive (and Populist) Bankruptcy Scholarship," 113 Harv. L. Rev. 1075 (2000).
  22. "HLS Professor Countryman Dies at 81, Left Montana For Harvard and Spoke Out Against McCarthyism," Harvard Crimson, May 12, 1999.
  23. National Consumer Law Center Web site (2016) ("Each year NCLC presents the Vern Countryman Consumer Law Award to a legal services or other public interest attorney whose special contributions to the practice of consumer law have strengthened and affirmed the rights of low-income Americans.")

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