Michael E. Tigar was born in 1941 in Glendale, California to Elizabeth and Charles Tigar. Charles was Executive Secretary of International Association of Machinists Local 727 at Lockheed Aircraft. Elizabeth worked in several roles, and became a supervisor of health plan services at Kaiser Foundation Health Plan. Michael’s parents divorced when he was four. His grandmother, Margaret Lang, also had a great influence on his upbringing.
Tigar attended public schools in the Los Angeles area, and graduated from Reseda High School. At Reseda, he acted in several theatrical productions and served as student body president. He received his BA in political science from the University of California, Berkeley, where he was active in free speech, civil rights, student rights, anti-war, and farm labor support movements.
He attended Boalt Hall Law School at UC Berkeley, graduating in 1966. He was Order of the Coif, Editor-in-Chief of the California Law Review, and valedictorian.
While he was an undergraduate, law student, and in the year between college and law school, he worked as a radio journalist for KPFA-FM/Pacifica Radio in Berkeley and KFPK-FM in Los Angeles. In 1962-63, he was Pacifica’s European correspondent and did freelance work for the BBC. In the summer of 1964, he did a weekly broadcast entitled “Mississippi Report,” covering the civil rights movement and Freedom Summer.
Tigar’s law career began with controversy: Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. appointed him as law clerk for the 1966 Supreme Court Term, then withdrew the offer under pressure from, among others, right-wing journalists and legislators. Tigar and Justice Brennan later became friends and Brennan sent Tigar a letter of apology in 1990.
Following the Brennan incident, Tigar worked at the Washington law firm Williams & Connolly (then called Williams & Wadden), under named partner Edward Bennett Williams, one of the country’s most renowned trial lawyers.
Tigar became interested in providing legal assistance to young men facing the military draft, and in 1967 he was co-founder of the Selective Service Law Reporter, where he authored its Practice Manual for lawyers and draft counselors. In 1978, he and Samuel J. Buffone founded Tigar & Buffone, a law firm that committed one-third of its resources to pro bono matters.
In Tigar’s legal career, he has been involved in many high-profile cases. He has argued seven cases before the United States Supreme Court and nearly one hundred federal appeals. His clients have included H. Rap Brown, Angela Davis, John Connally, Kay Bailey Hutchison, Major Debra Meeks, Leonard Peltier, and Lynne Stewart. He has also worked in opposition to the death penalty, including through representation of Terry Lynn Nichols, Gary Graham, and Dorsey Lee Johnson.
Tigar has also worked on many international human rights cases. In 1980, for example, he and Samuel Buffone successfully represented the families of former Chilean Ambassador Orlando Letelier and Ronni Karpen Moffitt, who were killed in a car bomb planted by agents of Augusto Pinochet’s military junta. Tigar and Buffone won a precedent-setting $4.8 million settlement in a lawsuit against the Chilean government that allowed families of other victims of the Pinochet regime to seek damages. In 1992, Tigar donated his lawyer’s fees from the case to the University of Texas School of Law and to Boalt Hall to establish the Letelier and Ronnie Karpen Moffitt Scholarships in Law.
In 2000, Tigar and his wife Jane B. Tigar founded the UNROW Human Rights Impact Litigation Clinic at American University, with funds donated by their clients — the lawyers who had represented Texas in the tobacco litigation. Through UNROW, he has worked in collaboration with students and his peers for many years on behalf of the Chagossians, who were forcibly removed from their archipelago homeland by the United States and United Kingdom governments in the 1960s. During the apartheid period, Tigar spent time in South Africa helping to train lawyers from the Black Lawyers Association and the African National Congress. He was later invited to consult with the African National Congress on the new constitution for South Africa.
Tigar has also maintained an active career as a scholar and teacher. From 1969-1971, he was Acting Professor of Law at the University of California, Los Angeles. From 1983-1998, he was on the faculty of the University of Texas School of Law, including serving as the Joseph D. Jamail Chair in Law from 1987-1998. He was Professor of Law at American University Washington College of Law from 1998-2008, where is he now Professor Emeritus. From 2006-2008, he was Visiting Professor of Law at Duke University School of Law, before holding an appointment as Professor of the Practice of Law from 2008-2010, and becoming Professor Emeritus in 2010. He also spent many years as a Professeur Invité at the Faculté de Droit et des Sciences Politiques, Université Paul Cezanne, Aix-en-Provence and has held many other lectureships at universities around the world.
Tigar has authored more than a dozen books, including, Mythologies of State and Monopoly Power (2018), Nine Principles of Litigation and Life (2009), Trial Stories (2008) (edited with Angela Jordan Davis), Thinking About Terrorism: The Threat to Civil Liberties in Times of National Emergency (2007), and Law and the Rise of Capitalism, which was first published in 1977, reissued as a second edition in 2000, and published in translation in Spanish (1978), Portuguese (1978), Greek (1980), Chinese (1997) and Turkish (2018). His memoir is Fighting Injustice (2003). He has also authored three plays and scores of articles and essays.
Tigar has worked with many organizations related to the legal profession, including serving as Chair the 60,000 member Section of Litigation of the American Bar Association (1989-90). He has received many awards and recognitions. Professor John Vile’s book, Great American Lawyers: An Encyclopedia (2001) listed him as one of 100 “great” lawyers in United States history. In 1999, the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice held a ballot for “Lawyer of the Century;” Tigar was third in the balloting, behind Clarence Darrow and Thurgood Marshall.
He is married to Jane B. Tigar, with whom he has shared a law practice since 1996. He has three children: Jon S. Tigar, JD, federal judge; Katherine McQueen, MD, addiction medicine physician; Elizabeth Torrey Tigar, MBA, retail marketing executive; and four grandchildren.