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Heroes in Law: seeking to inspire

(Published February 14, 2000)


Staff Writer

They’ve been called "ambulance chasers" for years, and the bad jokes about their profession are legendary.

Shakespeare even suggested they all be killed.

But lawyers have been an essential part of some of the biggest social and political changes in the United States — fighting for the rights of the disenfranchised and protecting people from unjust laws.

Some of those lawyers are now getting the positive recognition they deserve.

Jack Olender, who has served as president of the Bar Association of the District of Columbia (BADC) since June 1999, inaugurated the "Heroes in Law" series last September to let the public know that "there are lawyers who are doing great things and without these lawyers the whole country would be a mess."

He said he also hopes to inspire other lawyers to emulate these heroes.

"All of us can be heroes to some extent," he said. "By honoring these heroes, we let other lawyers know all of this is possible."

The BADC honored civil rights attorney Morris Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Jan. 21 as part of its "Heroes in Law" series. He is the fifth in the series of nine lawyers singularly chosen by Olender.

Lawyers "stand for justice and justice, I believe, is at the bottom of a lot of problems that separate us," Dees said at the ceremony held at the University of the District of Columbia’s David A. Clarke School of Law.

Dees founded the nonprofit lawyers’ and hate crime monitoring group in 1971 with law partner Joseph J. Levin Jr. and civil rights activist Julian Bond. He has litigated more than 50 federal civil rights cases as chief trial counsel, including single-member districting of the Alabama legislature, the integration of Alabama state troopers, and free speech and student and teacher rights cases.

Former city councilwoman Hilda Mason was among those in the crowded room who listened to Dees tell the story of Mulugeta Seraw, an Ethiopian student killed by Skinheads in Oregon in 1990. He won a $12.5 million jury award against white supremacist Tom Metzger and his White Aryan Resistance group for their responsibility in the murder of the young student.

"It’s important for law students to see that lawyers who do great things for people are lawyers who are honored and not who make the most money representing big companies," Olender said.

Shelley Broderick, dean of the Clarke School of Law, said it was a shame that more of the public couldn’t hear Dees speak.

"He’s the man on the side that I’ve believed in in every civil rights case in the last 30 years," she said. "He fights the good fight to the maximum."

The Southern Poverty Law Center founded its Klanwatch project, which monitors hate groups and develops legal strategies to protect targeted communities, in 1980.

In 1987, Dees won a $7 million jury award against the Ku Klux Klan for the lynching of a young African-American man in Alabama. And in 1998, he won a $38 million verdict against the Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and its leaders for the arson of an African-American church in South Carolina.

Dees conceived the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala., which bears the names of 40 people who died during the civil rights movement. He has penned three books, including his autobiography, "A Season for Justice" in 1991.

The series has already honored Martin Mendelsohn, one of the lead lawyers representing Holocaust survivors’ claims against German industries that used slave labor and Swiss banks; Charles Rhyne, attorney who argued numerous cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, including Baker v. Carr, which strengthened federal authority to ensure equal voting rights, and founded the World Peace Through Law Center; Ralph Nader, consumer crusader, public defender and founder of Public Citizen; and Johnnie L. Cochran. Judge Inez Smith Reid from D.C. Superior Court was honored on Feb. 10.

Some people weren’t pleased with Cochran being honored because of his recent, high-profile cases, but Olender said he considers him a hero in law and idol to law students and young lawyers.

"He’s a great trial lawyer and is able to accomplish great things," said Olender, one of the District’s best-known malpractice attorneys.

Long before people on the East Coast heard of him, Olender said, Cochran was the top prosecutor in Los Angeles, winning record-breaking awards on behalf of victims of discrimination, child abuse and police abuse. He helped eliminate police use of the chokehold – a move that killed people while they were being arrested, Olender said.

The Bar Association of D.C. is the largest voluntary bar association in the District, and the second oldest in the country.

The series will continue with U.S. Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., on March 8; Patricia Wald, former U.S. Court of Appeals judge who currently serves on the International Court in the Hague, on March 30; and George Haley, ambassador to the Republic of Gambia, on May 5.

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator