By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 3, 2008
Acting D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles has fired the city lawyer who had been preparing to defend the District's longtime ban on handguns before the Supreme Court this spring, a move that some city officials fear could harm the case.
Alan B. Morrison, who has argued 20 cases before the high court, was asked to leave his post as special counsel by the end of this week. Morrison had been hired by then-Attorney General Linda Singer and put in charge of arguing the handgun case. Singer resigned two weeks ago.
Nickles declined to elaborate on his decision, but Morrison suggested in an interview that he was fired as part of a feud between Nickles and Singer.
The case is one of the most important in the city's history, and the court's ruling could have a national impact, legal experts have said. The city appealed to the Supreme Court to maintain the handgun ban after a lower court overturned it in the spring. The high court agreed to hear the case, probably in March, which would mark the first time the Supreme Court has examined a Second Amendment case in nearly 70 years.
Morrison had taken an active part, along with a team of lawyers from the city and two private firms, in writing a 15,000-word brief that is scheduled to be filed with the Supreme Court tomorrow. In recent weeks, Morrison led a practice run -- known as a moot court -- through the oral arguments he planned to make in the courtroom. During typical high court hearings, each side has 30 minutes to present its case while being peppered by questions from the justices.
Nickles said yesterday that he will announce a replacement for Morrison in the next 10 days. He said the team of lawyers who had been working with Morrison -- including D.C. Solicitor General Todd Kim, Thomas C. Goldstein of Akin Gump and Walter E. Dellinger of O'Melveny & Myers -- would remain on the case. Goldstein has argued 17 Supreme Court cases, and Dellinger was acting U.S. solicitor general during the high court's 1996-97 term.
Nickles said in a recent interview that he admires Robert Long, a former colleague at Covington & Burling who has argued 14 Supreme Court cases.
"The brief we are submitting is a fabulous brief, a winning brief by a great team," Nickles said. "We will not miss a step. . . . Alan is a very good lawyer, but I decided to move in a different direction. It's not as if one person is indispensable."
Nickles met with Morrison on Dec. 21, shortly after Singer's resignation. But Morrison said he did not learn that he was fired until Friday, when he received an e-mail from Deputy Attorney General Eugene A. Adams.
D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary, which oversees the attorney general's office, said that he spoke with Nickles about the handgun case Tuesday but that Nickles said nothing about the firing.
"It's like committing hari-kari. We're in the middle of preparing for a Supreme Court case," Mendelson said, adding that he has heard "nothing but praise" for Morrison's work on the brief.
Morrison suggested yesterday that Nickles was interested in purging the attorney general's office of Singer's allies. Singer had indicated frustration that Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) relied more heavily on Nickles, who had been his general counsel, to make key legal decisions. Upon Singer's resignation, Fenty replaced her with Nickles, a former corporate litigator and friend of Fenty's family.
Describing their meeting, Morrison said Nickles asked him whether he "was part of a campaign" to discredit the Fenty administration in the news media after Singer's resignation.
"He hadn't made up his mind who would argue" the Supreme Court case, Morrison said, "but told me it was automatically disqualifying if I was part of a campaign."
Singer's chief of staff, Betsy Miller, and her spokeswoman, Melissa Merz, have resigned.
Nickles said Morrison's account of their meeting was "inaccurate." In a statement, Fenty praised Nickles but declined to address specifics about Morrison's firing.
"Peter Nickles' expertise in litigation is going to greatly benefit residents of the District of Columbia in our handgun case pending before the Supreme Court," Fenty said. "It is important that he move quickly to build a team and a strategy to maximize our chances of winning this important case."
But David C. Vladeck, a professor at Georgetown University Law School, said Morrison's departure would be a major blow to the case.
"This is a case that requires an unusual amount of preparation because one of the issues comes back to, 'What did those folks who wrote the Bill of Rights really mean when they wrote the Second Amendment?' " said Vladeck, who is friends with Morrison. "In addition to needing a good lawyer and appellate advocate, you need someone who has immersed himself in very complex historical sources. Alan has been doing that for two or three months by now. Whoever takes over this case will start many, many, many laps behind where we ought to be."