Barbara McDowell; Leader In Public Interest Advocacy

Lawyer Barbara McDowell, 56, directed the appellate project of the D.C. Legal Aid Society.
Lawyer Barbara McDowell, 56, directed the appellate project of the D.C. Legal Aid Society. (Family Photo)
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Sunday, January 4, 2009

Barbara McDowell, 56, a lawyer who argued many cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and who later became a national leader in public interest advocacy as director of the appellate project of the D.C. Legal Aid Society, died Jan. 2 of brain cancer at her home in Falls Church.

From 1997 to 2004, Ms. McDowell was an assistant to the solicitor general in the Justice Department. She argued 18 cases before the Supreme Court, including two in one day, and was the principal author of the legal briefs in more than a dozen other cases.

She once won a Supreme Court case against Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., then in private practice, that resulted in improved retirement benefits for coal miners.

In 2004, Ms. McDowell joined the D.C. Legal Aid Society and established its Appellate Advocacy Project. She argued about 50 cases related to issues of poverty law in the D.C. Court of Appeals and won significant legal victories involving housing, public benefits, domestic violence and the rights of the poor.

The Legal Aid Society has named its appellate advocacy program in Ms. McDowell's honor and has established an endowment in her name.

In March, Roberts presented Ms. McDowell with the Rex E. Lee Advocacy and Public Service Award, a national honor recognizing the outstanding appellate advocate of the year.

Barbara Bea McDowell was born in Oakland, Calif., and grew up in Fresno, Calif. After graduating from George Washington University in 1974 with a bachelor's degree in journalism, she spent several years in New York as an editor with United Feature Syndicate.

She graduated from Yale Law School in 1985 and worked as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Byron R. White. From 1987 to 1997, she was a partner in the Washington office of the Jones Day law firm, representing such clients as the Northrop Grumman and the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco.

Ms. McDowell chaired the board of directors of the Shaw Community Ministry, which provides social services in the District's Shaw neighborhood. She also served on the board of trustees of Westmoreland Congregational United Church of Christ in Bethesda.

She enjoyed running, bicycling and swimming and was a Washington Nationals season ticket holder.

Her marriage to Robert Peck ended in divorce.

Survivors include her husband of eight years, Jerry Hartman of Falls Church; her mother, Joyce McDowell of Fresno; and a brother.

-- Matt Schudel

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