Jerris Leonard has never been a man to mince words -- not as chief of the civil rights division in the Justice Department, not as head of the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration leading the Richard Nixon administration's war on crime and certainly not now as a senior partner at Leonard, Cohen, Gettings & Sher, the law firm he helped found seven years ago.
Leonard was asked last week how he felt about the Justice Department's successful effort to get a three-judge federal panel to boot him and his firm out of a court fight over Mississippi election legislation, and he promptly replied: "I think it's a cheap shot by the Justice Department. A cheap shot."
Ten years ago, when Leonard was assistant attorney general in charge of the civil rights division at the Justice Department, the state of Mississippi came to the department with a proposal for an open primary system. Leonard's office had to review it.
Now Leonard is in private practice, and his client is the state of Mississippi. The case he has been hired to work on involves open primary legislation.
The department has charged that Leonard the private lawyer could not take on the same "matter" that he had worked on as Leonard the assistant attorney general.
"It was an obvious attempt to embarass me and to embarass the state," Leonard said about the department's action during an interview in his office on Pennsylvania Avenue Nw.
Leonard believes the disqualification was an act of retaliation by lawyers in the civil rights division, whom Leonard thinks are still smarting because "we beat them so bad" in a Mississippi reapportionment fight that was upheld earlier this year by the U.S. Supreme Court. Leonard also represented the state in that case.
Paul F. Hancock, the lawyer from the civil rights division who argued the disqualification case, will not comment on Leonard's charges that he became a target for sore losers at the Justice Department. Hancock, who was hired by Leonard 10 years ago, says nobody at Justice was anxious to take the case against his former boss to court.
"I regret that we had to do it . . . that it went that far," Hancock said.
Leonard represents the Mississippi legislature, which filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in December 1979 seeking approval for an open primary system in that state. The Justice Department -- namely Drew S. Days III, the chief of the civil rights division -- rejected the proposed new law, saying it would dilute the strength of black voters. The long-held belief of some observers is that open primaries are deliberately designed to rule out independent candidacies (and block voting) by blacks who can't win nominations in the regular party primaries; with the result that fewer blacks are elected to political offices. Under the Voting Rights Act of 1964, Mississippi must get clearance from the Justice Department or approval from a panel of federal judges before making any changes in voting procedures.
Since Leonard was assistant attorney general in the civil rights division when Mississippi first brought the open primary issue to the Justice Department in 1970, the department contended that it was unethical for Leonard to represent the state in 1979 because he was "personally and substantially" involved in review of the 1970 proposal.
Drew Days wrote to Leonard and told him the department saw a conflict. "I was absolutely shocked when I got the letter," Leonard said last week.
The Justice Department tried to resolve the matter privately and out of court with Leonard, who now has his own lawyer, Charles Morgan Jr., former head of the national and southern regional offices of the American Civil Liberties Union. Leonard was having no part of it, although his firm did propose to the Justice Department that it erect the traditional "Chinese wall" around Leonard. That would have meant giving the case to another lawyer in the firm to handle and keeping details of the case -- and any profits from it -- from Leonard. The Justice Department rejected the idea.
Last April the department went to the three-judge panel -- including Judges Carl McGowan from the U.s. cOurt of Appeals and Judges Aubrey E. Robinson Jr. and John Garrett Penn -- assigned to the open primary case and asked them to disqualify Leonard and his firm. In a terse, four-page opinion the panel agreed and told the state of Mississippi it was going to have to find new lawyers.
The three-judge panel did not accept Leonard's argument that he was not "personally or substantially" involved in scrutinizing the 1970 open primary case.
"It is clear from the documentation presented to the court that Leonard was intimately involved in the department's review of the 1970 open primary legislation," the judges said in disqualifying Leonard and his firm.
Leonard vigourously disagrees. He says he had no particular interest in the 1970 Mississippi case, and that he refused to approve or disapprove the 1970 plan because it had developed into a political -- not a racial -- issued.
Moreover, Leonard said during an interview that he thinks the civil rights division had a "vendetta against Mississippi and anybody associated with them."
"Those guys don't have a lock on morality. Particularly this crew that's down there now," Leonard said.
More importantly, Leonard insists the 1970 and the 1979 open primary submissions by Mississippi are different and that after 10 years, Mississippi is different -- different governor the legislature, and different times. He acknowledges, however, that the actual effect of the 1970 and 1979 laws on an open primary is the same.
In fact, the panel of federal judges said, the two statutes are "identical."
While Leonard may have cited numerous differences between the two, "these differences involve mere technicalities -- that the Justice Department hasn't challenged.
"These dissimiliarties cannot obscure the major purpose of both [laws] -- to institute an open primary system in Mississippi," the judges said, concluding that the same "matter" raised in 1970 was again before the court.
Therefore, the judges said, Leonard and his firm are barred from representing the state of Mississippi in the current action by a disciplinary rule within the American Bar Association's Code of Professional Responsiblity. That rule says that "a lawyer shall not accept private employment in a matter in which he had substantial responsibility while he was a public employe."
Leonard meanwhile has filed notice that he intends to appeal the three-judge panel's decision.
He remembered, he said, a comment during oral argument of his case -- that, in the end, it is for the lawyer to decide if he has a conflict in a case.
"I don't think I have a conflict," he said.