Mayor-elect Marion Barry is seeking a "superstar" black lawyer to be D.C. corporation counsel, in the hopes that the choice will help set the tone for his administration, generate excitement over a change in government and upgrade the District of Columbia's lowly-regarded legal office, according to knowledgeable sources.
A special committee of Barry's transition group has already given Barry a preliminary list of about 20 names that the committee believes would fit the bill, the sources said.
They include Superior Court judges John Garrett Penn and Norma Holloway Johnson; James Dyke, former campaign manager for Clifford Alexander who is now a special assistant to Vice President Mondale; Wesley Williams Jr., a partner in the prestigious Covington & Burling law firm; Togo West, general counsel for the U.S. Navy, and Tom McQueen, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Washington.
None of those on the list has sought the job or been told that their names have been suggested, Barry said today.
"They're not under consideration," he said. "I have about 30 names of outstanding lawyers locally and around the country. But they (the committee) have not recommended any of the people."
Despite its early stages, the search for the corporation counsel -- one of four top city posts the Barry administration hopes to fill by inauguration day Jan. 2 -- provides some of the first indications of the type of people Barry is seeking for his cabinet.
In fact, according to one transition source, Barry is looking for a symbolic "big splash and ripple" effect by appointing a highly-regarded top caliber lawyer as the District's top legal official.
"The city (Wahington) as a whole is somewhat excited about Marion," the source said. "If he makes a pretty good appointment here and indicates that this is the kind of appointment he is going to make, there would be even more excitement."
"It's not to be someone that the peer group -- judges, lawyers and people like that -- hears mentioned and says, 'Now that's someone I respect,'" said another source. "The public will get its impression from that."
Louis P. Robbins has been acting as corporation counsel since John R. Risher Jr. resigned in June. Barry said during his campaign that he would remove all department heads he considered incompetent, and Robbins would be one of them.
The Barry transition operation has a task force on public safety and justice, but a special eight-person panel has been set up to look for the new corporation counsel. The panel chose as its chairman Vincent H. Cohen, a partner in the prestigious law firm of Hogan and Hartson and a politically active young black lawyer.
Cohen and other members of the committee in some respects mirror the kind of amalgam of certain city legal communities -- older black Washington, the new younger black elites and established white lawyers -- that Barry would like reflected in the corporation counsel's office, the source said.
They include, for example, Howard University Law School Dean Wiley Branton, black criminal lawyer Dovey Roundtree, former Howard Law School dean Herbert O. Reid (a close Barry confidant), and a younger, black "uptown" lawyer, Frederick B. Abramson of the Sachs, Greenebaum and Taylor firm.
Sources said that the position of corporation counsel is currently not highly regarded by some lawyers because of insufficient staff and the fact that a large number of career lawyers in the office are protected by civil service. The uncertainty of funding for the office by the City Council and the lack of authority to prosecute criminal cases have also served to make the position unattractive to top flight lawyers.
However, the transition committee believes, sources said, that a highly regarded lawyer could be found to take the job if that person had political ambitions and would view the office as a stepping stone to political prominence.
This would be especially true if the office is given authority to carry out criminal prosecutions as some people in the city's legal community have advocated. In that instance, the sources said, the corporation counsel's office would become the equivalent of a city attorney or even attorney general in the nation's capital.
"The person would have to be asking where would it lead him to," one source said. "There's a leadership vacuum for a good corporation counsel or district attorney. If he's good and he can turn things around, he could be number one for whatever he wants to be. He could be the most powerful man in town. He'd be on par with the mayor."