The D.C. Court Appeals yesterday ordered former White House aide Charles W. Colson disbarred from practing law here because of his Watergate-related crime and rejected a disciplinary panel's more lenient recommendation of suspension.
"Since the crime to which (Colson) pleaded guilty is one which inherently involves moral turpitude, we are compelled, by virtue of the statute (governing disciplinary procedures), to order his name stricken from the roll of the members of the bar of this court," the appeals court said.
Colson, who served seven months in prison for obstructing justice by trying to influence Deniel Ellsberg's Pentagon Papers trial, issued a statement through an associate in which he said, "I respect the (court's) decision."
Colson's disbarment yesterday was retroactive to June 28, 1974, the date when he was initially suspended from the D. C. Bar after his guilty plea to the single felony count.
Despite his disbarment, several lawyers noted yesterday, Colson will be permitted to reapply for admittance to the D. C. Bar next June -- five years after his removal from legal practice -- but he will be required to show that he has sufficient readmittance "will note be detrimental" to the administration of justice.
The D.C. Bar's Disciplinary Board, now known as the Board on Professional Responsibility, had decided by a 4-to-3 vote in November 1977 to reject the penalty of disbarment and recommend instead that the Court practicing law for five years.
A key factor in the sharply divided disciplinary panel's more lenient recommendation was what the four-member majority termed Colson's "real effort to rehabilitate himself."
Colson has written a book, "Born Again," in which he describes his conversion to Christianity. He currently heads the McLean-based Prison Fellowship, a nonprofit group that aids prison inmates across the United States.
The Court of Appeals' disbarment ruling set a stiff precedent for future disciplinary actions against District of Columbia lawyers, several legal specialists said yesterday.
In recommending suspension rather than disbarment, the disciplinary panel relied on court rule interpreted as granting the board considerable latitude to consider mitigating factors, such as Colson's self-rehabilitation efforts, in determining whether to propose disbarment or some less harsh penalty.
But the appeals court, in an opinion written by Judge Catherine B. Kelly, held that District law imposes narrower limits on what the Board on Professional Responsibility may decide.
Whenever a lawyer is convicted of a crime of "moral turpitude," the court said, the board "must recommend disbarment." Six judgers joined Kelly in her ruling. Two judges said they "reserve the right to file a statement of dissenting views at a later date."
Closon has also been disbarred in ther U.S. District Court here and in the Virginia courts. He has been suspended from legal practice in Massachusetts. These disciplinary measures are separate from yesterday's disbarment order by the D.C. Court of Appeals.
In his statement yesterday, Colson said he had previously offered to resign voluntarily from the D.C. Bar and he added, "Ith was not then my intention, nor now, to practice law -- I am too busy in my present work and will not leave it."
Nevertheless, Colson's attorney and former law partner, Charles H. Morin, said yesterday that Colson may eventually seek admission or readmittance to the bar here or elsewhere even if he does not return to practicing law. Morin suggested that Colson may apply for admission to the Florida bar, because Colson maintains a home in Naples, Fla., in addition to his McLean apartment.