Lawyers for the District of Columbia's lawyer disciplinary committee urged the city's highest court yesterday to suspend Harry T. Alexander, a former Superior Court judge and now one of the city's better known and most controversial lawyers, from the practice for two years.
The Board on Professional Responsibility, an arm of the court system, has accused Alexander of disciplinary violations in eight cases, ranging from arriving late for court and thus "prejudicing the administration of justice" to neglecting his clients, according to court documents.
Now, the D.C. Court of Appeals must make a final determination on the validity of the charges and the recommended penalty.
"The disciplinary system has been incredibly lenient" with Alexander, Deputy Bar Counsel Wallace E. Shipp Jr. told the three-judge panel. "The board has sought to stem the tide of neglect on Alexander's part ."
Alexander, in written arguments filed with the court, has asserted that "the citations for misconduct and disputes in actuality were but the product of strategic decisions, miscommunications and misunderstanding."
The recommended sanction, he wrote, is "unduly harsh" and fails to take into consideration "mitigating factors," including his "distinguished career" as a judge, first assistant U.S. attorney, Howard University law professor and private lawyer.
Alexander, who resigned in 1976 after 10 years on the bench, is a charismatic figure who is popular in some segments of Washington's black community. He is known for his flamboyant dress and courtroom maneuvers. His clients have included the leader of the group of Hanafi Muslims convicted in the 1977 takeover of three downtown buildings.
In his own written argument to the appeals court, Alexander, who is black, charged that the board has acted with "racial, personal and/or political discrimination against him," recommending harsher penalties than those meted out to white lawyers.
Several black lawyers who attended yesterday's hearing agreed. "There is a conspicuous difference between the treatment of black lawyers and white lawyers by the disciplinary system," Jephunneh Lawrence said after the hearing.
The comment reflects a long-standing frustration, sometimes expressed in racial terms, that the disciplinary machinery too often penalizes lawyers practicing alone, and rarely, if ever, disciplines members of the large, corporate-oriented, uptown law firms. The large law firms have the resources to ensure that their lawyers meet filing deadlines or do not otherwise run afoul of the system.
Bar Counsel Tom Henderson, whose office receives and investigates complaints about lawyers, said yesterday, "We have one code of professional responsibility and it would not be right to have it applied differently . . . . Race does not play a part in the cases we bring."
Complaints against Alexander, Shipp told the court yesterday, go back to 1980. In 1983, the D.C. Court of Appeals upheld a 90-day suspension of Alexander for neglecting two clients he had been retained to defend in criminal cases.
In the current cases, Alexander has again been accused of neglecting clients. One case involved a fired D.C. teacher who hired him to seek her reinstatement. The board accused Alexander of failing to appear at a hearing, at which the woman was denied nearly $2,000 in unemployment compensation.
Mercer Anderson, who argued Alexander's case yesterday in court, said later that the teacher came to Alexander seeking reinstatement and did not tell him about the compensation case until the Friday before a Monday morning hearing. Alexander, who was representing a client in court elsewhere, sent an associate and sought a continuance, which was denied, Anderson said.