Former White House aide Charles W. Colson wanted to preach to the court about his new found religion yesterday, but the judges turned him down. Instead they listened to almost two hours of legal arguments over whether he should be disbarred or suspended for his Watergate-related activities.
Later, Colson said he has no intention of returning to the active practice of law and had offered two years ago to resign from the bar.
"I wanted to explain to the judges," he continued, "that if it would help the administration of justice to disbar me, then they should disbar me."
As he said that, his attorney and former law partner, Charles H. Morin, shook his head from side to side. Colson, he explained, is willing to resign but doesn't want to accept the blot on his record of being dibarred in Washington.
As it was, the argument revolved around the largely symbolic difference of Colson being disbarred, which allows him to apply to readmission to the abr after five years, or being suspended for five years.
A panel of Washington lawyers had recommended that Colson be disbarred, but the full D.C. Bar Disciplinary Board by a slim 4 to 3 majority voted for the five year suspension. The final decision is up to the D.C. Court of Appeals, which governs the conduct of lawyers here and which heard yesterday's oral arguments.
The practical effect would be the same. In both cases he could ask the D.C. Court of APPeals for reinstatement in June, 1979, since the clock started ticking on the penalty when he pleaded guilty to a felony charge of obstructing justice.
That charge resulted from plea bargaining between Colson's attorneys and the Watergate prosecutors and involved his attempts to influence the jury in Daniel Ellsberg's Pentagon Papers trial by spreading "defamatory and derogatory" comments; about Ellsberg's attorney and trying to discredit Ellsberg by releasng "confidential and derogatory" information about him, including his stolen psychiatric records.
John W. Douglas, the court-appointed and unpaid attorney representing the minority of the Disciplinary board that called for disbarring Colson, said the offense "strikes at the very heart of the administration of justice."
"It seems almost incredible," Douglas said later in his argument, "that an attorney would even plan to engage in any such activity."
He also quoted form Colson's book, "Born Again," describing his conversion to Christianity, in which the former Nixon White House aide wrote, "an obstruction of justice charge is the maximum dishonor for a lawyer."
Colson's attorney, Morin, had submitted paperback copies of the book to each of the nine judges of the appeals court along with his written brief.
While Morin argued that Colson's offenses did not involve "moral turpitude" - a standard for disbarment - he said that his client "knows more than any other person they were reprehensible and never should have been engaged in."
Nonetheless, he said, Colson is a changed man. As evidence, he cited Colson's new found religion, especially his Prison Fellowship "which takes all of his time and most of his money."
"There is probably not a lawyer in the courtroom," said Morin, "who is doing as much to enhance the prestige of the legal profession as Colson."
It was this religious activity that persuaded the bar's Disciplinary Board to recommend against disbarring Colson.
But, said Douglas, Colson's good deeds since he was in prison should be brought up during an application for reinstatement, not as a reason to avoid disbarment. "We need more time to see if the change is permanent," said Douglas.
Despite evidence that Colson had turned over a new leaf, Douglas said he should be disbarred to maintain public confidence in the profession.
Virginia and the U.S. District Court here, which disciplines lawyers who practice there, have already disbarred Colson. Massachusettes, however, suspended Colson indefinitely but said he can apply for reinstatement in 1979.