The chief lawyers for 13 federal agencies, including some who recently left private practice to join the government, have lined up against proposals by the D.C. Bar's ethics committee to block the "revolving door" that allows attorneys to move freely between government and private firms.
One letter, signed by the chief lawyers of nine of hte government's twelve cabinet departments, said Congress - not the D.C. Bar - has the responsibility of regulating government lawyers. All the federal attorneys said the proposed regulations would hamper the governments ability to recruit top young lawyers.
The proposed rules, which will be discussed by the D.C. Bar's board of governors on Oct. 17, are the first attempt by any organized bar to deal directly with the "revolving door," which has come under increasing attack for appearing to give big government an unfair edge in its dealings with the government.
The new rules would permanently ban all members of a firm from taking a case in which one member played a major role while working for the government unless the firm gets a special waiver; would preclude an attorney, for one year, from taking a job with a company, but not a law firm, that he has substanial dealings with in his last year of government service; would restrict new government lawyers for one year from taking part in a case that either they or a member of their former firm dealt with, and keep a lawyer in his first year out of government from representing someone he dealth with in a major way in his last year in government.
Before taking effect, the ethics committee's proposals must be passed by the Bar's board of governors and must win the approval of the D.C. Court of Appeals, which regulates the practice of law in Washington.
While the latest proposals have been watered down substantially since the ethics committee's first efforts more than two years ago, they still go beyond the regulations of any other bar association and current federal conflict-of-interest laws.
They also go further in some respects than the "revolving door" propvisions of a government-wide ethics bill that has been passed in different versions by the House and Senate and now awaits a conference to reconcile the two bills.
Despite the fact that the bar's proposals have been watered down, they still drew considerable fire in official comments filed with the board of governors from attorneys both in an out of government.
Nahum Litt, chief administrative law judge for the Civil Aeronautics Board, for instance, called one provision "unduly onerous and excessive in general," and another section "arbitrary and capricious."
The general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board, John S. Irving, and the NLRB chairman, John H. Fanning, said the proposals seem "designed to create two eternally separate groups of attorneys - those who work for the government and those who work outside."
Noting that most labor lawyers gained experience with the NLRB, the two government officials added, "Their understanding of our case-handling procedures is a very important factor in our effective administration of the NLRB."
But the strongest criticism came in a letter signed jointly by the chief legal officers of none cabinet departments - Energy, Interiro, Health Education and Welfare, Transportation, Defense, Treasury, State, Commerce and Housing and Urban Development.
One of the signers, Lynn R. Coleman, was attacked on conflict-of-interest grounds when he was named general counsel of the Energy Department. He was the Washington partner of John Connally's Texas law firm, Vinson & Elkins, which represents 20 oil an gas companies that had cases pending before the Energy Department, and Coleman himself was a registered lobbysit for Houston Natural gas Corp. before winning Senate confirmation for the government post.
Three of the other eight signers also are recent arrivals to government from private practice while two others were law professors before taking their present jobs.
"We base our stron gobjection to the amended proposal on the position that broad regulation aimed at the government's lawyers is the prerogative of the Congress," the nine top government legal officials wrote.
"Unlike Congress," the letter continued, "the District of Columbia Bar cannot create employment restrictions that will apply uniformly to the federal bar, whose membership is composed of attorneys from every state . . . The prospect of post-employment restrictions unique to this area would be a substantial disincentive to acceptance of employment here by able young lawyers, constantly sought in large numbers by the government."
Sturt E. Seigel, a former partner in the tax law firm of Cohen & Uretz who is now the Internal Revenue Service's chief counsel, went even further.
He said a provision that would allow a firm to get a waiver from the federal agency involved to take a case where it would otherwise be disqualified is "overly burdensome and complicated."
"The uncertainty of obtaining the agency's waiver in particular cases could substantially impede a former government attorney's employment opportunities and the ability of the attorney and firm to provide effective and expeditious representation to obtain clients," he said.
Instead of requiring a waiver from the government, Seigel said it would be enough for the attorney and his firm to file sworn statements that the former government lawyer will be completely isolated from the case.
Not all the objections came from government attorneys.
Four lawyers from the Cleveland Washington firm of Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue - including former Soliciter General Erwin N. Griswald and former U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia David C. Acheson - opposed a provision that would keep a former federal attorney from representing for a year anyone he had dealt with in his last year of government service even if the new case is entirely different from the old one.
Another law firm, Van Ness, Feldman Sutcliffe, attacked the entire premise of the ethics committee's proposal - that strict regulations must be drawn to avoid the public appearance of impropriety caused by the "revolving door."
The firm, in a letter signed by G. William Frick, former generla counsel of teh Environmental Protection Agency, said the committee has made its proposals "affecting the professional careers of thousands of lawyers, without having first established or thoroughly examined the need for such sweeping restrictions . . .
"We must, therefore," the letter continued, "question the legal ethics committee's assessment of the general public perception of government attorneys."
Most of the comments received by the bar were critical of the ethics committee's proposal. Georgetown University law Center's Institute for Public Interest Representation, however, not only favored the proposal but in some cases suggested it be made stronger.