Twenty-two years later, he remembers the blue dress she wore that day. He remembers how demure she was addressing the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, an uncharacteristic demeanor for "the blazing, powerful presence" he knew.

Most of all, Burt Neuborne remembers the irony. Her clients were white supremacists barred from holding a rally. They had gone to the American Civil Liberties Union for help -- and been given a black woman for an attorney.

"She was arguing on behalf of a group that wanted to say things that couldn't have been farther from her heart," said Neuborne, a law professor who was an ACLU lawyer then. "But she was arguing free speech."

Eleanor Holmes Norton won that 1968 case. She stood then on the eve of a career that would make her one of the most celebrated civil rights activists in America, prompting repeated calls that she run for public office.

Always, Norton resisted that lure. Always, until this year.

Now that career must compete with her failure to file joint D.C. tax returns with her husband, Edward, through most of the 1980s.

Although she says that filing was Edward's job and she had no clue he had not done so, the revelations have recast her Democratic campaign for D.C. delegate to Congress, turning a stroll toward Capitol Hill into a daily ordeal of questioned integrity. Precisely because of the lofty image she has cultivated, many voters say they feel betrayed, a sense heightened by Norton's failure to make public her tax records to clear the issue. She says she cannot do so because her husband will not let her, yet many residents remain deeply suspicious.

"Miss Norton, I'd like to commend you on your past achievements with the civil rights," a caller told her on a WHUR-FM talk show. "But I just don't believe you, I really don't. I have a hard time in believing a person of your caliber not knowing that their taxes weren't paid."

Close friends, on the other hand, cannot square the new Norton with the old, and so exonerate her. "This is the one unassailable thing about Eleanor, her integrity, her personal integrity," said Barbara Babcock, a law professor at Stanford University who was Norton's roommate at Yale Law School. "And for those who know her, it's beyond belief. And so poignant. And so terrible."

The oddity -- at least to Babcock -- is that Norton chose to take her first plunge into electoral waters precisely because she felt the District needed a "moral person" as a leader. "She was just so certain she had nothing to hide," Babcock said, "because she has led this really pure life."

It has been a life of the law and the mind, above the tumble of politics in the District, where Norton, a small and striking woman, was born 53 years ago. She describes herself as an intellectual and says her career "has unfolded almost existentially," along no set course.

There have been stops at Yale, the ACLU in New York City, the New York Commission on Human Rights, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Georgetown University, where she now teaches law. There have been corporate directorships and honorary degrees, radio commentary and speeches coast to coast, law review articles and panel discussions.

Those she has touched along the way inevitably cite a devotion to civil rights, a precision in language, a quest for the minute details of policies or programs, a forceful style and a sometimes startling compulsion to work.

Preston David, who worked closely with her when she headed the Commission on Human Rights in the 1970s and then when she was chairman of the EEOC, remembers the day Norton gave birth to the first of her two children, Katherine.

"Three hours after delivery," David said, "she was on the phone wanting to know what was happening at the agency." Norton would pore over staff documents, he added, checking the writing, giving them a Norton imprimatur. "She would rewrite the phone book," he said, "but it would come out a better phone book."

At the EEOC, associates who were summoned to her office often found her on the carpet, doing sit-ups, papers spread about and ready to probe an issue.

"She would want to know very explicitly why you thought certain things, what support you had for it," said Judith Winston, an executive assistant to Norton.

"Eleanor was on a path," said Babcock, "the path to try to change things, to try to make things better in our society, to try to use the law to improve society, to bring increased racial harmony."

Yet, along that path, there were briars.

After Norton left the EEOC in 1981, the nonpartisan General Accounting Office, which had complained about EEOC financial practices even before Norton's tenure, reported that "serious deficiencies" had not been corrected, including poor record-keeping and inadequate control over funds. The agency was so late paying bills, the GAO said, that it failed to qualify for discounts. It was so lax in keeping track of travel expenses, it said, that thousands of dollars in advances remained outstanding.

Norton says she inherited the financial chaos but concentrated instead on correcting the EEOC's floundering anti-discrimination effort and left office before she could turn to finances. In a 1982 letter, furthermore, Norton called the GAO report "flawed" because auditors had failed to interview key EEOC officials and had overlooked critical management reforms.

In the report, the GAO found no hint of misconduct by Norton personally. But in 1978, The Washington Post reported that she used a government-leased car to ferry her son, John, and two friends from their Capitol Hill homes to summer camp in Northwest Washington, though federal law forbids such use of a government car.

Norton said the Justice Department had told her the law didn't pertain to her; Justice officials recalled giving no such waiver.

In 1982, the Nortons settled a lawsuit brought by two women who had worked for them as maids and who had alleged that the couple had failed to pay them the minimum wage. One of the women, Margaret Taylor, said in the suit that Eleanor Norton had cursed and humiliated her. Although the Nortons denied the allegations, they agreed to pay the women a total of $4,000.

Even some of those who admire Norton say she can be cold and imperial in bearing.

"Somebody said she doesn't suffer fools gladly," said Evelyn Idelson, another EEOC colleague. "She could be very impatient with people . . . . She ran the show."

No one, however, doubts her mind -- "She's triple somersault brilliant," said David -- nor her devotion to ending discrimination. "You knew from the first day you were in her presence that you were in the presence of someone who would be a significant person in the movement," Neuborne said.

That commitment, Norton said, was not born of some incident of her youth, a slight to her family. It grew from being black in the Washington of the 1940s and 1950s. "I owe it," she said, "to a life of segregation lived in this city."

Her father, a staunch New Dealer, was a D.C. government employee, her mother a schoolteacher who had three daughters. Eleanor, the eldest, went to Dunbar High School -- in its last segregated class -- and then Antioch College, where she joined civil rights marches and protests. But, she said, she saw another way to support her cause: "The appeal of going to law school to fight these battles in the courts was, to me, overwhelming."

So Yale it was. Then, in 1965, it was the ACLU because, friends say, she believed minorities would be best protected by safeguarding the right to speak, publish and assemble. That meant everyone's right, including former Alabama governor George Wallace, whom she represented when he was denied a permit to speak at New York's Shea Stadium.

As head of the Commission on Human Rights in New York from 1970 to 1977, Norton built such a reputation for energetic pursuit of discrimination that when President Carter tapped her to lead the EEOC, the New York Times wrote in an editorial, "The problem for us is that the nation's gain involves the very real loss of an exceptional public servant who has given much to New York."

She found an EEOC in trouble, drowning in 99,610 unsettled complaints by late 1977. Workers who had alleged bias were waiting years to learn if they would get their jobs back or be awarded back pay. Cases were so old that those involved had trouble remembering what was said and done.

One reason, said former EEOC officials, was that each complaint was being formally investigated, which took time. Norton decided, however, that many complaints could be settled simply by having employee and boss talk. Under her new "rapid charge processing" system and other changes, the backlog dropped to 32,000 by September 1980.

But the GAO said in a 1981 report that so much emphasis was placed on a high rate of agreements that even seemingly groundless complaints were being brokered by the agency, rather than tossed out. That could lead workers to abuse the system, the GAO said.

Further, the NAACP worried that the EEOC, with its spotlight on individual complaints, was not paying enough attention to broad patterns of discrimination in factories and offices, a concern echoed by the GAO.

Norton, however, says the only way the EEOC could get to broader inquiries was to wipe out its backlog. And by the end of her tenure, the EEOC was indeed moving toward more sweeping probes, according to Barry Goldstein, then a lawyer for the NAACP, who added that Norton also formulated anti-discrimination guidelines for employers that remain in place today.

Moreover, the GAO praised the overall direction of the EEOC under Norton, as did advocacy groups. "We pine away for 1981," the year Norton left, said Nancy Kreiter, research director of Women Employed, which works with discrimination cases. "Eleanor's reign was one characterized by incredible leadership and competence."

With Carter's defeat in 1980, Norton left the EEOC to work at the Urban Institute, and joined the law faculty at Georgetown in 1982, the year she and her husband first failed to file D.C. taxes. She had met Edward Norton at a wedding in 1965, marrying him four months later. Several of her associates say it has always seemed he was responsible for family finances.

Eve Wilkins, an EEOC colleague, said she once gave Eleanor Norton money to make a purchase when the two women were in New York together, with Eleanor vowing that her husband would pay her back. A few days later, Wilkins said, Edward phoned to ask how much was owed and then sent a check.

Likewise, Babcock said her old roommate never showed much interest in money. Her frequent -- and lucrative -- speaking engagements stemmed from a desire to make sure she bequeathed enough money to her daughter, who has Down syndrome, Babcock said.

At Georgetown, she settled into teaching and writing. "My life was ideal, the life of the intellectual, the life of the advocate," she said. She was endlessly approached to run for office, but always said no.

"I had always been ambivalent about it, owing in no small part to the freedom that one is accustomed to as an outsider, able to criticize and move without constraints," she said.

She changed her mind, though, when Del. Walter E. Fauntroy chose this spring to run for D.C. mayor, after 19 years in Congress.

Given that Norton had spent little time immersed in District affairs, her sudden desire to be its representative in Congress was described as presumptuous by her primary opponents, particularly after revelations that she had not voted in four of 10 recent local elections.

Norton says, however, that she has been deeply involved in issues of concern to the District, through her work on problems that touch people here, such as civil rights, AIDS and abortion, and her work with the D.C. Bar Association and other groups.

Norton says the tax problem, which has dominated the general election campaign debate, has sparked no regrets about running. It has, though, for her old roommate: "I wish she hadn't, I wish she hadn't," said Babcock, "because none of this would have happened."