Attorneys for Muhammad Ali told a federal judge here yesterday that the former world heavyweight boxing champion's $50 million lawsuit against the federal government and the World Boxing Association involves broad "public policy questions" that need to be examined even though nearly 20 years have passed since he was prosecuted as a draft dodger.
Jerris Leonard, Ali's lead attorney, told U.S. District Judge John Garrett Penn he "should give this world champion a chance to prove that some officials of this government . . . conspired to deprive him of his title and his honor."
The government has asked the court to dismiss Ali's suit, saying the last deadline for seeking damages expired six years after the Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1971.
But Leonard, who served as assistant attorney general for civil rights under attorney general John Mitchell, argued that the federal government has concealed the real reasons for recommending that Ali not be given conscientious objector status in 1966 and that until those reasons are made public, the time limits don't apply.
Leonard said that the Justice Department decided to deny conscientious objector status to Ali, "one of the best recognized figures in America," because officials feared that if Ali could avoid fighting in the Vietnam War because of his Muslim beliefs, "thousands of other youths, black and white, would make such a claim."
Ali's attorneys have asked Penn to order Justice Department officials to give sworn testimony concerning the decision to recommend against conscientious objector status for Ali.
Ali, 44, attended the hearing and his presence created a stir in the usually quiet courthouse halls. Spectators entered the courtroom in a steady stream and gathered in knots as Ali, wearing a pin-striped suit, patiently signed scores of autographs.
His only comment after the hearing was, "It's in the hands of the judge. That's all I can say."
In 1967, Ali was convicted of refusing to submit to the draft and sentenced to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. The Justice Department told the Supreme Court that it had not acted properly in the Ali case, and his conviction was overturned.
But before he was convicted, the WBA stripped him of his title. Part of this suit asks he be recognized as champion from 1967 to 1971. He won back the title in 1974.