HATCH ACT REFORM
The federal Hatch Act of 1939, prohibiting federal employees from participating in partisan political activities, was intended to ensure a fair and impartial federal civil service. In 1975, in an effort to loosen those limitations, my new boss, Congressman William L. “Bill” Clay, introduced legislation to reform the Hatch Act. It was designed to remove all restrictions on off-duty political activity by federal employees.
Enactment of the legislation was the primary focus of Congressman Clay’s subcommittee on Employee Political Rights; proponents and opponents quickly fell into place. Supporters included organized labor, civil rights groups, and most Democrats. Opposing the bill was the business community, a few good-government groups, and most Republicans.
My job? To oversee the drafting of countless proposed amendments to the original bill and to be the liaison with countless interest groups both for and against the legislation. I was also an information resource for media, for Members of Congress, and their staff. I’m sure we held over twenty public hearings on this legislation. Some were in Washington; others were field hearings in other cities throughout the country.
The legislation was long overdue; it expanded the opportunity for political participation to about 1.8 million federal civilian and postal employees, a significant number of whom were Black. Members and others made countless informal and formal suggestions for changes to the original bill. I was expected to understand the rationale and justification for every word and the original bill and the potential import of any proposed changes. I became the expert.
The Congressman expected me to keep him current on proposed changes and provide him with sound information and recommendations as to how to proceed. Bill was always open to and valued my opinions and recommendations. He knew he could rely on me to provide information upon which he could make informed decisions.
After almost two years of hearings, negotiations with both Democrats and Republicans, Members, the Carter White House, and others, Hatch Act reform legislation was eventually enacted into law. It was part of the comprehensive Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, which reorganized the federal Civil Service system.
A personal tragedy subcommittee in November 1978. I was awakened one Sunday morning to the news that a former member of our subcommittee, Congressman Leo Ryan (D-CA), had been murdered in the infamous Jonestown Massacre. He had gone to Guyana to investigate the San Francisco-based cult and its settlement in South America. His then legislative assistant, Jackie Spier, was seriously wounded at Jonestown. She’s now a senior Member of Congress, ably representing Ryan’s former district.
Our work continued. For the next several years, our subcommittee’s focus remained on federal labor management matters. Later, through seniority, Bill became chair of the more prestigious and influential Subcommittee on Labor Management Relations with jurisdiction over private sector labor management matters. I followed him, planning to leave Capitol Hill eventually, enter the private sector, and specialize in employment discrimination matters.
ENDING & BEGINNING
Not long after arriving in D.C., my marriage, tenuous for years, finally came to an end. We couldn’t overcome our fundamental differences, had grown apart, and our seemingly minor differences became irreconcilable.
I became a weekend Dad and shared a two-bedroom apartment in D.C. with a childhood friend from Boston. It was a difficult time for all of us emotionally and financially. I especially missed by daily interaction with Scott and Alison. We grew apart. As teenagers, the kids had their own lives. Our scheduled visits lacked spontaneity.
I was still a part of their lives, however. One night, Alison, now 11, called me. Emergency. Her beloved cat is gone. We must find its remains for a decent burial. I stopped everything and drove to Maryland. In the pitch dark on a nearby thoroughfare, searching for the cat’s carcass. No luck. No burial. But dad was there. We gave it our best shot.
Scott, now 17, was in an accident. We’d bought him a used car. He’s out with a buddy and they were in a T-bone accident.Their fault. He ended up in the emergency room at George Washington University Hospital with a concussion. I was out of town. I rushed back. Fortunately, there were no long–term consequences.
I usually came home to an empty apartment in D.C.; I became good friends with television. I spent a lot of time going to receptions and hanging out at the National Democratic Club.
At the end of the lease, I moved into my own one-bedroom apartment, walking distance from the Capitol complex. Congressman Mickey Leland (D-Texas), a freshman and a member of my subcommittee, was my next-door neighbor, and we became good friends.
My life was changed forever on November 4, 1977. I was in New York City to attend a board meeting of a national organization. Bob Shaw, my longtime friend and Howard classmate, now living in Manhattan, invited me to have dinner with him and his fiancée, Barbara Riley. Her sister, Constance Riley, came along, too. The food was great, the company was even better. Connie and I soon became an item. She was warm and outgoing with an effervescent smile, and — as a bonus — she was conversant on sports.
We were married on July 31, 1981 at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., with our mothers, children, and a few others in attendance. She’s been my best friend and confidante ever since.
AN INSIDER’S VIEW
There are scenes and happenings from those Capitol Hill years, that will be stuck in my memory forever.
- Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill was now the House Democratic Majority Leader. Once when O’Neill angrily violated the House rule of decorum by using unacceptable language toward another Member, he refused to apologize to the offended Member. In a rare House sanction, the Democratic Majority Leader was prohibited from speaking in the House for rest of that day.
- Rank-and-file Members often joked privately about House Leadership. My favorite? “What’s the difference between the Cub Scouts and the House of Representatives?” Answer: “The Cub Scouts have adult leadership.”
- In fact, the House and its members could be just plain fun. My friend, Texas Congressman Mickey Leland, fluent in Spanish, loved to tell stories about his spirited six-hour conversations with Cuba’s then president, the late Fidel Castro.
- The National Democratic Club’s legendary server, Shirley (I don’t recall her last name) treated everyone – Members, staff, lobbyists, visitors – with equal, loving disrespect. No matter your standing on the national stage, you were “Sweetie.” You never had to request your drink; she knew it by heart. Shirley is memorialized by a life-sized portrait in the Club lobby. https://natdemclub.org
- Racism reared its ugly head one day over drinks at the Democratic Club. A white Member confided to a Black Member, in my presence, that when his bill was up for a vote earlier that day, a racist white Member told him, “I’ll never give my vote to a nigger.” Wow.
- There was hypocrisy, too. A member of the Congressional Black Caucus, whose constituency’s overall poor health was partially due to smoking cigarettes, nonetheless, welcomed Big Tobacco’s generous contributions to his campaigns. Also, like clockwork every week, a representative of the industry hand-delivered cartons of his favorite brand of cigarettes to his office.
- And there were sweet memories, too. My former Howard classmate Andrew Young was then a Congressman. One day, he stopped me in the corridor of the Cannon HOB and urged me to vote for this guy, Jimmy Carter, who was seeking the Democratic nomination for president. Andy paid Carter the ultimate compliment: “He’s comfortable with Black folk.” I’ve known hundreds of white people. How many are truly comfortable with Black people? Few.
- My fondest memory of my Congressional experience is the collective love and respect for the institution, the People’s House. In my day, you had political opponents, not enemies. The change began with the Nixon’s resignation when candidates began to run not for Congress, but against the institution. It reached its zenith with Donald Trump and his pseudo political enablers.
“THE LAW IS A JEALOUS MISTRESS”
I had always seen the law as a vehicle for achieving social justice. There was, of course, Brown v. Board of Education and other civil rights cases. But two, seemingly unrelated Supreme Court decisions, have always spoken loudly to me.
One, Gideon v. Wainwright established the right to counsel for indigent criminal defendants. The second case was Street v. New York, declaring that flag burning was protected speech under the Constitution’s Freedom of Expression clause. Sidney Street was a mentally challenged neighbor of mine in New York who burned his U.S. flag at the subway station near our Brooklyn home. He was protesting the attempted killing of James Meredith, who integrated the University of Mississippi in 1962. My gosh. If the law could recognize and hear Mr. Street, maybe there was hope for my country.
So when, in early 1979, Herman Thompson, an attorney on Bill Clay’s staff, half-jokingly suggested I go to law school to really do damage to our country’s laws, I took his suggestion to heart. Why not? I had time on my hands. I wasn’t unduly stressed on the job, and Connie had moved to D.C. and was employed by a local bank; we were living in a rented Capitol Hill townhouse. The stars seemed aligned in my favor.
I had heard about this thing called the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and that you had to take it to get into law school, but since I’d had a successful career in the 25 years since graduating from Howard and had earned a Master’s degree in social work, I saw no need to prepare for the LSAT. Big mistake. My score was abysmal. So abysmal in fact that I called the testing body, convinced they’d made an easily correctable mistake, would adjust my score accordingly, and we’d all be happy and move on. No sir, they assured me. You did poorly. Lesson learned. Be prepared.
Apparently, my writing samples, extensive professional experience, and strong references outweighed my poor LSAT score. I was accepted or wait-listed at each of the nearby law schools with evening programs. I could continue my job during the day.
I decided to attend Georgetown University Law Center (GULC), less for its prestigious reputation than for its location, an easy 5-minute bicycle ride from my home or Congressional office to the law school.
Three things impressed me about Georgetown. About 15 percent of roughly 150 students in my evening program were Black; almost half of our section were women. We weren’t tokens; the law school was serious about diversity. Night students were typically older than day students, employed, and less competitive. They were eager to earn their degrees, warm, and friendly .
My most frightening moment during my first semester was being called upon in class. You had to stand up. Speak loudly and clearly. And be prepared. I didn’t realize the true and lasting value of the practice until I was in the courtroom.
My most unforgettable class moment? In the last semester in a class on Administrative Law, the professor gave us a break. He gave 4-5 students a week’s notice that they would be called on to recite in next class. Message: Be prepared, while others could chill. Several students who were called on simply said, “I’ll pass,” indicating they weren’t prepared even with advanced notice. The professor said nothing. Then, a week before finals, word circulated that the professor had quietly sent a “Show Cause” letter to those who hadn’t been prepared. They should show cause why he should not fail them, by completing a special, additional assignment. Slackers were not permitted in his class.
The legendary Professor Irving Younger taught Evidence. He used his own textbook, about 150 pages with wide margins. He was so charismatic that students brought family and friends to hear his lectures. I brought Scott and Connie to class. Best of all, this great teacher was an easy grader– but a great teacher.
Law school was a personal struggle, aggravated by family issues and some job crises. But through it all, Connie was my rock, caring, supporting, and sometimes telling me what I needed to hear. Bill Clay was unduly tolerant of my occasional inattention to his priorities. Staff also was great in allowing me to be in my office undisturbed, preparing for that evening’s class.
Study groups are essential for survival in law school and the members of mine – John, Jim, Haywood, Steve and I –– really fed off of each other by sharing ideas and observations. We regularly met in my Congressional office on Sunday afternoons.
Graduation in June 1984 was a big celebration. Ma and Eleanor flew in from California. Barbara, Connie’s sister, and her husband Bob and our children were also present. Ma was so excited that she kept moving forward in the audience until she was seated among the graduating law students.
Once I passed the Maryland Bar examination, I decided it was time to put my law license to work and began explore other options in the law beyond the Congress. Privately, I think Bill was pleased by my decision. I was already earning the highest permissible salary for a Congressional staffer, and he could hire two lower-level staffers for my single salary.
I’M OUTTA’ HERE
When my longtime friend, Richard Thornell, had relocated to D.C. in 1976 and was then Howard University’s general counsel, I readily accepted his invitation to join his legal staff. I’d educate faculty and staff on how seemingly innocuous behavior and/or comments could constitute sexual harassment under the law and expose them and the university to lawsuits. I enjoyed the opportunity to apply legal cases, involving ordinary people like themselves, to everyday campus life. It was preventive maintenance so to speak.
But my passion for the courtroom wasn’t satisfied at Howard since I wasn’t admitted to practice in the District of Columbia. Like many new attorneys, I saw myself as a criminal defense lawyer, protector of the wrongly accused. But my applications for jobs in the public defender’s offices were rejected. So I applied to the State’s Attorney’s Office for Montgomery County, Maryland. If I couldn’t defend, I would prosecute — fairly.
I was pleasantly surprised to be invited to a panel interview and was appointed an assistant state’s attorney. The office was looking for someone who had been “around the block” and my personal and professional experiences were seen as my strongest assets.
Next, 25. “For the State of Maryland.”
© 2020. Lloyd A. Johnson. All rights reserved.