Thank you for sharing!

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.
Perhaps nothing describes Charles Ruff, who died Nov. 19, more accurately and completely than the phrase “Washington lawyer.” Over the years, he was a Watergate prosecutor, Georgetown University law professor, U.S. attorney for the District, partner at Covington & Burling, president of the D.C. Bar, corporation counsel for the District, and, most famously, White House counsel during President Bill Clinton’s impeachment. Legal Times has gathered below just a smattering of the work and words he produced during a career dedicated to helping, through the law, his fellow Washington, D.C. residents. The Office of the Watergate Special Prosecutor issued its final report in October 1975. Ruff, who became the new chief prosecutor shortly after the report was issued, was its primary author. He wrote in part: “No group of prosecutors and supporting personnel ever have labored under greater public scrutiny. Every decision seemed to be a delicate one and previously uncharted courses frequently had to be faced. Each action occurred in the midst of a national turmoil and, in retrospect, some may be judged in the future as just plain wrong. This report seeks not to justify, but to explain. The Congress, the American people and other law enforcement agencies gave continued support to the efforts of this office. A full accounting, within the confines and strictures that the law properly places upon prosecutors, is required… . “Most important, in terms of the American constitutional system of government, is the notion of fundamental fairness for those who, after investigation, have not been charged with any criminal misconduct. This consideration is particularly important for a Special Prosecutor whose independence considerably reduces his accountability and who must be unusually sensitive to possible abuses of his power… . “… When Archibald Cox was fired, Americans rose in anger. The telegrams came to us from Middle America — small cities, towns, and hamlets that only the residents had ever heard of. The national Government had offended its people’s sense of justice. The citizens wanted to control what would happen, and they eventually did. When vigilance erupted, institutions responded. One must believe that unresponsive power, both public and private, can never overcome that will.” After Watergate, Ruff briefly taught law at Georgetown University. One of his articles, published in the Georgetown Law Journal in 1977, discusses imposing limits on federal prosecutors: “Like Nature, the federal prosecutor abhors a vacuum. Given a statutory grant of jurisdiction, he will seek to bring within it any offense he finds unattended or even, in his view, inadequately attended. In many areas this expansive and energetic approach has been the hallmark of effective federal law enforcement: a problem is identified; Congress provides a solution; and that solution is implemented. Aberrations in the prosecutor’s decisionmaking process, if not controlled by departmental policy, can be limited by judicial review or, as a last resort, new legislative action. “When the issue is whether to prosecute in an individual case or in a class of cases having an impact on some primary federal interest, the exercise of discretion properly remains an executive function. When, however, Congress either has not addressed an identified problem or has addressed it in only limited fashion, the prosecutor must take care that he does not assume the legislative role. The Department of Justice can minimize to some extent any adverse impact on the federal-state relationship by formulating clear policy guidelines for the prosecution of state corruption cases and by assuming control over all prosecutive decisions. But in the final analysis, the choice between an incursive or restrained enforcement policy in the exercise of federal jurisdiction is a legislative function, and one that should not be abandoned so lightly as it has been in the past.” After serving in other government positions, including U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, Ruff moved to D.C.’s Covington & Burling in 1982. He assumed the presidency of the D.C. Bar in 1989. During an interview that year with The Washington Lawyer, in response to a question regarding whether the bar was contributing enough to the community, he stated: “The easy answer is that the bar is never doing enough … . What we hope to do is take some community groups who themselves have already begun to work on the problems in this area and link them up with some lawyers who will try to provide some solutions either through the courts or through District agencies or both. They will try, for example, to force landlords to clean up their properties and help residents to get drug dealers out of their communities by doing the things that lawyers do best. We want to help community groups meet their needs rather than try to impose our own sense of what’s important on those who are suffering with the drug problem.” While in private practice, Ruff represented several high-profile clients, including Anita Hill, Sen. Chuck Robb, and then-Sen. John Glenn. In his 1991 closing statement to the Senate Select Ethics Committee investigating Glenn as one of the “Keating Five,” Ruff argued: “Now, John Glenn’s conduct, it has two elements … . What did he do? What actions did he take on behalf of Charles Keating, American Continental, Lincoln Savings and Loan? And to what extent, if any, were those actions influenced or colored or shaped or motivated by contributions made either to his personal campaigns or to the National Council on Public Policy, for which he was the spokesman? And I suggest that you must examine those two elements separately and individually. “And I suggest further that you must begin by looking at the actions, because if you begin by looking at contributions, if you begin as to any one of these senators by asking what did they get in the way of contributions from Charles Keating, you begin with the presumption that those contributions must have, in fact, in some undetermined but certainly improper fashion, colored what went after. So I ask you first to look at what John Glenn did and determine whether his conduct was proper. If his conduct was proper, you must also ask, despite the propriety of what he did, was he somehow, in some fashion as yet undetermined, influenced by Mr. Keating’s contributions… . “I would hope, and I think all the senators here would hope, that this committee would set a standard that is higher than the expectation of the public. The public doesn’t represent the only acceptable standard here. They may not know what it is that you would like to live your lives by or your colleagues would like to live their lives by. I trust that the Senate lives by a higher standard than that, higher even than the reasonable, well-informed, nonpartisan observer. And John Glenn is not afraid to have you apply that higher standard to him. “No one outside the Senate can strike the balance that you can, and judge what is right and proper, and judge how the public will perceive what you decide to do here. As I’ve said, there can be no question that John Glenn acted properly here, that he was not influenced in any fashion by recollection of past favor or hope of future favor. I was struck by Senator [Terry] Sanford’s use of the term … that the Senate is a place of honor. And I ask only, and John Glenn asks only, that you let him resume his seat in that place of honor.” Ruff had an ongoing professional interest in Africa. After graduating from law school, he accepted a Ford Foundation grant to teach law in Liberia (where he contracted a disease that paralyzed his legs). Thirty years later, in 1993, he chaired a committee convened by Justice Richard Goldstone of South Africa to recommend methods to curb violence and intimidation during the South African national elections planned for 1994. The panel wrote: “The following report reflects the full range of the Panel’s discussion, including those issues that bear directly on the problem of violence and those that relate more broadly to the structure of the election. The Panel recognizes that much of what follows touches upon questions that have been the subject of extended consideration… . Despite substantial uncertainty concerning the constitutional and legal structure within which the election will be held, the Panel members have sought to offer suggestions that, whether they are accepted or rejected by participants, will at least focus attention on some of the critical issues that must be addressed as South Africa moves toward the momentous events of 1994. “Whatever course the people of South Africa choose to follow as they create the structure for their first truly national election, two overriding principles should govern. Firstly, it rests with the leaders — political, religious, and community — to set the standards by which the election will be conducted. Each must make it clear from the beginning, and at every opportunity thereafter, that violence and intimidation simply will not be tolerated. “Secondly, the violence that does occur cannot be permitted to interfere with the democratic process. Those responsible for conducting the election and those participating in it must be fully and firmly committed to the proposition that the citizens of South Africa will vote on schedule, no matter what efforts are made to stop them.” Ruff left Covington & Burling in 1995 to return to public service as D.C. corporation counsel under then-Mayor Marion Barry. The following year, he delivered the commencement address to law students graduating from Georgetown: “Let me suggest that you need do no more than look around this city to understand that we have today not only some who would be a match for any of the giants but, much more importantly, hundreds of women and men who devote their professional lives to those who most need their help, seeking not to be recognized but only to offer their skills where no one else will. For every tale of a lawyer who rushes to the scene of a disaster or bends the ethical rules or looks the other way as his client perpetuates a fraud, there are a hundred tales that are never told of lawyers who are the last resort for the defenseless. Ask whether there were in the Golden Age lawyers like Willie Cook, who, as head of the Neighborhood Legal Services Program, has devoted his life to providing representation to our most needy, or Patty Fugere, director of the Washington Legal Center for the Homeless. “You do not see these lawyers on television touting their latest triumphs or offering sage comments on the performance of their colleagues. You don’t see stories about them in the Legal Times or The American Lawyer. But they are there nonetheless. It is they who are our profession… . “Some of you, probably led astray by too much television, want to be trial lawyers. Some find fascination in putting companies together and taking them apart; perhaps in your youth, you tore wings off flies. Some of you even came away — although I can’t, for the life of me, understand why — wanting to be tax lawyers. But whatever path you decide to start out on, please leave yourself time to wander off on unmarked trails… . “… The degree you receive today is a passport to a rewarding life. It does not signify that you are wiser or better than your fellows. It does not give you the right to claim some unique ability to separate good from evil. It does give you the opportunity to serve in ways that others cannot.” In 1997, President Clinton asked Ruff to become his new White House counsel. Within a matter of months, the Monica Lewinsky episode commanded Ruff’s attention as it led to Clinton’s impeachment by the House of Representatives. In the Senate trial that followed, Ruff opened his defense of the president on Jan. 19, 1999, by stating: “Mr. Chief Justice, members of the Senate, distinguished managers, William Jefferson Clinton is not guilty of the charges that have been preferred against him. He did not commit perjury; he did not obstruct justice; he must not be removed from office. “Now, merely to say those words brings into sharp relief that I and my colleagues are here today in this great chamber defending the president of the United States. For only the second time in our nation’s history, the Senate has convened to try the president of the United States on articles of impeachment. “There is no one who does not feel the weight of this moment. Nonetheless, our role as lawyers is as much as it would be in any other forum. We will not be able to match the eloquence of the 13 managers who spoke to you last week. We will try, however, to respond to the charges leveled against the president as directly and candidly as possible, and to present his defense as clearly and as cogently as we are able. We seek on his behalf no more than we know you will give us — a fair opportunity to be heard, a fair assessment of the facts and the law, and a fair judgment. We will defend the president on the facts and on the law and on the constitutional principles that must guide your deliberations. Some have suggested that we fear to do so. We do not… . “Now, the managers have not shown, and could not on this record or any record prove, that the president committed any of the offenses [charged] in any of the articles. But even if they could, these offenses would not warrant your deciding to remove the president from office. “In this regard, an impeachment trial is unlike any other. You are the judges of the law and the facts and the appropriate sanctions. Before casting a vote of guilty or not guilty, you must decide not only whether the president committed the acts with which he is charged, but whether those acts so seriously undermined the integrity of our governmental structure that he must be removed from office… .” Ruff managed to maintain his sense of humor even after the Senate acquitted the president (or perhaps because the Senate acquitted him). As he stated to the D.C. Judicial Conference in June 1999: “[I]f the independent counsel statute is allowed to lapse, you may have a serious underemployment problem in the District of Columbia. But it seemed to me that we have learned another valuable lesson from the events of the last year that will help us solve this problem. “I know you were struck as I was by the extraordinary number of experts in our profession and their selfless willingness to share their wisdom with us. Those who watched their cable stations in the wee hours of the morning were able in just a very few minutes to understand the facts, and the law, and the Constitution, and the strategy, and the tactics through the incisive analysis of these guest experts. And you knew they were experts because underneath their picture it would say — and this is my favorite — “Constitutional Lawyer.” I always wanted to be one of those, or something like “experienced small claims practitioner” or really — and this goes to the heart of [it] — “very wise person.”

This content has been archived. It is available through our partners, LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law.

To view this content, please continue to their sites.

Not a Lexis Advance® Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Not a Bloomberg Law Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Why am I seeing this?

LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law are third party online distributors of the broad collection of current and archived versions of ALM's legal news publications. LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law customers are able to access and use ALM's content, including content from the National Law Journal, The American Lawyer, Legaltech News, The New York Law Journal, and Corporate Counsel, as well as other sources of legal information.

For questions call 1-877-256-2472 or contact us at [email protected]

Reprints & Licensing
Mentioned in a Law.com story?

License our industry-leading legal content to extend your thought leadership and build your brand.


ALM Legal Publication Newsletters

Sign Up Today and Never Miss Another Story.

As part of your digital membership, you can sign up for an unlimited number of a wide range of complimentary newsletters. Visit your My Account page to make your selections. Get the timely legal news and critical analysis you cannot afford to miss. Tailored just for you. In your inbox. Every day.

Copyright © 2021 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All Rights Reserved.