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The District recently lost one of its premier advocates. Charles Ruff, the former White House counsel who defended President Bill Clinton from impeachment charges, died Nov. 19 of a heart attack. He was 61. Though nationally renowned for his trial skills and deal making at Covington & Burling, Ruff will be remembered in the District for his dedication to improving the city, saving Washington, D.C children from abuse and neglect, and his advocacy for voting representation on Capitol Hill. “There was never a tougher mind and a kinder heart,” says D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. Ruff, a Cleveland native, moved to the District in the late 1960s to become a trial lawyer at the Justice Department. As acting deputy attorney general under President Jimmy Carter, Ruff backed an effort to transfer authority for prosecuting crimes in D.C. Superior Court from the U.S. attorney’s office to District authorities. That plan was ultimately rejected. In 1979, Carter nominated Ruff to serve as U.S. attorney for the District, a position he held until the end of 1981. During that time, Ruff publicly opposed a Washington, D.C. councilman’s attempt to establish mandatory minimum sentences for felony drug convictions and firearms possession. And Ruff pushed Washington, D.C. police to conduct more extensive investigations of local drug dealers rather than flood the court with misdemeanor drug cases. Ruff was also responsible in the early stages of the prosecution of John Hinckley Jr., who was later found not guilty by reason of insanity in the 1981 shooting of President Ronald Reagan. Over the next decade, Ruff practiced white collar criminal defense at Covington and played a key role in developing the firm’s highly regarded pro bono program. From 1989 to 1990, he was president of the D.C. Bar, the city’s mandatory bar association. As bar president, Ruff served on the D.C. Circuit’s Task Force on Race, Gender and Ethnic Bias and was a vocal opponent of mandatory continuing legal education. In 1995, Ruff surprised the legal community when he left Covington to serve as D.C. corporation counsel under then-Mayor Marion Barry Jr. At the time, the city was going through a financial crisis and facing a collapse of its network of social services. The 200-lawyer Office of Corporation Counsel was struggling to defend the District from a barrage of civil suits while keeping up with juvenile prosecutions and the city’s foster care program. The city’s legal shop was also coming under fire from federal and D.C. judges for missed deadlines and shoddy lawyering. The root of the office’s problems stemmed from a lack of funding and dozens of unfilled positions. Even basic administrative tools — telephones, fax machines, and paper — were hard to come by. Ruff quickly turned things around. He convinced the Justice Department to provide a stash of computers and software for the office. He also succeeded in getting Justice, as well as private law firms, to lend lawyers to his office to work on matters such as abuse and neglect cases. “One of the things he did was bring his credibility to the office,” says Frederick Cooke Jr., a former Washington, D.C. corporation counsel who is now a partner at Washington, D.C.’s Rubin, Winston, Diercks, Harris & Cooke. “He lent the D.C. government his aura of credibility and confidence.” But Ruff’s influence didn’t end there. He expanded the mission of the corporation counsel to include community-building activities by forging alliances with other players in the city’s legal and law enforcement establishment. Ruff secured funding from Justice to launch a juvenile crime initiative in the city’s 5th Police District, and he co-chaired a 1996 summer jobs and recreation program for District youth. According to former D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge Eugene Hamilton, Ruff was instrumental in reforming several social service programs, including transferring the D.C. Crime Victims Compensation Fund from the city to the Washington, D.C. court, overhauling the Child Support Enforcement Program in the corporation counsel’s office, and setting the groundwork for the construction of a juvenile detention facility. “He was one of the most cooperative persons you could hope for on issues of juvenile justice and criminal justice in the District of Columbia,” Hamilton says. Hamilton says that over the past year, he and Ruff worked closely on Washington, D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams’ Blue Ribbon Commission on Youth Safety and Juvenile Justice Reform. Clearly, say a number of Washington, D.C. leaders and children’s advocates, Ruff had a passion for helping D.C. children. Kimberley Shellman, executive director of Washington, D.C.’s Children’s Advocacy Center, says that Ruff was key to the organization’s development, particularly in finding office space for the center. “Chuck did a lot for the Children’s Advocacy Center — not just professionally, but personally,” says Shellman, adding that he hooked the firm up with pro bono counsel from Covington. “What he did best is bring everyone to the table and raise awareness of the need for the Children’s Advocacy Center in the District of Columbia.” Norton says she was particularly moved by a speech Ruff gave at the University of the District of Columbia Law School this year. “Everyone expected to hear one of the nation’s greatest lawyers ruminate about the law,” Norton says. “Hardly a word was said about the law … . It was all about children, especially the children of the District.” In a 1997 interview with Legal Times, Ruff said that he hoped his work with the Washington, D.C. government would entice other private lawyers to lend their support to the city. “The uptown bar lives in the federal world. There’s a bit of a distance between the world those folks live in and the District. One of the important things is to try and narrow that gap,” Ruff said. As White House counsel to President Clinton, Ruff remained accessible to Washington, D.C. leaders. Cooke says he remembers calling Ruff during the Monica Lewinsky scandal to tease him about articles that appeared in the press. “He never lost that sense of humanism that made him a genuine counsel,” Cooke says. And even in the heat of the impeachment trial, Ruff promoted Washington, D.C. interests. In his closing arguments on the Senate floor, Ruff remarked: “My name is Charles Ruff and I’m from the District of Columbia. And we don’t have a vote in the Congress of the United States.”

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