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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: Charles F. C. Ruff

From Washington Lawyer, December 2000

By Jacob A. Stein


How can the laborious study of a dry and technical system, the greedy watch for clients and practice of shopkeepers’ arts, the mannerless conflicts over often sordid interests, make out a life? Gentlemen, I admit at once that these questions are not futile, that they may prove unanswerable, that they have often seemed to me unanswerable. And yet I believe there is an answer. They are the same questions that meet you in any form of practical life. If a man has the soul of Sancho Panza, the world to him will be Sancho Panza’s world; but if he has the soul of an idealist, he will make-do not say find-his world ideal. Of course, the law is not the place for the artist or the poet. The law is the calling of thinkers. But to those who believe with me that not the least godlike of man’s activities is the large survey of causes, that to know is not less than to feel, I say-and I say no longer with any doubt-that a man may live greatly in the law as well as elsewhere.

-Oliver Wendell Holmes

I think we would not be doing justice to the feelings many of us have if we passed to the business of the day without taking notice of the fresh gap that has been made in our ranks by the untimely death of Charles F. C. Ruff. He, perhaps, of all the lawyers among us, came nearest to what every lawyer aspires to be. He was gifted with high intelligence, a sense of self-discipline, and good judgment, all combined with an ease and fluency of delivery. He was, as the general public learned during the impeachment trial, a strenuous fighter. Nevertheless, he leaves behind him no resentments and no enmity. He is taken away in the full tide of a buoyant life still full of promise.

Among his varied professional assignments was the winding-up of the Watergate special prosecutor’s office. Many demanded that a statute setting up the Office of Special Prosecutor, or something like it, was a necessity. Charles Ruff stood against this view. He felt so strongly about it that his final report admonished against any such statute. His advice was ignored. The special prosecutor/independent counsel statute was enacted. When put into practice, it proved how right and farseeing Ruff was. But only after causing a lot of damage.

He tested his own abilities in many different ways. For a time he served as corporation counsel for the District of Columbia. He also served in the Department of Justice and as United States attorney. In each he served with quiet distinction.

He was unknown to the general public until the televised impeachment trial. He made the case for the president. As he spoke he turned over the pages, one by one, of his written statement. The turning of the pages was quite dramatic because he did not look at them. He spoke from memory.

It has been said that the lawyer’s role is first to impose order on complicated issues and then present the case with clarity. That is what the public saw. What the public did not see was the hours of preparation required under rigid time constraints in order to give such a performance. The damnable part of the practice of law is that each case requires its own careful laborious preparation. What is learned in the last case cannot be recycled for the next case. There are those who have the capacity-or is it the sense of professionalism?-that compels them to study each case as it comes along as if it were the one and only case. Ruff had this talent.

In the impeachment trial Ruff put his client in the best possible light. There was no avoidance of issues. There was no reliance on emotion or special pleading to partisan interests. It was done with dignity and force. It was the work of a gifted professional at the top of his form.

Ruff appeared in many politically charged cases in addition to the impeachment trial. Anyone who has represented political figures knows how difficult it is when doing so to remain faithful to one’s professional obligations. Politicians expect flattery, and lawyers are not excluded from these expectations. A lawyer who confronts the facts, confronts them bluntly, may find that he has been replaced by a lawyer who gives false hopes.

In the Lord’s Prayer are the words "Lead me not into temptation." Lead me not into temptation. Those are words that define the dangers for a lawyer in the headlines and who wishes to remain there. The temptation is to do what is necessary to preserve one’s public role. A powerful person may hold out the promise of spectacular rewards both in economic terms and in terms of fame and reputation. Ruff, by reason of his reputation and stature, was beyond the usual lawyerly temptations.

What does the public lose when a fine lawyer is taken from us? Some may say that the public really loses nothing. It just means that somebody with a bad case has one less lawyer he can turn to in order to thwart justice. In some instances this may be true. It does not apply to Charles Ruff. He lent his talents to many worthwhile causes. And those who yesterday could have looked to him for help must now look somewhere else.

Jacob A. Stein may be reached by e-mail at [email protected].