Washington Lawyer

Legends in the Law: Charles S. Rhyne

(Appeared in Bar Report, April/May 1998)

Charles S. Rhyne, founder and senior partner of Rhyne & Rhyne law firm, was the youngest president of the American Bar Association in 1957-58 at the age of 45. He has argued numerous cases before the U.S. Supreme Court including Baker v. Carr, the legislative reapportionment case that established the one-man, one-vote principle. In 1955, he became president of the Bar Association of the District of Columbia on a campaign to strike the word "white" from the association’s constitution. Later, as a new trustee at Duke University, he successfully fought the school’s segregation policies. He served as special counsel to President Eisenhower and in 1971 was appointed as U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees. He was married to Sue Cotton Rhyne for 42 years until her death in 1974 and is currently married to Sarah Hendon Rhyne. He is the father of four.

Bar Report: You were born in 1912 in a small town in North Carolina, is that correct?
Charles S. Rhyne: Yes, I was born in a little farm that is now part of the airport in Charlotte, North Carolina. In fact, they condemned it and took it by eminent domain the day that Charlotte gave a big ceremony honoring me for being elected president of the American Bar Association. My father wouldn’t speak to the governor or sit beside the mayor, and it was the first time in his whole life that he’d had on a tuxedo. He was about 87 years old. He absolutely refused to sit at the head table with any of them. Two local judges marched up to him, one on each side, and moved him right into the middle of the table. Although expressing appreciation for the great event, my father fumed to his seat mates the whole time about the airport decision.

The two judges were John J. Porter, who served on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals for 33 years and who had been nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court, and N.E. Henderson, the local U.S. District Court judge.

BR: Your interest in pursuing a law career began when your father testified in a murder trial in your hometown. Tell me about that experience?
CSR: The murder happened when I was about 10 years old. One of the neighbors had their youngest son, Alton, drafted and sent up North for Army training. There, he met and married a woman from New Jersey, and after Alton returned from World War I, they settled in Charlotte. The wife remained an outsider. After awhile, Alton told his wife he was going to leave her. She ended up taking a razor and cutting him from ear to ear. When it happened, Alton’s mother phoned our house and said her son was dead. My father said "let’s go," and I don’t think I even took off my pajamas. So we ran up there and there Alton lay on the floor, dead. Well, he’d been drinking so there was more to the story than we knew. They appointed a great Charlotte lawyer to represent the wife, and he accumulated a great number of psychiatrists and got ready for a big show. Back then, as it is today, a trial was a big show and it was particularly a big show for these lawyers. The way those defense lawyers fought when everybody was against them was something to watch. After a long trial that included my father’s testimony, the jury voted that she was innocent.

That was my first experience with the law, but my impression was that when a lawyer goes into something like that, more or less as the underdog, if he fights hard enough to bring out all the truth, things come out all right. And so this defense attorney, Jake Newell, became a great hero in my mind.

BR: What do you think you would have done had it not been for that trial?
CSR: I was a farmer and we raised cotton until the boll weevil chewed it all up. Then we raised vegetables—wheat, corn stuff like that—and sold those in Charlotte. And we raised pigs and cattle, and sold milk and the butter we made. My mother died when I was 12 and my father remarried and my step mother inherited six children with me and then more came along with her. I graduated high school when I was 14 and my father asked what I wanted to do and I told him I wanted to be a lawyer. He said, "well, I don’t have any money to give you but you have my best wishes. You better get out of here and get yourself a job." So I went over to a friend of mine whose father ran a store and I worked for a $1 a week and then somebody said if I could get a bicycle, I could get a job in downtown Charlotte with Western Union. So I did that.

BR: How did you end up going to Duke University?
CSR: I wrote a letter to the three colleges I’d heard of: Wake Forest, the University of North Carolina and Duke. Wake Forest didn’t answer and UNC said my record was incredible but didn’t believe I’d graduated at 14. Duke wrote back a nice letter and said, "we would be happy to have you as a student."

I went to Duke that one year. I had $255 when I went up there and they took $250 of that for tuition. I met a man who persuaded me to go to West Virginia to sell Bibles in the coal mines that summer. This was in 1929 and the whole country was broke and the miners didn’t have any money. The preachers were quite glad to have me preach sermons in their churches, and I did, but I didn’t sell any Bibles. I came back to Duke dead broke, and couldn’t get any work to stay a second year. With the recommendation of a friend, I took off to Denver in search of work. I wandered the street and saw a sign offering $5 to work out with boxers. I was on the boxing squad at Duke and had learned a little boxing so they set me up with a light heavyweight. I remember, I got in the ring and he came snorting across there, and the one thing I had learned at Duke was how to sidestep somebody, so I sidestepped him and he went by me and almost fell down on his elbow. He got up and was mad as a bull. He whirled around and came back at me and I ducked under his arm and some way or another I got my knee in his belly and my left hand under his head and he stretched out on that floor, out, out. Dead out. Boy, I didn’t know whether to be scared or to run or what. I thought he might be dead. By this time, the place was full of people. The sports editor of the Denver Post grabbed me and asked where in the heck I came from. He said, "in order to get your $5 you’ve got to go another two rounds with the guy." I said, "he’s got to catch me before he hits me." I came out all right and got my $5.

Then I got an offer to work for $65 a month at a ranch in Wyoming. I was there for almost two years. I roped cattle and branded the horses and the calves. I earned the respect of the cowboys by fighting like the devil. It turned out that someone at sometime had lived in that house, who was either a lawyer or had wanted to be one, and had all kinds of law books from England on common law. So during the rough winters there I studied those books.

BR: These jobs helped you raise money to return to law school which you did in 1932 and there you shared a classroom with Richard Nixon. How did you meet him?
CSR: While working my way through school as a carpenter, I ran a nail into the side of my hand that became infected causing me to miss many classes. I had bone surgery and lost a number of bones in my right hand. In class, we were seated alphabetically and seated next to me was a student from California, who was scared to death he’d flunk out every day, by the name of Richard Millhouse Nixon. I spent most of the year in the hospital and Nixon said, "you’re going to have a tough time and I will help you every night that you miss a class." And he did, or I never would have gotten through that year.

BR: Why did you come to Washington, D.C.?
CSR: Because of my hand injury, I couldn’t work as a carpenter anymore so I decided I would go to Washington to get a job with the government and complete my degree at George Washington Law School. While attending school, I got a job with the Agricultural Department through some connections I’d made in Denver. That was 1935. I was getting $180 a month salary, but my government job didn’t last long. I went to work as a law clerk for Homer McCormick at Dow & Lohnes (now Dow, Lohnes & Albertson). It was a good move because McCormick worked me day and night. That didn’t hurt me. It led to a job offer with the National Institute of Municipal Law Officers (NIMLO), an informational law cooperation among large municipalities across the country. I was general counsel of NIMLO from 1937 to 1988. I passed the Bar in 1937 and my first case in the Supreme Court came after only two years because of my connection with these cities. I was representing Atlanta and other cities in their suit against the Bituminous Coal Commission. I was almost unable to argue the case because I hadn’t been a member of the Bar for the required three years, but because I was the only one prepared, the Court—Charles Evans Hughes was the Chief Judge then—accepted me for this case.

During this time, I was getting to represent cities and sometimes states.

BR: In 1957, you became president of the American Bar Association. During your tenure, you oversaw the installation of the Magna Carta memorial on Runnymeade Meadow in England and created Law Day USA, which led to the World Peace Through Law program. How did that all get started?
CSR: I got the idea that the reason we were having so much lawlessness in the world at that time was that people didn’t appreciate or respect the law and those who were carrying out the law. I thought, let’s look at what’s going on in Russia. They have all their troops come out on May 1 every year and have a celebration of all the weapons they have developed in the prior year. I said, our greatest weapon was the law and the way we’re going to overcome Communism is through law. We should hold the law up for the people to see and say we’re proud of it, shout it from the housetops. I talked about my idea for a May 1 Law Day to Henry Luce, Editor-in-Chief of Time and Life magazines, who said it sounded a bit dreamy, but it made enough sense to be the cover story of Time.

I still think that we as a people don’t appreciate law. Every thing in our country, all of our freedoms depend upon law. They are built on law and enforced by law.

BR: How did your interest in international law develop?
CSR: I was elected chair of the International Law Section in the American Bar Association and that got me into the international picture in a big way. It was a great challenge. Everything was going international, I could see that, I felt it. I saw a chance where we younger lawyers could get in on what I thought would be practicing law throughout the world.

BR: How do you feel about international law today?
CSR: International law has come quite a ways and one of the reasons is because when we have one of these world conferences of lawyers and judges, we have a representative from more than a hundred countries. It’s not that they come to praise their own governments’ law, but they come to express their views on how the law can end war. The greatest danger today still is that we will all be wiped out by nuclear war.

This is how I really got more and more into the international part of law, because nearly everybody said world peace through law was an impossible dream. Again, it was a matter of sticking to principles and fighting it out, and still is for that matter.

It’s true that we have an international area today, a world court on trade, that we didn’t have before. We’re now working on an international criminal court. But the absence of law in the world community is the greatest threat to the extension of humanity.

BR: What more do you think needs to be done?
CSR: We have to have people of all countries to believe that a regime of law internationally will work just as well as it does within countries.

BR: You have traveled extensively through your efforts for world peace and met many world leaders. What did it feel like to meet Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of England?
CSR: In a way it was overawing, in a way it wasn’t, because he was telling me that he believed in what I was preaching, and he said, "I just hope that you stay the course." I said, "Well, I can tell you as long as I’m head of the American Bar Association, it will stay the course because I’m going to spread this out world wide. When there’s talk of ending wars and armies, it’s always between diplomats and presidents and people like you, prime ministers. I just want to get the people together just as individuals, lawyers yes, but as individuals. After all, lawyers have to write these things and I think out of all of that we’ll get this movement going." He said "God help you but it’s a tough hill to climb."

BR: Of all the people you met, who do you admire the most?
CSR: I consider Pope John Paul II the greatest man on the planet and Churchill right behind him and Harry S Truman right behind him.

I’ve met several Popes. I met John Paul XXIII in 1960 during a World Peace Through Law Conference. There came a loud knock outside my hotel door from the concierge, who said: "Mr. Rhyne, I have something to give you, it’s the only papal invitation to come in today. It’s an admission to see his Holiness tomorrow at 1 o’clock. You don’t see those too often. We have never heard of you before. Can you tell us what it is that got you this invitation?" And I said, "I don’t think I should."

BR: What did you talk about?
CSR: We talked about world peace and why did we lawyers think we could do something that had never been done before. The reason I wanted to see him, frankly, was because I wanted his help and his prayers.

BR: Your career also included serving as special counsel to President Eisenhower in the late 1950s. What was that experience like?
CSR: One of the biggest controversies in Eisenhower’s tenure came over the sale of cranberries around Thanksgiving, 1959. The Food and Drug Administration had condemned all cranberries and cranberry products produced in Washington and Oregon during 1958 and 1959 because of the kind of pesticide that had been sprayed on them. So Ike called me and said, "farmers are lambasting me and they tell me stuff is just piling up and they’re criticizing me for not doing something about the FDA, tell them they can’t do that because their findings are wrong." The President’s scientific advisor, George B. Kistiakowsky and I notified Agriculture and the FDA people to appear at a hearing room in the old State Department building which today is the old Executive Office Building next to the White House. We got up there and while we were rearranging everything, there were a few nods and such between everybody except Secretary of Agriculture, Ezra Taft Benson. He was mad. He wanted the FDA abolished. Suddenly over the microphone I hear, "My God, there sits Charlie Rhyne. The last time I saw him in court, he wanted to put me under the jail. He examined everything except my underwear." It was FDA Commissioner George P. Larrick. I said, "I just want to advise the FDA commissioner that the next time, I’m going to examine his underwear," which I thought would break the tension a little bit and everybody laughed except Secretary Benson. Even William Goodrich, the FDA general counsel, laughed at that.

I had been working on the thing and reading up an awful lot, and the FDA was right about the potentiality of the weed killer to cause harm. But they were claiming that instead of being washed off by the rains in Oregon and some states, it was staying on and causing cancer. So I went to my old FDA adversary Billy Goodrich—a great lawyer who passed away recently—and said, "we’ve got about an hour of work to do." We wrote up a one-page message for President Eisenhower to sign that said the ban from the FDA was withdrawn, that the people from the cranberry industry whose crops had been destroyed would be compensated for their losses as would anyone who could prove they had been damaged by or have claims against those who applied the pesticide and didn’t take it off. And that was it.

BR: You have argued a large number of significant cases before the Supreme Court. What case would you say you are most proud of?
CSR: Baker v. Carr (1962), which established the one-man, one vote principle. I was up against Justice Felix Frankfurter who was so sure he was going to uphold his decision of 15 years earlier (Colegrove v. Green) that said elections were a "political thicket" and were beyond the Court’s jurisdiction. Case after case had been filed, trying to get the issue back into court but all had been turned down. When I finally got in, I was told I’d just get chewed up by Frankfurter, so I worked harder on that than anything. I just took Frankfurter dead on and told him he was wrong. The Constitution required that his earlier decision be overturned and it was his duty to carry out the Constitution and he said, "don’t tell me my duty." I said, "the Constitution is there for you to read." He had been preaching to his brethren and none of them were helping me a bit. I took a beating for about an hour. Finally, I won, six to two. It is difficult when you have a man as prestigious as I was up against. I learned that the only way to handle Frankfurter was to attack him. Several justices have said Baker v. Carr is the most important case the court has ever handed down because the court had been trying to say the Constitution doesn’t extend to political matters and that was Frankfurter’s distinction. But the right to vote is not a political matter, it’s an absolute Constitutional right. Although I disagreed with him, I respected him tremendously for sticking with his position. I believe he respected me too; the few times we met after the decision, he was most kind and friendly.

BR: In 1974, you represented president Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods during the Watergate hearings. How did she become your client?
CSR: I had known Rose for about as long as Richard Nixon had been in Washington. She became his secretary when he represented California in Congress.

We were gathered at home on Thanksgiving Day, 1973, and Rose called. She said, "I don’t know what’s happened but suddenly I’m snake bitten. Nobody will talk to me. Nobody will have anything to do with me and they tell me I’ve got to get myself a lawyer. Up ’til now I've been deciphering tapes and the President has been turning them over to the court. But now they will have somebody else decipher them." I said, "Rose, I sense that every word you are saying will be on the front page of the Washington Post tomorrow, so don’t say anything more. I’ll come down there 11 o’clock tomorrow." She began to protest because she knew Sue quite well and knew she was sick. So next day, I show up with my son, Bill, who was a senior at George Washington Law School then, and there was General Alexander Haig. He said, "Well there’s no question that she did it." I said, "She did what?" He said, "We’ve had the Secret Service, the FBI and CIA all investigate and they all say she knocked 18 1/4 minutes off the tape." I said, "did you see her do it," and he said, "oh no, no, no." I looked over in the corner and there was one guy I’m sure recording everything. Haig said their reports are all in and they’re all against Rose. I said I wanted to see the reports.

We went over to Rose’s office and she comes out and threw her arms around me and cried and cried. I thought she’d never quit, and about that time Nixon came through the door and he sat down at her desk and put his feet up and asked, "What are we going to do for Rose?" I said, "Mr. President, we are not going to talk about anything. I’d like for you to get up. I think this office is bugged and it would all appear on the front of the Washington Post tomorrow." So he said, "well uh," and I said, "don’t say well uh. I don’t want to be testifying and I don’t want you to be testifying about what occurred in this room, so just get the hell up and get out." And boy, he got up and tore the door off almost running down to see Haig.

Bill and I determined that they didn’t really have anything on Rose and that’s what they were hiding. We decided we would bring Rose to the hearings as they demanded and would appear at every one of their so-called secret meetings and learn all we could. I demanded that the court give me an order to examine the records of the so-called tape experts who finally issued a report saying they couldn’t determine what had happened. We found that those experts had charged the government more than $2 million more than they should have. That alone would have destroyed them had they gotten on the stand in a trial.

Rose told the story honestly that while she was running the machine, Nixon buzzed her. She left her desk to answer his call, and when she got back she saw the machine was still moving. She told Nixon what had happened and he said not to worry about it because that piece of the tape was not subpoenaed. As it turned out later, it had been. But in any event, Nixon said to lock the tape in her safe. The months wore on and there was a lot of fighting going on over that tape but I stuck with the fact that Rose was telling the truth and wasn’t lying. Ultimately, Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski wanted to meet with me in a public place and talk. He said, "Judge Sirica and I have agreed that we have no evidence whatsoever on Rose. She is completely exonerated, but we cannot announce that without destroying our whole case. There’s about 20 we’re going to take to trial, but Rose is not one of them." I said, "Well that’s fine, enter an order dropping the whole thing." He said the order would be entered but it won’t be announced to the world because it would destroy all the other cases. I said Id ask Rose if she wanted to go through a trial that could last months or a year or whether she wants to accept the sealed order. Rose accepted it.

BR: That must have been a difficult time for you.
CSR: It was difficult because it went on for so long and every day there was a call from someone from the Washington Post saying that tomorrow there will be a story on so and so, what’s your comment. We’d say, no comment. Bill and I never made a single comment to the press, ever.

BR: Tell me about your efforts to desegregate the Bar Association of the District of Columbia and Duke University.
CSR: In 1955, when I decided to run for president of the Bar Association of the District of Columbia, Washington was growing but was still segregated in the schools, public restrooms, public transportation and such. I could not, in good conscience, become president of an association that discriminated against black lawyers, many of whom were my close friends. So I made an announcement to strike the word "white" from the group’s constitution as a requirement for membership. People were unhappy and responded by leaving dead cats and garbage in my lawn. Shocking my opponent, I won 920 to 225. At a meeting on May 8, 1956, the membership voted in favor of removing the word but the association was later sued by six members. As a result, there was a second vote that produced the same results as the first. More than two-thirds of the membership voted to strike the word "white" and black judges and lawyers could now be members.

Later, at my first Board of Trustees meeting at Duke in 1962, the topic was desegregation and getting needed Federal grants. Until then, Duke had not accepted black students except in its graduate schools. I offered a motion to adopt a new policy of admitting students regardless of race, gender, color or creed. The response from the board members was one of surprise. I talked about the Fourteenth Amendment and my successful argument for equality in Baker v. Carr. The votes were secret and when the secretary read each vote aloud, either for or against, the motion passed 24 to 2.

I’ve always fought for equality and worked for many years helping municipal lawyers eliminate all kinds of discrimination at the municipal level throughout our nation. I traveled around the world with Chief Justice Earl Warren and Justices Tom Clark, Hugo Black and Thurgood Marshall pushing equal rights for all. I believe deeply in the words of the U.S. Declaration of Independence that all persons were created equal.