On the outside, Kerpelman seeks his day in court

MICHAEL OLESKER

April 18, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Remember Leonard Kerpelman? The Maryland legal system doesn't. Remember the old Kerpelman headlines? They were all about Kerpelman as Avenging Angel Attorney: Kerpelman as mouthpiece for the Supreme Court ban on school prayers. Kerpelman defending civil rights activists when nobody else wanted to touch them. Kerpelman taking up the cause of divorced fathers.

And then -- oops! -- Kerpelman getting disbarred in 1992. Found guilty of charging too much money, of disrupting a judicial proceeding.

Remember any of this? Those in the Maryland legal profession seem not to remember Kerpelman at all, even though he's gone out of his way to spit in their eye. He's practicing law without a license these days, hoping the legal community will bring him in so he can plead his disbarment case all over again.

For about a year now, he's been filing various legal papers for clients, doing bits and pieces of legal business, never quite venturing into a courtroom but clearly and willfully violating the spirit and the legality of his disbarment and inviting authorities to challenge him.

But nobody does. They only want him to go away.

And so Kerpelman has a plan. When the time is right, he says, he'll try to enter a courtroom. And if he's tossed out, he was saying last week, "I think I'll set up a table in front of the courthouse, with a sign saying, 'Free Legal Advice.' You know, something low-key."

Low-key.

Right.

Low-key, he never was. Not on the day he waded, fully clothed, into the fountain at Hopkins Plaza, out of a sense of nothing more than childlike fun. Nor the time he formally protested the tearing down of the Cedar Avenue Bridge. Kerpelman asked for $40,000 for the "mental anguish" and "deprivation of joy" he would suffer every time he might pass the area after the bridge was destroyed.

Those in the legal profession, very serious folk, shuddered at such behavior. They found it unseemly for someone in their profession to unbutton his emotions, or his puckish sense of humor, so casually in public.

Or the time then-Attorney General Francis Burch wanted to change his name legally to Bill. Kerpelman filed a formal objection, saying that the name Bill "has always conjured up visions of a cuddly, friendly, down-to-earth, boy-next-door, palsy, all-American type of fellow, one who is easy to get along with, comradely, and possessed of the common touch" -- all qualities Kerpelman found lacking in Francis Burch, no matter which name he chose.

A wallflower, Kerpelman never was.

Nor, for that matter, a universally beloved figure. This is, after all, the man who took Madalyn Murray O'Hair's anti-school prayer case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court three decades ago and then had the nerve to win.

You want to talk unpopular, this man was unpopular. And uncaring about it. He kept taking on clients and causes nobody else wanted, kept ticking off powers in the profession. Some said they were lying in wait for him, looking for some technicality on which to grab him and finally leaped into action over this

business of excessive legal fees.

All of a sudden, there's a ceiling on legal fees? This will come as enormous news to almost anyone in America who's ever dealt with an attorney. But Kerpelman was brought before the Maryland Attorney Grievance Commission, and the Maryland Court of Appeals, and wound up losing his license to practice.

He thinks it was an unfair process, in which those running the system made up their minds ahead of time. So now, pushing toward 70, feeling abused, he's refusing to fade quietly from view. He wants a confrontation, wants to force a courtroom trial -- one in which, specifically, the facts can be heard by a jury and not merely by some body of uptight jurists.

"This is all about clearing my name," he says. "There are three generations of lawyers in my family. My mother and three of her sisters were among the first women admitted to law school here. My father was in Maryland's class of 1922. My son practices law. There's a family history here that's been violated, that's been raped."

There, that's the kind of language that ought to wake everybody up. A wallflower, he never was. An attorney, he used to be. And he wants, against heavy odds, to be one again.

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