Iron man of high court close to a record

April 17, 1995|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON -- He's the Cal Ripken of the Supreme Court bar.

Like the Oriole shortstop in pursuit of Lou Gehrig's astonishing record of consecutive baseball games played, Lawrence Gerald Wallace is closing in on another mark that once seemed unbeatable.

Tomorrow, when the iron man of the solicitor general's office dons a traditional dark-gray cutaway and striped pants to present the government's position in a military law case, Mr. Wallace will be making his 130th argument in the Supreme Court.

That's only 10 appearances short of the court-verified modern record held by the late constitutional lawyer John W. Davis, a former solicitor general, ambassador to Great Britain and Democratic candidate for president in 1924.

At his current pace, Mr. Wallace, a little-known government lawyer and lesser-known professional violinist, would become the 20th century record-holder in 1998.

For Mr. Wallace, who has worked under seven presidents and seven solicitors general, arguing and writing briefs for complex cases in the Supreme Court have been his job for 27 years. He has addressed the justices more often than any living lawyer, more than any civil servant in history.

In fact, he observed the other day, "I've appeared in only one court in my entire career -- the Supreme Court."

Mr. Wallace, a round-cheeked man with a graying mustache, declines to disclose his age. A legal reference book says he was born in 1931, which would make him 63 or 64. He professes only a minimal interest in the fuss over numbers of cases argued.

"The whole thing isn't so important," he said. "I mean, what difference is this number or that number? It's quality that counts."

For a qualitative assessment, there's the formidable testimony of retired Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., who wrote Mr. Wallace that his oral presentations "rank among the very best the court hears. The government is fortunate to have an advocate of your quality."

Mr. Wallace figures he wins about 75 to 80 percent of his cases, which is par for the solicitor general's office.

He has successfully defended voting rights, benefits for victims of black lung disease and pesticide regulation. He has played a key role in developing the law barring job discrimination.

Mr. Wallace was on the winning side when the court ruled in 1979 that private companies and unions could voluntarily adopt racial quotas in traditionally segregated jobs.

But "we were on the wrong side" when the justices began outlawing racial discrimination in the selection of juries in 1986, he said.

His best Supreme Court advocacy? "I rather like the argument I did in a case called Randall against Loftsgaarden, in which we had 10 minutes and I managed to sit down in six minutes. I felt we had something to say and I said it right at the outset."

Born and raised in Syracuse, N.Y., Mr. Wallace was a 1959 graduate of Columbia University Law School, where he was editor-in-chief of the law review. One of his writers was Ruth Bader Ginsburg, now a Supreme Court justice.

Mr. Wallace briefly tried private practice, clerked for the late Justice Hugo Black and taught law at Duke University for seven years before beginning his government career under President Lyndon Johnson's solicitor general, Erwin Griswold.

Nearly a quarter-century later, in 1992, Mr. Wallace overtook Mr. Griswold's 118 Supreme Court arguments and moved into second place.

Mr. Wallace, a bachelor living in Chevy Chase, Md., has another life -- music. When Leonard Bernstein conducted his Mass at the opening of the Kennedy Center, Larry Wallace was in the violin section.

He has played in chamber groups and in orchestras that accompanied a range of performers from Isaac Stern to Isaac Hayes, from Beverly Sills to Eddy Arnold.

And so, when asked to describe his courtroom technique, Mr. Wallace replied: "I sometimes argue in sonata form, sometimes in theme and variations."

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