Four decades ago this month, a young lawyer from Alabama had an idea: Sue two organizations for damages stemming from the conduct and actions of their employees or members.
The organizations were the Republican National Committee and the Committee for the Re-election of the President. The individuals were five “burglars” who had broken into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C., on June 17, 1972.
The lawyer was Morris Dees, who at the time was serving as campaign finance director for George S. McGovern, who would become the Democratic candidate running against Richard Nixon in that year’s presidential race. After reading that the men arrested in the Watergate break-in had connections with the RNC and CREEP, Dees contacted McGovern’s campaign manager.
“I called Gary Hart” [a presidential candidate in the 1980s], says Dees, “and I said, ‘Gary, I smell a rat here. I say, let’s sue them.’ ”
The lawsuit eventually settled for a few hundred thousand dollars—a result that displeases Dees even to this day. He thinks the recovery against the RNC and CREEP could have been in the millions.
But Dees soon found other ways to put his unique legal theory to effective use. Starting in 1980 and continuing for the next three decades, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which Dees co-founded in 1971, filed a series of historic and highly successful civil lawsuits seeking to hold various chapters of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist organizations responsible for the wrongdoings of their members. And he’s got the death threats to prove it—at least two dozen by his count.
In one of the most recent cases, the SPLC won a $2.5 million judgment against the Imperial Klans of America and its imperial wizard, Ron Edwards, for the brutal beating of a Latino teenager at a Kentucky county fair in 2006. The Kentucky Supreme Court upheld the verdict in March.
In August, the ABA will present Morris Seligman Dees Jr. with its highest honor, the ABA Medal. The association’s Board of Governors selected him as this year’s recipient in June, and he will receive the medal during the House of Delegates session at the 2012 annual meeting in Chicago. Previous recipients include Leon Jaworski, U.S. Supreme Court Justices Thurgood Marshall and Sandra Day O’Connor, and the Rev. Robert F. Drinan.
At 75, Dees doesn’t sound like he’s ready to slow down. “There’s still so much more to do,” he says. “We are doing a lot of individual cases and we have a major juvenile justice project. The schools to prison pipeline must be addressed. Klan Watch is still doing tremendous work and we have a team going to law enforcement agencies across the country doing 30 to 50 seminars a year on hate crimes.”