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Lawyer's crusade carries a price

Even in an era of legal specialization, Harley Scott Herman has developed a most extraordinary area of expertise.

Herman, a solo practitioner in this Central Florida citrus town, may be the only American ever to get a disbarred lawyer reinstated posthumously.

Five and a half years ago he did it for Virgil Darnell Hawkins, a black man whose lawsuit desegregated the University of Florida Law School but who was barred from the school himself.

Three years after Hawkins relinquished his law license amid a flurry of ethical complaints against him, and eight months after he died, the Florida Supreme Court was persuaded by Herman to readmit him.

Herman argued that Hawkins' contributions to civil rights in the state far outweighed whatever mistakes he had made.

More recently Herman, who is white, attempted to do the same thing for Charles Howard of Iowa, another black lawyer deeply involved in civil rights, who died in 1969.

In a petition before the Iowa Supreme Court, Herman argued that Howard's good deeds _ he helped desegregate the lunch counters of Des Moines and co-founded the National Bar Association, to which blacks flocked when they were barred from the ABA _ similarly overshadowed his ethical problems: negligent representation and misdeeds with some clients' money.

The Iowa Supreme Court disagreed, ruling Wednesday that "as a champion of individual liberties he deserves our praise; as a lawyer with tragic human frailties he deserved disbarment."

For Herman, 40, the campaign to rehabilitate Hawkins remains a personal crusade, even an obsession. His efforts for Howard were more a favor to the National Bar Association, which turned to him after unsuccessfully petitioning the Iowa court for Howard's reinstatement four years ago.

After that loss, Warren Dawson, a black lawyer from Tampa, told Cleota Proctor Wilbekin of Cincinnati, who spearheaded the Howard effort: "There's some cat who's done the same thing for Virgil Hawkins, and he's even white. Why don't you call him?"

Reluctant to enlist a white Southerner, Ms. Wilbekin, a retired Ohio judge, took a few days before following Dawson's advice. But she was delighted with what she found when she did.

"Harley's a special kind of person," she said, "to be so courageous on behalf of people who couldn't then, nor now, do anything for themselves, and to do it all at his own expense. A sole white lawyer in a little town in racist Florida who decides to stand up and be counted: That is a story."

Virgil Hawkins first applied to the University of Florida Law School in 1949, when he was 42 years old. Barred because of his race, he contined his struggle for admission for a decade.

But the Florida Supreme Court, state school officials and politicians found a variety of ways to keep him out: first establishing a "separate but equal" law school for blacks at Florida A&M; then raising standards and ruling that he failed to meet them; declaring that he was morally unfit, in part because a $25 check of his had bounced.

In 1958, the school finally desegregated in settlement of a suit brought by Hawkins. But a provision of the settlement was that he drop his application for admission.

In 1965 he earned a degree at the New England School of Law in Boston.

Because that school was unaccredited, however, Florida never allowed him to take a bar exam. In 1976 the state Supreme Court finally permitted him to practice without the test. But starting a new career here in Leesburg at the age of 70, representing clients too poor to pay, proved too burdensome financially, professionally and personally.

Beset by disciplinary problems centering on competence and his handling of clients' money _ and beset, too, Herman contends, by the bar's hyperscrutinizing _ Hawkins eventually surrendered his law license.

Herman, a native of Nyack, N.Y., and a 1978 graduate of the University of Florida Law School, never thought of himself as an activist. His practice in Leesburg, concentrating on family and probate law, had always been quiet.

But he had seen how exultant Hawkins was at finally practicing law, and how crushed he was by his fate. From the moment of Hawkins' funeral in 1988, where Herman was the only white lawyer _ indeed, he and his wife were two of only three whites among the 300 mourners _ he began pressing for reinstatement.

In October 1988, the state Supreme Court complied, making Hawkins a member of the bar "in good standing."

"Hawkins' struggle for equal justice," the court said, "should be memorialized. Hawkins is entitled to be recognized for his contribution to our state."

But Herman did not stop there. He urged the University of Florida Law School to name its legal aid clinic for Virgil Hawkins, and when his alma mater balked, he got the Legislature to mandate it.

He also raised funds and installed a monument in Okahumpka, the black hamlet near Leesburg where Hawkins was born, and cleaned up the nearby cemetery where Hawkins is buried.

The high costs of a cause have left Herman's finances precarious. He says he has been ostracized by the local bench and bar, and estimates that he has poured $250,000 into restoring Hawkins' reputation.

He has dropped his secretary and, having rented out the front of his office for additional income, now squirrels himself and his wife, a paralegal, into cramped, cheerless, windowless quarters in the rear, where the fish tank is musty and cheap shelves buckle under the weight of law books.

While he won't disclose his income, he says someone earning $20,000 a year is probably living better than he.

And yet, he says, the experience of rehabilitating one dead man's reputation has proved the most rewarding of his life. He is now intent on writing Virgil Hawkins' biography, even if he has to close down his law office to find the time to do it right.

"Getting the history of the civil rights period preserved is far more important than any case I could handle," he said. "People who know of that history could well become the Hawkinses and Howards who are needed in every generation. That's why it's so important."

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