Avowed Racist Barred From Practicing Law

New York Times/February 10, 1999
By Pam Belluck

Chicago -- All it takes is a phone call to find out where Matthew Hale stands.

"You have reached the most dynamic pro-white organization on planet Earth," says the greeting on his answering machine, before launching into a 10-minute racist and anti-Semitic diatribe condemning the idea of "the equality of the races" as "patently absurd."

In large part to foster and spread these opinions, Hale, 27, from East Peoria, wants to be a lawyer.

"I want to be an advocate for white people in the court room," said Hale, who heads a white-supremacist organization called the World Church of the Creator. "I can't name one attorney, for example, who is an open racist, and that's what I am."

But because he makes no bones about his views and goals, Hale, who has completed law school and passed the state bar, has been denied a license to practice law in Illinois by a state panel that evaluates the character and fitness of prospective lawyers.

Hale, according to a decision that was supported by two of the panel's three members, is "free, as the First Amendment allows, to incite as much racial hatred as he desires and to attempt to carry out his life's mission of depriving those he dislikes of their legal rights. But in our view he cannot do this as an officer of the court."

The decision has generated controversy in First Amendment circles and among legal experts who say they fear it could set a dangerous precedent, denying rights based on a person's abhorrent views. Leaders of the Anti-Defamation League say they worry such a decision, allowed to stand, could lead to a "slippery slope" that could penalize people with unpopular opinions on issues like abortion or school prayer.

Hale, who is challenging the panel's decision before a higher-level state committee, is also trying to enlist the help of Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor. Dershowitz said Tuesday he was considering taking on the case.

The courts have reviewed other cases in which applicants for the bar have been rejected because of unpopular beliefs or because they refused to swear allegiance to a particular political value system.

In cases involving communists in the 1950s, the courts ruled that membership in an unpopular movement, without proof that the person's conduct was dangerous, was not enough to exclude a person from the bar, said Geoffrey. Hazard, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the rejection of two prospective lawyers who had refused to reveal their political beliefs.

But experts say they know of no similar case involving someone who actively spread racist propaganda or in which someone clearly intended to use the law to support those views.

The state panel's decision did not merely claim that Hale's views were reprehensible, but said his "active advocacy" of his goals was blatantly immoral and rendered him unfit to be a lawyer.

"Under any civilized standards of decency, the incitement of racial hatred for the ultimate purpose of depriving selected groups of their legal rights shows a gross deficiency in moral character, particularly for lawyers who have a special responsibility to uphold the rule of law for all persons," the decision said. It added, "If the civilized world had no experience with Hitler, Matthew Hale might be dismissed as a harmless 'crackpot.' However, history teaches a different lesson."

But the opinion also seemed to indicate that the panel was wading into delicate territory.

It said that in an interview with one of the judges on the panel, Hale had said that he could uphold the state and federal constitutions even though he disagreed with their guarantees against discrimination.

And when asked if he could obey a rule prohibiting discriminatory treatment of "litigants, jurors, witnesses, lawyers and others, based on race, sex, religion or national origin," Hale said he would follow such rules and laws until such time as he could have them changed by peaceful means.

The third member of the state panel supported Hale's application, saying there was no evidence that Hale could not "hold racist views and practice law in accordance with his oath."

Hale, who said he developed his white-supremacist views at age 12, was active in racist groups in college, where he majored in political science and played the violin. He ran unsuccessfully in 1995 for the East Peoria City Council and then, convinced that the supremacist movement needed legal representation, went to law school at Southern Illinois University. Last fall, he worked for two months as a law clerk for a firm in Champaign, but was dismissed when he failed to get his law license.

As the leader of the World Church of the Creator since 1996, Hale, who calls himself reverend, has an office in his parents' home where an Israeli flag serves as a doormat and swastika stickers paper the walls. He writes letters to the editor saying that all non-whites should be deported. He also and runs the group's Web site, which demonizes Jews and "other mud races" and says that Hitler had the right idea, except that he should have promoted the supremacy of all whites, not just Germans.

Hale has been convicted on minor charges in connection with activities like burning an Israeli flag, but there is no evidence he has committed or encouraged acts of violence.

Last fall, four members of the World Church of the Creator were indicted on hate-crime charges in the holdup of a Miami video store, accused of acting on the group's belief that all media outlets are controlled by Jews. Another member is serving a life sentence for killing a black sailor returning from the Persian Gulf War near Jacksonville, Fla., in 1991.

Dershowitz, who is Jewish and said that if he took the case he would choose a black lawyer as co-counsel, added that before he took up Hale's cause, he would want to make sure Hale bears no responsibility for encouraging or tacitly supporting such violence. Dershowitz said he would contribute all his fees from the case to anti-racist groups.

Hale has said he advocates peaceful means and has no control of the actions of some members of group, which was formed in 1973 and claims 7,000 members.

Several experts said they thought Hale's rejection probably violated the First Amendment unless there was proof that his actions deprived people of constitutional rights.

"I wouldn't want him to be a member of the bar," said David Baugh, a black lawyer in Richmond, Va., who represented a Ku Klux Klan member charged with burning a cross. "But I would defend him and if anyone is being denied access to the profession because of their beliefs, that's wrong."

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