Spotlight: Lawyer for the Little Guy


Dan Popeo was following the path hoped for by many of his fellow Georgetown Law School graduates: a position on the legal staff in the Nixon White House, a brief stint in the US attorney general's office, and a job as a trial attorney at the Department of Interior. The next logical step was a lucrative offer from one of the capital's distinguished law firms.

But Popeo, the son of a working-class family, was offended by his cases at Interior. Handed the responsibility for enforcing health and safety regulations often capricious and petty in nature, he found that his opponents in court were often struggling entrepreneurs. The last straw, Popeo related in a recent interview, was when he found himself seeking a court injunction to "close down a one-man mine operation because the owner didn't have a two-way radio to talk to himself, or a stretcher to carry himself out of the mine if injured."

So instead of moving up to a plush office on Pennsylvania Avenue with an extensive law library and legions of support staff, Popeo in 1976 borrowed $15,000 to establish the nonprofit Washington Legal Foundation. His quarters: a $100-a-month cubicle with $100 worth of office furniture. His only law library was across town at his alma mater, and Popeo's wife served as secretary, typing briefs at home in the evenings.

Today, the Washington Legal Foundation is one of the country's largest nonprofit public-interest law centers. Its latest annual report cites over 200,000 members and supporters nationwide. Ensconced in their own four-story renovated townhouse in one of Washington's fashionable areas, the foundation's 13-member staff has gained national recognition for work in the courts, regulatory agencies, and public-policy arena.

Once the sole province of the liberal left, "public-interest law" is now practiced by a score of conservative and libertarian organizations across the nation. "Groups like the Washington Legal Foundation," says Popeo, "have every intention of using the courts for free enterprise, for a free market, and for a limited government in all the ways, with all the methods, that the ACLU, Ralph Nader, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund have used the courts for years."

Several of the foundation's most-publicized cases in defense of freedom have involved a party usually absent from American courtrooms—the Soviet government. Popeo's group first challenged the Russians in 1983 when they defended the right of the city of Glen Cove, New York, to bar vacationing Soviet diplomatic staff from municipal recreation facilities. The city, which contended that most of those involved were in fact KGB agents, was ultimately unsuccessful in its effort, but the dispute was featured in a segment of 60 Minutes.

A year later, the foundation filed a complaint in the US Court of International Trade seeking to enforce a 1930 law that bars the importation of goods made by slave or forced labor. The action was prompted by a CIA report that some three dozen products imported from the Soviet Union fall into such a category. A move to implement the required ban by the US Customs Service was blocked by Treasury Secretary Donald Regan.

The complaint is still pending, as is the foundation's defense of Vanna Om Strinko, a Cambodian refugee who is being prosecuted for her peaceful protest in front of the Soviet embassy in Washington. Unlike the nearly 2,000 people who have been arrested since November 1984 for breaking the same law in front of the South African embassy but whose charges are routinely dropped, the diminutive Mrs. Strinko—now an American citizen—faces a maximum possible penalty of 60 days in jail and a $100 fine.

Popeo is angered by the double standard often evident among liberals. "You don't see the do-gooders and so-called human rights activists arguing against slave-made goods, or the ACLU running to the defense of Mrs. Strinko," he says in exasperation.

His organization and others like it, says Popeo, are engaged in "a war of legal ideas and a dispute over how to govern." On the other side, he sees activists who use the courts "to pursue radical social and political agendas that they couldn't possibly accomplish at the ballot box." Counters Popeo: "I don't think anybody ever wanted the US district judges to become America's modern-day Founding Fathers, rewriting our Constitution in the courts."

On the same side as the courts in this "war of legal ideas" is the government-funded Legal Services Corporation ("all the money they've used to pursue their own radical agenda could have been used for legal services for the poor"). Then there are all the "so-called public-interest spokesmen, who over the years have built up the role of government in making sure that business profits don't get too big—because the bigger a business, 'obviously' there's corruption or exploitation of the worker going on."

But he concedes that citizens and voters themselves bear some of the blame for government's intrusiveness in their lives. "The American people," he charges, "have been turned into the biggest bunch of babies! Every time something goes wrong, the first thing they do is look to the government for a solution or an answer."

But even after such serious rumination, Popeo can't help but lean back and, with a wide grin, exclaim, "But I'm having a hell of a lot of fun!"

Kelly Ross is the director of public affairs of the Reason Foundation.