So who are Ward B. Coe I and II?
(Laughs) They were both lawyers in Baltimore. There’s been a Ward B. Coe practicing law in Baltimore since sometime in the 1890s.
In The Encyclopedia of Pleading and Practice, from 1895, there’s a definition of “affirmation” by a Ward B. Coe. Is that…?
That’s my grandfather. He also codified the British statutes that were the law of Maryland by Constitution until the legislature replaced them. In my first year in law school, a very ancient professor introduced me, to the hoots and howls of the students of the 1970s, as the grandson of the person who codified Alexander’s British statutes. I’d just gotten out of the Marines and had half-inch-long hair, and everybody else in the class had gotten out of final exams by protesting against the Vietnam War. It drew unwanted attention to me.
Marines? Where were you stationed?
In Quang Tri Province up in the DMZ.
Did you see combat?
Yeah, I was an infantry platoon commander, and acting company commander, and recon company commander. 1968 and ’69.
Turning-point years. Were you aware of that over there?
No. When you’re an infantryman, you’re aware of the ground you can see around you. You get snippets of news. I was away when King and Kennedy were assassinated and the ’68 convention took place—all those events that really transformed America. I knew that they had occurred but I had no sense how shaken the country was.
When you began to practice law, how did it differ from what you expected?
I don’t think it really did. I was pretty prepared for it. I wanted to be a trial lawyer and got into it right away: for a year with Anderson, Coe & King, which was my father’s firm, then for the state attorney general’s office.
What kind of law did your father practice?
He was a general practitioner who practiced for over 50 years in Baltimore, with a break for World War II. He had a little firm. He was the kind of person who never asked whether a client could pay or not, he just did the legal work for all of them. Some paid and some didn’t. I think it was a professionally satisfying career for him. He was helping people.
How did the assistant attorney general job come about?
There was an opening and I went down and interviewed for it. I don’t know whether nobody else applied or what, but I got it.
The great fun [in the job] was the investigation of the country clubs for having discriminatory admission and guest policies. Country clubs with golf courses got a real estate tax break, under some theory of open space. You know: it was open space for wealthy people who enjoyed being in country clubs.
We held a couple of public hearings and got some amazing explanations about why there happened to be no minorities of any kind in these particular clubs. One claimed they did not discriminate in guest policies, and I was examining the witness as to where he had seen African Americans—we used the word “black” back then—and went through all of the facilities and got “no”s until I got to the dining room and I got a “yes.” I got him to explain the occasion. They had invited the singing group known as the Yale Whiffenpoofs to sing at their Christmas dinner, and fed them dinner afterwards. There was a black member of the Whiffenpoofs.
Almost all of them gave up the tax break rather than let the state monitor their admission and guest policies.
Is your AG background why you wound up working on the savings and loan crisis in the 1980s?
No, that was entirely different. I went to Whiteford Taylor & Preston from the attorney general’s office, and Woody Preston, who was the senior partner there, was appointed by the legislature and the governor to investigate the savings and loan crisis. So I left the office with him, and a couple of other folks, and we did the investigation for about 11 months.
Just the investigation?
For about 11 months we worked exclusively on that. It was a huge mess. It was nothing compared to Wall Street today but it was a situation where, you know, deregulation of savings and loans had taken place overnight. All of a sudden they had lots of money. And as Willie Sutton said, you rob banks “because that’s where the money is.” We produced a 457-page report of all of the shenanigans that went on.
So the deregulation occurred overnight?
There was a federal act the Reagan Administration promoted, the Garn-St. Germain Act, that deregulated federal thrifts. And then the states followed suit. And savings and loans went from institutions that made mortgages in their neighborhood, and had savings passbooks, to institutions that were doing acquisition and development plans all the way across the country—paying 15 percent on savings accounts for international investors.
We referred a bunch of people for criminal prosecution by the state and by the federal government. Peter Keith, one of my partners here, was one of the prosecutors who put away the biggest swindler of them all, Jeffrey Levitt, and a couple of his associates.
Are you involved in any aspect of the current global financial meltdown?
Just in the sense that my retirement account’s disappearing.
Did you recently act as outside counsel to the committee investigating Gov. Ehrlich?
Yes. What that administration did was take campaign supporters who weren’t qualified in any way to have top-level government jobs, and put them at the secretary level—office just down from the secretary of the department—and have them provide advice about who to hire on the staff, reaching way down below political jobs, including people who handed out licenses for boating on the Chesapeake Bay and actuaries in the insurance administration. And it was based on political affiliation. So it was clearly in violation of individuals’ freedom of speech.
That almost seems like politics as usual, though.
The case law is pretty clear since 1976—the Supreme Court case [Elrod v. Burns] involving a sheriff’s office in Chicago. If you have a political job, if your job is politics, then politics can be a criteria for keeping it. But if it’s not a political job, it’s a violation of your First Amendment rights to fire you as—you know—a tax assessor for the state because you’ve got a Republican bumper sticker on your car.
Why did the ABA award you its national pro bono award in 2006?
It had to do with two things. I was involved, starting in ’86, in a class action representing foster children in Baltimore trying to reform the system: L.J. v. Massinga. As a result of that case I became a trustee for the named plaintiffs, who were four foster children, who are no longer children, of course, and I’ve helped them through the years.
I’ve [also] been chairman of the Maryland Court of Appeals Pro Bono Committee since 2002. We try to set up pro bono projects for lawyers to engage in throughout the state. It’s something that’s really needed, because, as the economy takes a turn, there are more people who need legal representation and can’t afford it. We’ve got great providers, like Legal Aid, but there are more than they can represent.
How do you do triage?
That’s always an issue. Right now, for instance, there’s been a foreclosure crisis here, like there has been everywhere. A large part of it is doing an assessment of the financial capabilities of people: How close they are to losing the home. That sort of thing.
What was your toughest case?
I think that foster-care case was certainly one of the most important cases. I worked on it with a lot of other very good lawyers.
I had a great case a couple of years ago where I represented a Seventh-day Adventist Church that was trying to build a new church in Prince George’s County and was prevented at every administrative level. So we filed a religious freedom case in federal court and had a two-week trial, which we won, with some partners of mine here, Dave Kinkopf and Brian Tucker. We got a good jury verdict of about $3.7 million and an injunction prohibiting the county from continuing to process applications for permits and everything in a discriminatory way. That’s on appeal at the 4th Circuit.
What was the county’s rationale for preventing the church from being built?
The rationale they advanced was it was an environmental concern because there was a reservoir nearby. But they didn’t use that same rationale to keep developers from building houses.
Who do you consider your role model?
Woody Preston, who proved you could be a great lawyer and have a lot of fun. He never took himself too seriously. When he became special counsel to investigate the savings and loan crisis, he had to be sworn in by the governor of Maryland. And he was driving to the beach with an ancient golden retriever in his car on a hot summer day. He didn’t want to leave him in his car in Annapolis so he took him up to the statehouse and asked the guard to watch him. And the guard said, “That’s OK, you can take him in.” So he was sworn in as special counsel in the presence of his golden retriever.
He’s still alive, but retired.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
When I was a young lawyer and getting worked over by an older lawyer and going for the bait, my father told me: Never get into a pissing contest with a skunk. It’s good advice.