Rebel With an Assortment of Causes

Lembhard Howell has spent 40 years bringing justice to his clients and change to the system

Published in 2010 Washington Super Lawyers magazine

By Geov Parrish on May 27, 2010


Not many lawyers are the subjects of poems.

But then, not many lawyers are Lembhard Howell. His friends speak of him with a knowing chuckle: If Howell is on your side, you must have a righteous cause.

Sitting in his 21st-floor downtown office, the unassuming 74-year-old personal injury and civil rights attorney seems soft-spoken for such a legendary figure. Then, as he spins stories about topics that inspire passion—ranging from his stint in the Navy to the numerous police-accountability cases he’s handled—the volume picks up. He seems unstoppable, reeling off names of attorneys and details of trials from decades ago as though they happened last week.

“Lem’s become a little bit more mellow,” says Don Curran, a Spokane attorney who’s known Howell for nearly 50 years. “But you wouldn’t know that unless you knew him back then.”

Howell’s cases have spanned nine U.S. presidencies. He tells about the landmark 1969 lawsuit that opened Washington’s construction trade unions to African Americans. And the 1979 state Supreme Court case that upheld affirmative-action employment policies for Seattle firefighters (Howell also played a role in the 1986 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld similar policies across the country). There was his advocacy of safety standards for construction workers, including a 1978 Washington state Supreme Court case requiring general contractors to safeguard workers on worksites. And his representation of many victims of alleged abusive behaviors by police. The list goes on.

The list—and the man—so inspired local attorney Carl L. Livingston Jr. that he wrote a poem about Howell calling him “a trumpet that signals the way.”

“Wherever you are, there will be one who speaks truth to power/one who speaks when the fearful are silent/one who stands when others cower,” writes Livingston, who is also a pastor and author of Shoestrings & Bootstraps: a Development Plan for Black America.

Howell’s impact has come from more than his courtroom prowess. In 1966, as the first African-American president of Washington state’s Young Democrats organization—a group he didn’t even belong to until he was nominated to run it—Howell launched a successful initiative campaign, I-229, that repealed the state’s antiquated blue laws restricting liquor sales on Sunday. About 20 years later, he became the first African American elected to the board of governors of the Washington State Bar Association (WSBA). In 2005, he was the WSBA’s nominee for the American Bar Association’s Thurgood Marshall Award for long-term contributions to civil rights.

“I’ve often thought there must be three of him,” says Ron Ward, who wrote the WSBA’s nomination of Howell and was the state Bar’s first African-American president at the time. Ward has known Howell for at least 30 years. “He carries a tremendous caseload, does an awful lot of things of a charitable nature, unbeknownst to many, and has mentored innumerable lawyers. His influence legally and politically has been tremendous.

“What makes him unique is his courage—he goes up against the most daunting [opponents]—and his amazing resilience, in terms of spirit and in terms of energy.”

Howell puts it more simply: “I have a competitive spirit.”


Legend in the Making

He was born in Jamaica, his father’s homeland, to which his father had returned from New York to find work during the Depression. The signs that Howell would spend his life fighting for the underdog, and saying impolitic things, appeared early. Howell tells the story of how, at age 9, he told an uncle that the king of England was “a bad man.” When the uncle explained that, as Jamaica’s ruling sovereign, the king couldn’t be criticized and that he could go to jail for saying such a thing, the young Howell rebelled, reasoning that everyone should have the right to say and think what they pleased without the fear of going to jail. That reasoning has stuck with him.

During World War II, Howell’s father moved back to New York City to work, and after the war young Howell, his sister, brother and mother followed. (Even today, after 50 years in the Pacific Northwest, Howell has a distinct New York accent.) 

After a four-year stint in the Navy—Howell is now a retired Naval Reserve commander—and an NYU law degree, Howell headed west.

For a fellowship, he needed to put in service for a governor of the same party as himself, and had his eye on a post with Democratic California Gov. Pat Brown—Ronald Reagan’s predecessor, remembered today largely as Jerry Brown’s father. “But [Brown] had 150 people on his staff,” he recounts, “and [then-Washington Gov. Albert] Rosselini had 15. I decided I’d rather be a big fish in a small pond.” And so he moved to Olympia.

The Northwest proved to Howell’s liking. He went on to clerk at the state Supreme Court, and after a stint as an assistant Washington state attorney general, he went into practice in Seattle, first pairing in 1969 with attorney John Miller (who later went on to serve in Congress) and then, in 1973, going into solo practice, focusing on personal injury and civil rights. But Washington was no idyll.

“Racism was alive and well,” Howell recalls of the racial climate in those days. Washington’s notorious Alien Land Laws, designed to deny land ownership to Asian Americans, were upheld at statewide polls in both 1960 and 1962, before finally being repealed in 1966. In early 1963, fair-housing referendums in both Tacoma and Seattle failed by 3-1 margins. And on June 19, 1965, a 42-year-old African American named Robert Reese was shot and killed.

Witnesses (who became plaintiffs) gave this account: Reese was summoned by friends eating at the Linyen Cafe, in Seattle’s International District, when two white men, who reportedly had been drinking, began uttering repeated derogatory comments and racial epithets. After Reese arrived, a fight ensued, and afterward, as Reese was leaving in a car, one of the white men pursued and shot through the back window of the fleeing car.

It turned out that the white men were off-duty Seattle police officers in civilian clothes who some witnesses said never identified themselves as officers. A criminal trial in 1966 exonerated the shooting officer. On behalf of the Reese family, Howell took a civil case against the officer and his employer, the city of Seattle, all the way to the state Supreme Court. He lost that case: a 5-4 ruling that “[a] death by shooting may be shown to have resulted from accident or misfortune, for the purpose of excusable homicide, even though the actual firing of the weapon was intentional.” But the case triggered Howell’s lifelong interest in advocating for the victims of alleged police violence. And in a case soon after, a fleeing Larry Ward was shot and killed by Seattle police in 1970 after an apparent entrapment scheme. Howell won a rare inquest jury verdict that the victim had died by criminal means. Nobody was ever prosecuted in Ward’s death. But, as a result of the verdict, King County began allowing cross-examination of witnesses during inquests, a procedural breakthrough in a jurisdiction that regularly exonerates police officers involved in fatal shootings.

Curran puts the achievement in context. “When Lem started the practice of law, blacks were a miniscule minority in the Bar in Washington state. There were very few black lawyers. He’s always been in the forefront. He’s always been a leader.”


Seeker of Justice

Civil rights struggles clearly inspire Howell. He lists as two of his heroes, Mahatma Gandhi—whose political activism started as a young civil rights lawyer in South Africa—and Martin Luther King Jr. But Howell’s strongest inspiration is Thurgood Marshall.

“I place Thurgood Marshall ahead of King,” Howell says, pointing out that Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which Marshall argued before the Supreme Court, came a year before King’s first activism. “He was the general that led a judicial civil-rights revolution in this country, removing the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine from the constitutions of 22 states. He had far more effect than most presidents. … He personified the lawyer as an architect of progress.”

Howell’s breakthrough “architectural” achievement was the 1969 desegregation of trade unions. Tyree Scott and other young African-American activists with the Central Contractors Association were protesting against local construction unions, which were refusing to hire black workers, even for jobs receiving federal funding. That violated a 1965 executive order by Lyndon Johnson.

Howell recounts a memorable confrontation with the superintendent of construction regarding building the King County Courthouse. “Tyree asked him, ‘How many black electricians do you have on this job?’ None. ‘How many black pipefitters do you have on this job?’ None. And so on. And we closed the job down.”

The CCA’s protests shut down every federal construction site around the area, from Sea-Tac International Airport to a Harborview hospital annex. The unions were ordered to hire black workers but refused. Howell, of course, filed suit. The result was federal intervention: a landmark 1969 U.S. Department of Justice suit against the unions. In 1970, U.S. District Court Judge William J. Lindberg ordered quotas for union membership, hiring and apprenticeship classes, and changes in hiring and dispatching procedures. It was the first federal imposition of affirmative action on local governments and industries. “And Nixon was the president! And John Mitchell was his attorney general!” says Howell, still marveling.

And so it has gone, for more than 40 years.

U.S. District Court Judge Richard Jones befriended Howell when Jones was in law school in the mid-’70s. “Lem’s deeply committed to the things he believes,” Jones says. “He’s never been afraid to take on a challenge. He’s taken on pretty big cases and pretty big risks. He’s had a vision to provide support for civil rights and police misconduct cases. Many perceive him to be an expert or guru in these areas and consult him for advice and guidance. And he’s had no big firm support to fall back upon.”

Howell says, “I’ve been fortunate that my personal injury practice has been able to support my concern where there’s injustice.”

That concern continues. In 2008, Howell persuaded a federal jury to award $269,000 to Romelle Bradford, a young African-American volunteer at the Rainier Vista Boys & Girls Club who was wrongly assaulted and arrested by Seattle police officers responding to a disturbance at the club. (He notes with characteristic modesty that he was glad to help get “some measure of justice” for Bradford after his ordeal.) But not all the cases that most move Howell are political.

“I made my best opening statement ever, my best voir dire, my best [performance] during the trial, my best closing argument.” That’s Howell talking about a 2006 civil case centering on the deaths of Christopher Pratt, 27, and his 5-year-old daughter, Alexis, when a Swift Co. truck suddenly veered across lanes to reach a missed freeway exit in Northern California and struck their car. The car split in two, with part of it becoming stuck within the tractor-trailer. The exhausted truck driver, Thomas Martinez, was in violation of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s rules on driving while fatigued.

Pratt’s son, Michael, survived, witnessing the death of his twin sister and his father. Jessica Rivera, the children’s mother, also survived the crash, and sued Swift. Alexis’ death in particular tore at Howell, who has two daughters of his own. Elizabeth Howell is a Harvard-educated doctor and Helen Howell is a Columbia-educated lawyer and former special assistant to President Bill Clinton, but Howell’s framed photos on the wall behind his desk date from when each was about 6 years old. (When Howell’s daughters object to his displaying childhood photos, he laughingly protests, “I liked you like that!”) He so closely identified with the death of Alexis that he apologized to the jury in advance in case he broke down during his arguments.

The jury was moved, too, awarding Alexis’ mother and her twin brother $11.3 million in damages.


Out of the Office

Howell does have a life outside his countless legal activities. He followed the Seattle Mariners to spring training in Arizona last year. This year, instead, the unabashedly liberal Howell—he was chair of Washington state’s delegates to the 1984 Democratic National Convention—went on a cruise sponsored by left-leaning The Nation magazine. And he and his wife, Pat—who Curran describes as “the power behind the throne”—celebrated their 50th anniversary this year.

But the rest of his heart is, and always will be, with the law. After nearly a half-century as an attorney, he keeps on pursuing what he calls “my little crusades” at a time when many people would have retired. “I still like to be a friend to justice,” he says. “As long as I’m upright and I’m still functioning and I’m not drooling … I’ll want to keep on doing it. I worked too hard for my law degree!”

Howell’s legacy continues through the many lawyers he has mentored. He laments how hard it is for new lawyers to carry on his work: “I had a $1,400 bill after I finished law school. These young lawyers have humongous bills, sometimes over $100,000. So many feel that they have to make money to pay off their loans.” He cites as an encouraging counter-example Twyla Carter, a young Seattle University School of Law graduate and Howell mentee who turned down a lucrative job offer to work in a public defender’s office. “I was just so thrilled [when Carter made her decision] that some lawyers are still inspired to do the Lord’s work,” he says.

One final snapshot of Howell, the legend: In 2004, Howell spearheaded a reenactment of the U.S. Supreme Court oral arguments for Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Brown. The cream of Seattle’s legal community was there, including Washington State Supreme Court justices playing the U.S. high court’s justices at the time.

Howell played Thurgood Marshall, the young, then-largely unknown NAACP legal counsel. His performance was spot-on. Howell says with a laugh that his wife claims, had he been born rich, he would have been an actor. But there’s no doubt in his mind about the career for which he was destined.

“I was born to be a lawyer.”

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