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D.C. lawyers demonstrate power of tenacity

Legal team fights for protesters’ rights

Reprinted from The Washington Post

When Carl Messineo and Mara Verheyden-Hilliard sued the District on behalf of hundreds of protesters arrested by D.C. police, their strategy all along was to do more than win a large settlement for the demonstrators.

They wanted to teach the city a lesson.

They requested thousands of hours of police radio communications and questioned top police officials under oath for days about department policies. Through their attention to detail, they reconstructed nearly every minute of the Sept. 27, 2002, march against the World Bank from the moment it started to the minute the orders were given for the mass arrests in Pershing Park.

The tedious approach to assembling facts is a staple of their three-person law practice, the Partnership for Civil Justice, and reflects a deeper personal passion to defend the Constitution and create social change.

“It’s not enough for us to say, ‘We are asking [D.C. police] to stop beating people,’ or whatever the violation is,” Messineo said. “We take it a step further and try to identify what it is exactly that is causing the violation to occur, because we want to make sure it never happens again to someone else.”

In the process, the partnership has won some high-profile cases and made the city pay.

They won a battle to have a Trinidad neighborhood police checkpoint program struck down as illegal and forced D.C. police to release thousands of documents detailing internal policies on high-speed chases, recording interrogations and other use of police powers. And they’ve obtained more than $14 million in damages on behalf of protesters who were unjustly arrested by D.C. police over the years.

Nationally, they got more space for protesters along the inauguration parade route and in New York’s Central Park, where demonstrators were banned in advance of the 2004 Republican convention.

All the while, they’ve managed to stay married.

They founded the firm in 1994, and have been married for 15 years. They live in the District and work out of a three-story renovated rowhouse in Northwest Washington’s LeDroit Park.

Take-out restaurants and the long-shuttered Howard Theater sit across the street from their office, and buses noisily groan along busy Florida Avenue NW. Inside, the space is mostly silent and feels overly spacious, with the couple and staff lawyer Radhika Miller on two floors.

How they operate is a study in contrasts. Verheyden-Hilliard’s second-floor space is an example of organized chaos — piles of legal papers are stacked on her desk and on the hardwood floor in the office. A glossy 4-by-6 photo of the couple’s 5-year-old son, Marlowe, is taped to the wall near her computer screen.

Messineo’s third-floor office is actual chaos. Clothes are scattered on a couch and on an exercise bike, along with proof of too many lunches eaten at the computer screen.

But Messineo has a penchant for technology, and trained himself to have inordinate patience for performing such tedious tasks as sifting through hundreds of hours of D.C. police radio communications.

Even lawyers working on the other side can’t help but notice how deeply they research their cases.

“The first time I talked with them, I read one of the papers [they filed with the court] and it read like a novel by Tolstoy — it went on and on and on,” said D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles, who stepped in last fall to handle settlement negotiations in the protest cases.

“I never had the sense they were married,” Nickles said. “I always felt like I was dealing with two separate individuals who quite often could have different views.”

Verheyden-Hilliard, 45, is a District native who grew up in Northwest. Messineo, 42, was raised in Pittsburgh. They met on a summer internship at a New York law firm and realized they were both more interested in activism than corporate law.

“We are like-minded and share the same motivations,” Verheyden-Hilliard said.

They have taken their son to antiwar protests. They’ve gone as attorneys to observe police tactics, but also because they believe in the cause.

There’s always been an overlap between who they are and the work they do.

“I remember when she was pregnant and talking about our constitutional rights while she was carrying her little person,” said Linda Leaks, a plaintiff in the lawsuit against D.C. police for using checkpoints in Trinidad.

Leaks, a housing community organizer, arrived at the neighborhood for a night meeting with a tenants’ group, but wasn’t allowed to drive past the checkpoint, she said. “Mara worked hard, and for me that was a sign of her commitment. It wasn’t just something to do on Monday to Friday or something to get your career started.”

In the Pershing Park case, their years of research found that a key log of police actions from that day was missing and that sections of radio dispatch tapes were deleted. The District came under fire from a federal judge for mishandling evidence and the pressure was on to settle the case. Along with $8.25 million awarded to more than 400 people, the firm won important policy changes in the police department. D.C. police agreed to better track mass arrests and create a system for logging and indexing evidence.

They also recently won a case against the city related to mass arrests at an April 2000 protest against the World Bank. In addition to securing $13.7 million for about 700 protesters, they won pledges from the District to improve training police and others about First Amendment issues.

For all their passion about work, friends insist that the couple can let their hair down and have fun. Carol Sobel, a Los Angeles-based civil rights attorney, insists that when the three of them hang out, their wry sense of humor emerges. “When you work as much as they do and on issues as serious as they do, it might not come across as often, but they do have a lighter side.”

The family visits aquariums and the zoo, and Messineo and his son play sword fights on the weekends. It’s not all work all the time, but the values of their legal work are deeply stitched into their lives.

“We’ve settled on what’s important to us and what is outrageous to us,” Messineo said. “We don’t really come home and hang our hat on the hook and say, ‘That was our day’s work.’ Our whole life and our shared life is interwoven. There isn’t that distinction.”