Beverley Lumpkin: Halls of Justice

The Justice community was badly shaken by the shooting in tiny Grundy, Va., on Jan. 16 at the Appalachian School of Law.

Three people were killed and three wounded. A disgruntled failing student has been charged with murder. Among the victims was the school's dean, L. Anthony Sutin, who served for four years in the Janet Reno Justice Department.

As one career official said to me, "Tony was the last person you would think of dying a violent death." His former law school roommate and longtime friend and colleague Kent Markus noted the sad irony that Sutin, "had dedicated himself to trying to prevent exactly this kind of activity."

Sutin had a stellar résumé — summa cum laude at Brandeis University; cum laude, Harvard Law School; federal district court clerk; partner at the prestigious firm of Hogan & Hartson — before working on the 1992 Bill Clinton campaign and then joining Justice in 1994 where he held several positions under Reno.

But when he left Justice he deliberately chose to go to Grundy where the Appalachian School of Law had just been created in 1997 to help the citizens of that impoverished coal-mining community. As his friends and colleagues reminisced, he went partly to "get away from it all" but largely in order to serve the community, because he strongly believed in the importance of bringing good legal education to the rural setting.

As dean, Sutin strongly emphasized community service for the students; they were required to perform 25 hours each semester. Projects have included conflict resolution, a county mapping project, and housing repairs for sub-standard homes.

Sutin also worked hard to obtain American Bar Association accreditation for the law school, and is regarded as largely responsible for its provisional accreditation, granted last year. As Reno recalled in a statement mourning the loss of "not only a former colleague but a friend": "He left the Justice Department to help establish the Appalachian School of Law, whose accreditation is due in substantial part to his efforts."

One former colleague recalled that this past fall Virginia gubernatorial candidate (now Governor) Mark Warner took time off from his own campaign to host a fund-raiser for the law school. This colleague remembered how excited Sutin was because the school was beginning to make a difference in a community that had been completely devastated economically.

Over and over, former colleagues wrestled with shock and disbelief and used the same words and phrases to describe Sutin: "a truly decent person"; and "the nicest guy in the world"; and "the sweetest, nicest man in the world."

David Ogden, who also held several positions under Reno, finishing as assistant attorney general for the Civil Division, said "he was the kindest, gentlest guy that I met in the entire government," adding he was also a person of the "utmost integrity." Ogden also asserted Sutin was very solid, had good judgment, and that "the attorney general listened to him."

Even in Sutin's last position at Justice, assistant attorney general for legislative affairs, at a time of absolute war with Congress over independent counsels and campaign finance, Ogden recalled that because "he had such a level demeanor, he was able to reduce tensions."

Similarly, Myron Marlin, Reno's last spokesman, said the only words that keep coming to his mind are "gentle intellectual giant." He explained that Sutin was so capable and intelligent, yet always a calming force. And former top aide Tom Perelli said he had been wracking his memory for anecdotes, but "the hardest and easiest moments were about the same, because he was so unflappable." He recalled that when Sutin left for Grundy it was partly for a change of pace, but really it demonstrated his continuing commitment to public service.

Sutin's wife, Margaret Lawton, also taught at Appalachian. They had two children: a boy, Henry, aged 4, who had been adopted in Russia, and a girl, Clara Li, 15 months, who — especially poignantly — had less than a month ago been adopted in China.

Watch What You Ask For

Earlier this week several reporters were grumbling that we had not seen much of Attorney General John Ashcroft since the new year; or if we saw him, it was at photo ops where there is little or no chance of asking a question.

Suddenly all that changed: on Tuesday, Jan. 15, we had the announcement of charges against American al Qaeda John Walker Lindh; on Wednesday, Jan. 16, the indictment of shoe-bomb suspect Richard Reid; and Thursday, Jan. 17, the release of photos and video of five suspected al Qaeda members.

And of course in the midst of all this we have had to contend with numerous Enron/Andersen-related questions. Not to mention all the usual "normal news." We are now begging for a respite!

On Not Crying Wolf

Ashcroft displayed a certain sensitivity on Wednesday to the criticism from many directed at the highly vague alerts that have been issued in recent months. (In fact, there have only been three, but most people believe there have been more.)

But in announcing the charges against Reid he strongly emphasized the fact that the passengers and crew on that airplane had been alert, had responded to the threat, and thus had averted another real tragedy. FBI Director Robert Mueller echoed the idea that their "courage and quick thinking" had been a "decisive factor in the outcome."

But perhaps to underscore their sensitivity to the criticism, Ashcroft indicated awareness of the jokes about the constant calls to maintain a high state of alert: "And, you know, there was a time when people thought ... it was funny that we asked for people to be alert. And certainly if we'd have put out an alert saying, 'Watch out for people with exploding shoes,' we would have been laughed out of town."

Beverley Lumpkin has covered the Justice Department for 16 years for ABCNEWS. Halls of Justice appears every Saturday.