Baugh, David 1947–
David Baugh 1947–
Civil rights attorney
The bumper sticker on David Baugh’s car reads “Question Authority.” This simple statement embodies the powerful philosophy which drives the civil rights lawyer. An adamant believer in and defender of the First Amendment and its protection of free speech, he has willingly embraced those tough and often thankless challenges avoided by others. Not only has he often represented the unpopular side of a court case, he has also won.
David Baugh was born August 24, 1947 to Howard and Connie Baugh. His childhood, his dreams and aspirations, were greatly influenced by his father, who was one of the original Tuskegee Airmen. In the young Baugh’s eyes, his fighter pilot father was a hero. Like David’s other heroes-Jesus Christ, Saint Thomas More, Mahatma Ghandi and Pee Wee Reese (the baseball player who agreed to room with Jackie Robinson)-his father, he told Charles McGuigan of Northside Magazine, “serve[d] as a moral beacon even in the deepest nightfall. When you lose faith, when you don’t know what to do, do what your hero would do. If I’m morally weak, I do what my heroes would have done.”
Like many military families, the Baughs were stationed worldwide and transferred regularly. As a young child, in fact, Baugh lived in such diverse spots as Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, Kwajalein Island in the Marshall Islands, and Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. Finally, in 1961 the family settled in Nashville, Tennessee for what would prove to be approximately five years. Not only was it a shock to David to stay in one place for an extended period of time, but it also provided a rude awakening to the realities of segregation. Previously, Baugh was raised amidst white children. In the military, Baugh commented to McGuigan, “The color of the metal on your shoulder had more to do with acceptance than the color of your skin.” Now, however, he found himself at an all-black school.
Following graduation from Pearl High School in Nashville, Baugh attended Coe College in Iowa for one year before entering Virginia State College (now University) in Petersburg, where he pursued a degree in business administration. While he himself admits that he was not the best of students, he was always firm in his principles. In fact, during his senior year he was expelled on charges of disorderly conduct and illegal assembly for leading a demonstration on campus. His efforts were part of a larger student protest against a lawsuit brought by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund which sought to dismantle Virginia’s dual system of higher education. Baugh and the protesting students worried that the lawsuit would hurt historically-black colleges. In typical Baugh fashion, the case did not derail him. Rather, as he sat in the courtroom listening to the proceedings against him, he noted to himself, “I can do that.” The courtroom scene further appealed to Baugh’s dramatic inclinations, for everyone seemed to make a difference.
Born David Baugh on August 24, 1947 to Howard (lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force) and Connie Jeanne; married Joslyn Baugh; two children: Marinda, Katherine. Education: Virginia State College, B.S., Business Administration, 1971; Texas Southern University, J.D., 1975.
Career: Civil rights attorney. Funchess, Charles, John & Evans, Houston, TX, Attorney, 1972-76; Bennett, Baugh & Bastine, Houston, TX, attorney, 1976-78; U.S. Attorneys Office-Eastern District of Texas, Beaumont, TX, attorney, 1978-61; U.S. Attorneys Office-Eastern District of Virginia, Richmond, VA, attorney, 1981-83; attorney, private practice, Richmond, VA, 1983-.
Selected memberships: State Bar of Texas, admitted October 12, 1975; State Bar of Virginia, admitted March 11, 1983; past president, Virginia College of Criminal Defense Attorneys; legal Advisory Board, cooperating attorney, board member, American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia; National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys; Housing Opportunities Made Equal; Old Dominion Bar Association.
Addresses: Office —1406 Wilmington Avenue, Richmond, VA 23227.
Upon graduating from Virginia State with his B.S. degree in 1971, Baugh found work as a counselor at the University of Rochester and simultaneously began to pursue a career in acting. Possessing a powerful, commanding voice, Baugh dreamed of ultimately studying drama at Yale University. Acting not only provided an avenue to display his voice, but it also allowed him to revel further in his love and knowledge of language, a passion which he readily acknowledges was instilled in him by his mother. “My mother,” he told McGuigan, “taught me how to speak and to write…. If she had not taught me how to communicate, I would never have succeeded in the world. There is a presumption of ignorance if you don’t speak well.”
In 1972, however, Baugh’s career took a radical turn. Married in July, a month later he and new wife, Joslyn, packed all of their belongings into two cars and drove to Houston, Texas. Baugh began his legal studies at Texas Southern University, while Joslyn worked at Sears to support the two of them. While school had previously been a struggle for him, David recounted to McGuigan his dramatic turn-around at Texas Southern: “[S]ix weeks into my first year the skies opened, God tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘You’re going to be a lawyer.’ Law is a logic unto itself, so brilliant, so simple. And it made sense.” Moreover, he recollected in a discussion with Reginald Stuart of Emerge, law school was a “unique experience.” The student body was refreshingly diverse, and the “attitude of that time among the faculty was that everybody should cooperate so that everybody can learn. It was radically different from law schools of today.” Baugh ultimately performed very well in law school.
Concurrent with his academic studies, Baugh also gained practical legal experience while working part-time for Jesse Funchess, a Houston defense lawyer. Not only did Baugh conduct research for Funchess, but he was also paid to observe Funchess in action in the courtroom. “He taught me a lot of very aggressive litigation skills,” Baugh later reflected with Stuart. Through this experience, Baugh came to realize that his natural abilities fit well with the demands of criminal law.
After passing the Texas state bar in 1975 and working for Funchess for an additional year, Baugh and two of his classmates from Texas Southern opened the firm of Bennett, Baugh & Bastine, a partnership which lasted for approximately three years. As he began to fight for legal protections through the court system, Baugh witnessed firsthand the corruption that existed there. Inspired by a professor, Isaac Henderson, who told him “If you’re afraid of going to jail, don’t practice criminal law,” Baugh remained energized and began in earnest to fight injustice through and within the American judicial system.
After closing the practice with his classmates in 1978, Baugh joined John Henry Hannah as an assistant prosecutor for the U.S. Attorneys Office–Eastern District of Texas in Beaumont. Hannah wanted a minority on staffa first in this office–but Baugh was initially discouraged by the motive and considered rejecting the offer. However, as Baugh explained to Stuart, his wife reminded him that “it doesn’t matter how you get the job. What matters is how you keep it.” While in the Beaumont office Baugh handled criminal cases ranging from postal and voter fraud to theft of government property. He even prosecuted those involved in the largest seizure of evidence in an area drug case at the time–45,000 pounds of marijuana. In 1981, following a death in the family and the prompting of his wife who wanted to return to the East, Baugh applied for and was offered a position doing fraud work in the U.S. Attorneys Office in Richmond, Virginia.
Baugh remained in the Richmond office for two years. He was ultimately forced to resign when he aggressively and repeatedly asserted that judges in general, and the late Judge D. Dortch Warriner in particular, showed bias in favor of white defendants during the sentencing phase of trials. Not yet a member of the Virginia State Bar and the father of two young children, Baugh suddenly found himself unemployed. His father came to his assistance, as did Douglas Wilder, then a high-profile state lawmaker in Richmond and later the first African American elected as a governor.
After obtaining his legal license in 1983, Baugh went into solo private practice, notoriously assuming unpopular cases. He represented murderers, robbers, drug dealers, nude dancers, adult book and video store owners, and gun dealers. He has been cited and jailed for contempt of court at least four times, including once when he embroiled himself in a courthouse scuffle with Richmond’s then-top prosecutor. Both served five-day jail sentences as a result. Seemingly undaunted, Baugh reflected with McGuigan that “it’s part of the job.”
Underlying all of his defense arguments is Baugh’s passionate commitment to the Constitution, “the center of law and life, and what is good in man,” according to McGuigan, and the only law of the land for Baugh himself. Emotional and emphatic in his defense of the Constitution, Baugh reminded McGuigan that “The Constitution is absolute. It is the most sacred document ever written by man, and it really upsets me that Americans squander the Constitution and the freedoms it gives us…The Constitution, philosophically, is definite, but it leaves a lot unsaid. That’s the brilliance of it. And I think I understand it as it was envisioned.” Law-making, on the other hand, is purely “a substitution for leadership.”
The ultimate example of Baugh’s dedication to the rights of all American citizens as protected under the Constitution was his agreement in 1999, as a director on the Virginia American Civil Liberties Union board, to represent Ku Klux Klan (KKK) member Barry Elton Black. Black faced up to five years in prison for violating the Virginia statute which forbids burning a cross “with the intent of intimidating” someone else. Baugh accepted the case in order to protect Black’s First Amendment rights, regardless of how racist they might have been. When his representation of Black first became known, Baugh worried that the incongruity of an African American defending a member of the KKK would distract attention from the root issues of the case. However, Baugh agreed to remain as the lead defense lawyer, believing that his race would ultimately allow greater discussion of the legal issues.
Not surprisingly, at the core of the case mounted by Baugh is a fundamental application of the First Amendment in the protection of a defendant. As Baugh reminded Stuart, “I do not see myself defending Mr. Black [as a person]. But by defending him, I am protecting so much more. If you cut off his rights, I cut off my rights.” In another discussion of the case with Steven Holmes of the New York Times, Baugh reiterated this conviction: “If you can gag one group, you can gag another.” Ultimately, he further explained to The Black World Today, “I despise the KKK. But if we are going to have a democracy we are going to have dissent and we must tolerate political dissent.”
Julian Bond, chairman of the board of the NAACP, has staunchly supported Baugh’s actions and even took Baugh’s explanations one step further. In an interview with Holmes, Bond remarked that “The First Amendment defense this guy is mounting ought to be precious to all black Americans. These are precisely the defenses that we have used and will use to advance our cause.” Moreover, according to Bond’s interview with Stuart, “If we don’t stand up for [Barry Elton Black’s] rights this time, there will come a time when no one will stand up for us.”
In addition to a legal practice which averages 75 cases per year, Baugh also serves as the Richmond Public School Board’s Third District representative. Never one to assume a low profile, he is attempting to garner support to launch massive reforms to save the school system. “Every problem, every urban problem confrontingustoday,” he emphasized to Stuart, “can be resolved by creating a public school system that finally meets the needs of the citizens…. The school system is destroying the school system. They’re concerned with instant fixes, things like pay raises. What we need as a city is five, ten, twenty-five, fifty year plans. We should have that vision.” Forever radical in his thought and speech, Baugh does not favor simple solutions such as removing problem children from the schools. Rather, he emphatically explained to McGuigan, “Throw out the old ideas. Reform the entire system, make it conform with what we now know.” Most importantly, Baugh told McGuigan, he believes that it is the attitude of the citizenry in general that must change. “We need to prioritize education, plain and simply. Money is not the answer. Attitude is the answer.”
Attitude–mixed with a simple and devout code of morals and ethics–has always been the solution for Baugh. Whether in the courtroom or the classroom, he has wielded his incisive mind like a powerful weapon, un afraid to stand firmly upon his own foundation and undaunted by the challenges which such a posture inevitably creates. His legacy, it appears, will be an unwavering defense of the Constitution and, perhaps even more lasting, an unflagging defense of those most in need.
Black World Today, January 29, 1999.
Emerge, April 1999, pp. 46-49.
New York Times, November 20, 1998, p. A20.
Northside Magazine, June 1998, pp. 8-11.
—Lisa S. Weitzman
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