Lawyers march in Bellingham, cite legal arguments

BELLINGHAM — A group of about 30 attorneys took time out from court appearances and power lunches yesterday to lead a noontime rally through downtown streets opposing the U.S.-Iraq war.

Wearing suits, ties and fedoras, or, alternately, trench coats, skirts and pumps, they stood out from about 70 other protest marchers, not only by their business attire, but by their oral arguments, some with citations from international law.

"As officers of the court and guardians of the law, we have an obligation to speak up when the law is being violated," said Dennis Murphy, a maritime attorney.

Yesterday's march was the second anti-war protest by Bellingham attorneys. Last week, after the U.S. bombing of Iraq began, 15 attorneys and law firms shut their offices and posted signs on their doors that read, "Closed in honor of those now dying in Iraq."

The lawyers specialize in divorces and wills, labor law and medical malpractice, among other things. What they share, they said, was the belief that the war in Iraq is illegal.

Deborra Garrett, an employment attorney, said the Hague Convention of the early 1900s, which provides the framework for some international laws and customs of war, forbids one country from attacking another unless there is evidence that the attacking country has been harmed.

"There's no evidence that Iraq was involved in Sept. 11 or any other terrorist plots against us," she said.

Several other attorneys said the United States has violated the United Nations charter, which authorizes the use of force only in cases of self-defense or against an imminent attack.

Both yesterday's march and last week's closure of law offices were organized by Joe Pemberton, a Bellingham attorney whose general practice includes legal work for the city.

Pemberton said that as war appeared imminent, he started calling other lawyers and found that "the overwhelming consensus was that the war is illegal." He believes the United States' unilateral use of force creates a precedent for powerful nations invading their weaker neighbors without provocation.

A conscientious objector during the waning years of the Vietnam War, the 50-year-old Pemberton is known for his legal activism. He was honored by the American Bar Association in 1989 for establishing a pro bono legal clinic in Bellingham for clients who cannot afford a lawyer.

Bellingham, home to Western Washington University, has long had a reputation for liberal politics. So it wasn't difficult for Pemberton to rally some of his colleagues to the anti-war cause, though he said, "We're not radicals. We're lawyers."

When the lawyer activists gathered at the courthouse steps, Pemberton gave a speech — with a preface: "I'll be talking briefly. That's hard for a lawyer."

"Its unusual for any city to have a group of lawyers marching in the street," he said. "But I believe in attorneys taking steps to meet the common good."

Well aware of city rules, the anti-war lawyers obtained permission for the march, which stretched from the federal courthouse to the county courthouse. But few carried signs, opting instead for buttons on their lapels. One read "Peace is patriotic."

Yesterday's march drew some lawyers who are no longer in practice. Roy Giordano a former Orange County, Calif., judge and civil attorney, said he took a break from his retirement home nearby to join the rally and march.

One young man who watched the procession of lawyers and other peace activists said he thought the legal arguments were wrong.

"Saddam was given the opportunity to leave without a conflict and he chose to stay. We are in the right," said Tim Bailey, 25, who said he is trying to enlist in the Marines.

Lynn Thompson: 425-745-7807