Saturday, March 8, 2014
YARMOUTH — The thought of redemption crosses the mind of F. Lee Bailey. One of the most famous defense attorneys in the United States, he tried some of the nation’s most gripping, gruesome criminal cases before a fall from grace more than a decade ago left him disbarred from practicing law.
F. Lee Bailey poses next to a photo of O.J. Simpson as he reacts after the court clerk announced that Simpson was found not guilty of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.
Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer
Famed defense attorney F. Lee Bailey, who was disbarred more than a decade ago, talks about the highs and lows of his career with Press Herald reporter Scott Dolan. Bailey describes what drew him to move to Maine and his hopes, at the age of 80, that the Maine Supreme Judicial Court will grant his request to be licensed to practice law here.
But restoring his tarnished legacy isn’t the sole focus now for Bailey, who at 80 remains as sharp as a younger man as he seeks to be admitted to the bar in Maine so he can again practice law.
“I think there’s an element of redemption in it, but that’s certainly not the primary motivation,” Bailey said during a recent interview at his Yarmouth office, where he talked about the highs and lows of his storied career.
The Maine Board of Bar Examiners rejected Bailey’s application in 2012, saying in a 5-4 decision that he lacked “the requisite good fitness and fitness necessary” to return to practicing law.
But that didn’t settle the matter for Bailey, whose clients’ names read like a who’s who list of defendant celebrities – from Dr. Sam Sheppard, who became the inspiration behind “The Fugitive” hit television series in the 1960s, to football star O.J. Simpson, who was acquitted of his ex-wife’s murder after an internationally publicized trial in 1995.
The question of whether Bailey should be admitted to the bar is now in the hands of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, after first a single justice of the court’s seven members overturned the Board of Bar Examiners’ decision last year and then the board appealed. The state’s highest court heard oral arguments in Bailey’s case last week, but it has set no timetable on when it will make a final ruling.
“We’re at the point now where the jury is out. So I sit and wait,” Bailey said.
Bailey said he sought to be admitted for a number of reasons. Chief among them are that he and a co-author, Kenneth Fishman, published a book last year, “Excellence in Cross-Examination,” and he would like to start a master-level law education course specifically for practicing lawyers to learn the “fading profession” of trying a case in court.
“It’s a lot more palatable to promote the book if one is a member of the bar, though people write books without being members of anything,” he said.
But Bailey, who was eligible in 2006 to reapply to be a lawyer, said he had no plans to apply in Maine until he encountered an excellent legal community here and a professional environment that he considers a much more pleasant one than exists in other states where he has practiced.
“At the time I decided to move to Maine and did move – which was finally in 2010, though I had been working up here since 2006 – I had absolutely no intention of applying for the bar. That didn’t happen until over a year later. There are those who are trying to argue that I thought the Maine courts would be a pushover, which is anything but true. I thought it might be more difficult than it would be to be reinstated in Massachusetts,” he said.
Bailey said what finally pushed him to take the bar exam was encouragement from Debbie Elliott, his girlfriend and partner at Bailey & Elliott Consulting, and from two lawyer friends who are older than he and continue to practice.
He’d been coming to Maine for vacations and visits since he was a boy growing up in Massachusetts and had long thought that he would retire here.
“Retirement is a word I used to use,” Bailey said. “When I was very, very young and fell in love with Yarmouth, Maine, I said, ‘That’s where I’m going to retire.’ As life went on and I found out it didn’t end at 40, 60 or 80, I resolved that it is a place where I would settle but not retire. My experience is, people who retire die sooner than they should have.”
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