Remembering the Late Missouri Rep. Bill Hungate

Posted June 27, 2007 at 6:44pm

When former Lincoln County, Mo., prosecuting attorney Bill Hungate first ran for Congress in 1964, from a 21-county, mostly rural Congressional district, he fought his way through a 10-person Democratic primary. At various campaign stops, his opponents had their shills in the crowd yell out “Hey! Aren’t you one of them Harrrrrrvard lawyers?” At first, he didn’t exactly know how to deal with this very truthful, but quite damaging allegation. After a few days of receiving the glares of troubled Missouri farmers and merchants each time his “secret” was disclosed, he finally said, “Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s true. I am a Harvard lawyer. But, it just so happens that I’m not a very good Harvard lawyer.” The line caused the crowd to howl with laughter, and it stopped the attacks immediately.

What the defeated opponents didn’t understand was that many people of the 9th Congressional district truly wanted a smart Harvard lawyer to be speaking for them in Washington, D.C. His five subsequent re-elections, and his 1979 appointment to the federal bench in the U.S. District Court in St. Louis by President Jimmy Carter, demonstrated that he indeed was a very good Harvard lawyer.

In June 1981, I arrived on Judge Hungate’s courthouse doorstep as a new law clerk. He had hired me to work on the backlog of general litigation and bankruptcy appeals that were seemingly mounting, and I soon found out that the issue subsuming all of his waking moments was the St. Louis desegregation case, which he had been assigned in 1979, upon his initial appointment. After a week on the job, he invited me to walk over to the restaurant at the St. Louis Bar Association, a few blocks from the federal courthouse. As we stepped out onto Market Street, he stopped, turned to me and said, “Oh. When it happens, just keep walking.” It was a strange thing to say, and I didn’t understand him until a few blocks later, when the stage whispers and offensive cat calls became noticeable as we walked down the busy street among the lunchtime crowd. He just smiled, nodded to the person addressing him at the moment, and said “And good day to you, too!” And he kept walking.

Over lunch, Hungate told me that the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Vietnam War and Watergate had not divided the community as much as the city’s desegregation case and the upcoming decision to implement a voluntary transfer plan to move thousands of students to different St. Louis City and County schools later in September. Then he leaned over the table, drawing me closer, and whispered, “the real crisis everyone’s on edge about around here is free agency and this damned baseball strike. THAT’S what’s really driving people crazy around here!”

He was only kidding, of course. The year before, in 1980, Hungate, in a deadly serious opinion that was later upheld by the Supreme Court, said the “State of Missouri, which prior to 1954 mandated school segregation, never took any effective steps to dismantle the dual system it had compelled by constitution, statutory law, practice and policy.” He concluded that “the State defendants stand before the Court as primary constitutional wrongdoers who have abdicated their remedial duty. Their efforts to pass the buck among themselves and other state instrumentalities must be rejected.”

He had carefully studied the public outcries and political upheavals in New Orleans, Boston, Indianapolis, Dayton and other U.S. cities that had come before St. Louis in desegregation efforts, and he knew exactly what he was getting into. He had taken the time to learn of the careers of other judges in the eye of the hurricane of desegregation lawsuits. He had spoken to J. Skelly Wright, the federal judge in New Orleans who was forced to remove his family from their Louisiana home after ordering the integration of New Orleans Public Schools in 1961.

As a member of the House Judiciary Committee from 1964 to 1977, he had witnessed and supported the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (also known as the Fair Housing Act), the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and generally every other civil rights legislative proposal before his committee during the mid- and late 1960s. This man was deeply committed to the enforcement of the civil rights laws of the United States.

During the deepest, darkest moments of the developing constitutional crisis known as Watergate, Hungate, who sat on the Judiciary Committee during the impeachment hearings, could be counted on to bring both thoughtfulness and just the right touches of levity to the grim, crowded room. “To become Congressmen and Congresswomen,” Hungate said, “we took the same oath to uphold the Constitution which Richard M. Nixon took. If we are to be faithful to our oaths, we must find him faithless in his.”

A lighter moment came during the impeachment hearings, when a debate over the twisting of facts came up. As Time magazine reported at the time, “[i]nsisting that inferences can always be drawn from any given fact, Hungate suggested that ‘if someone brought an elephant through that door and I said “That’s an elephant,” someone would say, “That’s an inference. It could be a mouse with a glandular condition.”’”

Missouri political and court watchers throughout the state knew at the time of Hungate’s elections to Congress and his later appointment to the federal bench that there was no doubt about the temperament, politics or justice they would be getting with the choice of Bill Hungate. He was a child of the depression from rural Illinois and Missouri, a World War II veteran, and he was a Truman Democrat in the fullest sense of the word — committed to civil rights, elimination of poverty, dedication to education and providing a helping hand to the farmers and small-business men and women throughout the state. Above all, he was a plain talker with a tremendous sense of justice, compassion and humor.

Scott C. Clarkson, originally from St. Charles County, Mo., was a law clerk for Bill Hungate in 1981. He worked on Capitol Hill from 1977 to 1981 as legislative assistant to Rep. Harold Volkmer (D-Mo.). He is now an attorney in Los Angeles.