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Attorney Morris Dees pioneer in using 'damage litigation' to fight hate groups

Morris Dees
Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, seeks to destroy hate groups by bankrupting them through civil lawsuits  

WASHINGTON (CNN) - Civil rights lawyer Morris Dees hopes a $6.3 million judgment against the Aryan Nations is the beginning of the end for the white supremacist sect.

Dees said Thursday he intends "to take every single asset from the Aryan Nations now and forever," including its 20-acre rural compound in Idaho and the group's name.

Speaking after an Idaho jury awarded punitive and compensatory damages to a woman and her son who were attacked by Aryan Nations guards, he said he seeks to own the copyright to the Aryan Nations name and retire it.

For more than three decades, Dees, the co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, has been fighting racial hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan and Aryan Nations.


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While he has won public acclaim for his courage in going after violent hate groups, the legal strategy Dees employs has earned him praise - and imitators - within the legal community.

He is not unique in using the "damage litigation" strategy to fight crime, but he is easily the best known. Under the strategy, Dees does not go after the individual perpetrators of hate crimes. Instead, he goes after the groups they belong to in a bid to ruin them financially, experts say.

The lawsuit Dees argued successfully against the Aryan Nations is a case in point. The jury found that Aryan Nations leader Richard Butler, the group and its corporate entity, Saphire Inc., were negligent in overseeing the security guards who assaulted Victoria and Jason Keenan in 1998.

The Keenans were chased, shot at and attacked after they stopped to search for a lot wallet outside the Aryan Nations headquarters north of Coeur D'Alene, Idaho.

The jurors deliberated about 10 hours over two days before setting $6 million as a punitive damage award, with $330,000 in compensatory damages to the Keenans.

Edgar Steele, who represents Butler and the Aryan Nations, said he will move for a new trial. If that fails, he said he plans to appeal and may seek to have the judgment amount reduced. Butler would have to post a $9 million bond to appeal.

If the defendants cannot afford to pay the amount awarded against them, Dees seeks to force them to liquidate their assets. That way, experts say, Dees makes sure the victims are compensated, hate groups are put out of business, and he and the SPLC get paid.

"Dees and the SPLC lawyers are the leading lawyers in the country in fighting hate crimes through damage litigation," said Arthur Bryant, executive director of Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, a public interest law firm that gave Dees an award for fighting hate crimes.

The strategy in SPLC's own words

Dees and SPLC fellow Ellen Bowden outlined the strategy in the February 1995 issue of Trial magazine: "Although the leaders of hate groups often have assets in their possession, the damages we seek in these cases would bankrupt the groups 10 times over," they wrote.

They wrote that most hate-crime perpetrators are "youths who are only marginally employed and have no resources of their own. Those with assets before the crime are likely to spend them on their defense at their criminal trials. As a result, the victim frequently has no defendant worth suing. ...

"The key to finding a defendant who can both pay the debts on a judgment and have an impact on hate crimes overall often lies in locating those whose behind-the-scenes actions might render them vicariously liable for the perpetrator's actions. Those people are often the leaders of hate groups."

Dees has used this method successfully over the years. In lawsuits similar to the one against Butler, the SPLC has won more than $40 million from nine KKK factions and other hate groups.

In 1990, Dees won a $ 12.5 million judgment against the White Aryan Resistance and its leaders, Tom and John Metzger.

In 1998, he won a $21.5 million judgment in South Carolina against the Christian Knights of the KKK, said SPLC spokesman Mark Potok.

Marketing and good legal work keys to Dees' success

Bryan Fair, a University of Alabama law professor and a Dees acquaintance, said Dees has been successful through shrewd legal work and marketing, blending his two biggest talents. Dees ran a successful direct marketing firm before focusing his energies on fighting hate groups.

"Through a gift of marketing, he has promoted the cause of watching hate groups. He has very successfully gained the assets to place the Southern Poverty Law Center on solid financial ground" with an endowment of at least $50 million, Fair said.

"Dees has taken on racism directly and championed the notion of equality," he added. "It's not about the money, it's about addressing a disease in this country that has persisted and that has caused so many Americans of many hues all sorts of trauma."

Dees was born into a farming family in Shorter, Alabama, in 1936.

He founded a thriving mail-order company that specialized in book publishing while an undergraduate at the University of Alabama. He continued the business after he graduated from the University of Alabama law school in 1960 and began practicing law in Montgomery, according to the SPLC Web site.

After taking on controversial civil rights cases, he, his law partner, Joseph J. Levin Jr., and civil rights leader Julian Bond, now chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, established the SPLC in 1971.

Fair said Dees is "a model for what others might do. He is in a position to do even more and I suspect that he will."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Jury finds against Aryan Nations for $6.3 million
September 7, 2000

The Church of Jesus Christ Christian/Aryan Nations
Southern Poverty Law Center

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