In Memoriam: E. Barrett Prettyman Jr. ’53

Public and Private Litigator Involved in Historic Brown v. Board of Education Case
E. Barrett Prettyman Jr.

E. Barrett Prettyman Jr. ’53 lived, and litigated, history.

November 8, 2016

E. Barrett Prettyman Jr., a 1953 alumnus of the University of Virginia School of Law and a long-practicing litigator who was intimately involved in some of the most significant political developments of the past 50 years, including the Brown v. Board of Education decision, Cuba's Bay of Pigs invasion and the Abscam investigation of the late 1970s and early 1980s, died Friday.

In addition to his storied career working both in private practice at Hogan & Hartson — Hogan Lovells after 2010 — and as a special counsel for the U.S. government, Prettyman also held the distinction of being the first president of the District of Columbia Bar.

Prettyman was born in Washington, D.C., on June 1, 1925, to Lucy Courtney Hill and Elijah Barrett Prettyman Sr. His father was a lawyer who was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. After high school, Prettyman joined the Army to fight in World War II. Upon returning home, he enrolled at Yale University, graduating in 1949. He spent a year working as a reporter for the Providence Journal before attending law school at UVA. Although he stopped working as a reporter, he continued writing for the rest of his life, winning an Edgar Allan Poe Award for his 1961 true crime book, "Death and the Supreme Court."

Prettyman’s first job out of law school was working as a clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court. From 1953 to 1955, he worked for justices Robert H. Jackson, Felix Frankfurter and John M. Harlan. Almost immediately after starting work at the court, he was thrust into the center of the momentous Brown v. Board of Education hearings. He advised Jackson during deliberations over Chief Justice Earl Warren’s draft opinion of what would become the Brown decision. Jackson ultimately supported the decision, which was unanimous. In 2004, Prettyman told UVA Lawyer that when the chief justice declared that the Brown decision was unanimous, “The courtroom took in a breath. You could actually hear it because no one had expected that. It was very dramatic.”

In 1955, Prettyman joined Hogan & Hartson, where he stayed for the rest of his career, becoming partner in 1964. There, he established the first specialized appellate practice in the country.

His work at the firm was punctuated by occasional forays into public service. In 1961, he was appointed special assistant to the U.S. attorney general by his former classmate, Robert F. Kennedy ’51. Prettyman was closely involved in the aftermath of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, traveling to Cuba in order to meet with President Fidel Castro and help negotiate the release of more than 1,100 prisoners in 1962. His record of public service continued in the late 1970s, when he served as special counsel to the House Ethics Committee during the Abscam investigations, in which seven members of the U.S. Congress were ultimately convicted of bribery and conspiracy.

Although Prettyman argued 19 cases before the Supreme Court, conducted significant trials nationwide and represented high-profile clients like John Lennon and Truman Capote at Hogan & Hartson, he did not waver from a commitment to pro bono work. After becoming the first president of the District of Columbia Bar in 1972, he made pro bono service a priority, establishing a precedent for his successors in that position. He was also on Hogan & Hartson’s executive committee when it established the first full-time practice dedicated to pro bono work. But perhaps the strongest example of his commitment to pro bono was his work for John Ferguson, a schizophrenic death-row inmate whom Prettyman represented for 37 years.

Hogan Lovells CEO Stephen Immelt wrote in a public message posted on the firm's website that Prettyman, regardless of the newsworthy clients or cases with which he was associated, will be remembered for his dedication to client service and his “inestimable intellect, charm, wit and style.”

Information about his funeral arrangements will be posted on the Hogan Lovells website.

—Compiled from news reports

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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