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About Utah: Top lawyer sees need — not color

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In the keynote address he is scheduled to deliver today at the second annual Orrin G. Hatch Distinguished Trial Lawyer Lecture Series at the BYU law school, noted Mississippi civil rights lawyer Wilbur Colom doesn't plan to focus on the case that's currently putting him in the national spotlight.

Rather, the man who first argued before the Supreme Court at the age of 31, and who is known for paving the way for landmark legislation against single-sex state-supported education, said his remarks will challenge his audience to consider the respective ongoing wars on drugs, culture and terrorism "by envisioning what things are going to look like in 100 years."

But if he wants to spice things up with today's headlines, he could talk about what it's like for a prominent black Southern lawyer to be in the middle of a federal lawsuit that challenges a black political operative in Mississippi with racial voter discrimination.

The case, in a CliffsNotes kind of summary, involves the U.S. Justice Department using the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to charge Ike Brown, a black man and head of the Democratic Party in Mississippi's rural Noxubee County, with using tactics of coercion and intimidation against white voters and candidates.

According to media reports, it's the first time since the Voting Rights Act was created 41 years ago due to discrimination against black voters in Mississippi and other Southern states that discrimination has been alleged against whites.

Added to that irony is the fact that Ike Brown's lawyer is Colom, arguably not just Mississippi's most distinguished and prominent black lawyer but also its most distinguished and prominent Republican lawyer.

"Why would I take this case?" asked Colom rhetorically after landing Friday at the Salt Lake airport.

He listed two primary reasons.

One is "because I sense it is an important case that involves First Amendment rights. Ike's offense is really that he says outrageous things. The major case the government has against him are 400 news clippings. His public statements make him an easy target, but what he says loses interest when you get to the real facts."

Two is "I sense I have become too comfortable as a lawyer. I do bond work for the state of Mississippi, I represent big companies. But that's not all a lawyer is supposed to do; a lawyer is supposed to take on the challenges of people who need to defend themselves."

In that way, Colom is returning to his civil rights roots when he not only paved the way for an end to single-sex state-supported education but also in 1980 represented a white student who was not allowed to attend an all-black high school in Mississippi.

People scratched their head on that one just as much as they are scratching their head about conservative Republican Wilbur Colom representing Democratic boss Ike Brown.

"I still remember my closing," said Colom, referring to the white discrimination case in 1980. "I said 'Black man, white man, crippled man, Jew, makes no never mind to the Lord. And to the law. Black man, white man, crippled man, Jew, makes no never mind to the law, either."'

Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com and faxes to 801-237-2527.