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Doug Moe: Cates had class, in and out of court

By Doug Moe
Wisconsin State Journal
Some of my best friends are lawyers — make of that what you will — but the first lawyer I ever met was Dick Cates. Since I was just a kid at the time — and Cates was early in his career — I had no way of knowing the tall man with a twinkle in his eye and a love of telling stories would go on to become perhaps the greatest trial attorney Madison has ever seen.
Doug Moe: Cates had class, in and out of court

Dick Cates

Some of my best friends are lawyers — make of that what you will — but the first lawyer I ever met was Dick Cates.

Since I was just a kid at the time — and Cates was early in his career — I had no way of knowing the tall man with a twinkle in his eye and a love of telling stories would go on to become perhaps the greatest trial attorney Madison has ever seen.

Certainly Cates, who died here last week at 85, is in the discussion. Best known for his Watergate-related work with the House Judiciary Committee that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon, Cates practiced most of his law in Dane County courtrooms.

His body of work on cases celebrated and not eventually led to his being revered by other lawyers, a group not always known for mutual admiration.

I can remember doing a piece 30 years ago for Isthmus about Bill Foust, now a judge, then a young assistant district attorney. I don't remember much from that article but I remember Foust saying, "Dick Cates is a terrific lawyer."

Another time, when I asked the esteemed prosecutor John Burr about his most worthy opponents, he mentioned Cates. "Early on I had a shoplifting case against Cates," Burr said. "It was a slam dunk conviction. Cates got an acquittal."

I enjoyed hearing those things because, as I say, I had known Dick Cates most of my life. My parents were friends of Dick and his wife, Marnie. They were part of a dinner club, maybe six couples, who got together once a month. I recall my dad coming home from those nights chuckling about how much Dick Cates loved a spirited discussion.

Once I became a journalist, we'd talk now and then. The year I started my newspaper column, Archibald Cox, who had been fired as the Watergate special prosecutor, came to Madison to give a speech at Monona Terrace for Common Cause.

Cates spoke that night, too. A day or two earlier I had asked him to reminisce about Watergate and he talked of spending nine months of 12-hour days digesting transcripts and then analyzing them for the Judiciary Committee.

"I felt like I had given 70 closing arguments," Dick said, and they must have been good ones, for the committee voted to impeach on three articles.

Of course, Nixon resigned instead.

"How did that make you feel?"

"I was grateful," he said. "I thought it was appropriate. The country had had enough."

Over the years, Cates was involved in some of Madison's most significant and colorful cases. In 1962, he handled the defense of a legendary con man, Clark "Pappy" Fry, who claimed to have invented an energy machine that would render gasoline obsolete. Later that decade, Cates represented flamboyant criminal defense attorney Darrell MacIntyre when MacIntyre got in tax trouble.

A former Marine and a political liberal, Cates was willing to take on unpopular causes. In 1977 in Dane County, they didn't come much less popular than Archie Simonson, a judge who stuck both feet in his mouth when talking about the victim of a sexual assault. Cates represented him.

In 1990, when Dick (at 64) was planning to walk the Appalachian Trail with his son, I loaned him a book by a writer I admired, Paul Hemphill, titled "Me and the Boy," describing Hemphill's Appalachian walk with his son.

I don't know if it inspired him, but Cates published four dispatches from the trail in the Wisconsin State Journal.

The last time I saw Dick in a courtroom was in 2005. He had come out of retirement to help with the defense of former Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala on corruption charges.

Dick was 79, about to turn 80. After court that day, I walked him back to his office. We talked about college boxing, about my parents, and his wife. Honors were coming his way, including an award for lifetime service from the State Bar.

"From the first time I saw you demonstrate your trial advocacy skills," Bob Habush said at the time, "I have tried to fashion my delivery to a jury in your down home, low-key, yet intense style."

I saw Dick one more time. A mutual friend brought us together for lunch at the Oakcrest. Dick was dealing with one of the cruelties of aging, but I got to introduce him to my girlfriend. She saw the twinkle in his eye.

My first thought on hearing he had died last week was that a giant had left the room. I wonder if we couldn't name something at the courthouse in his honor. No one deserves it more.

Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or [email protected]. His column appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

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