Barnes H. Ellis “The role of a lawyer is to be a good citizen”

The 1967-68 class of White House Fellows. President Lyndon Johnson is at the center. Barnes is second from the right in the back row and Doris Kearns is on the left wearing a pale dress.

Barnes’ WHF class consisted of 13 men and three women.  One fellow was Doris Kearns, a doctoral student in government at Harvard, who became the writer and presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. Thinking back over 50 years of friendship with Barnes, in October 2018 she recalled “What a time it was to be in government service. There was a sense pervading Washington then that you could work on big goals and public service would lead to things that would be remembered forever….You went to bed at night knowing that something great had happened that day.” Doris worked in the Labor Department and later in the White House; Barnes worked in the Department of Justice with Attorney General Ramsey Clark. At the Department of Justice he also worked with Warren Christopher (later Secretary of State under President Carter) and Erwin Griswold (Harvard Law School Dean, 1946-67, Solicitor General 1967-73 and who, Barnes says, was unfairly portrayed in the recent film On the Basis of Sex relating to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg).

The nation was going through a fraught period during Barnes’ time as a White House Fellow. He saw the October 1967 anti-Vietnam War March on the Pentagon. The Tet Offensive took place in January 1968.  After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968, he saw National Guard troops at every street corner in D.C. because of fear of riots. During meetings with Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Barnes remembers the candidate being more focused on the Iowa caucuses than on the Fair Housing legislation he was there to discuss. Barnes worked on gun control legislation and on the night Senator Kennedy was killed, he received a call at home asking him to come in to the office because President Johnson wanted to be able to assure the country he had a legislative response to the tragedy. 

Friends for 50 years, Barnes Ellis and Doris Kearns Goodwin enjoy a visit in October 2018. Photo by Jason Sandhagen

As a White House Fellow, Barnes tried to connect with all the major divisions in the Department of Justice. He argued a tax appeal to the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston. He traveled to Houston for the Civil Rights Division to investigate hiring practices at Joske’s Department Store. He went to Cleveland in connection with a racial discrimination case against the local IBEW union.  He was very involved in lobbying for the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which prohibited racial discrimination in housing, and attended the signing ceremony the week after Dr. King’s assassination. Barnes came away with a fairly positive attitude towards most of the people in government he had met.  “It did stimulate my already strong interest in wanting to combine law practice with public service.”

In November 1968, he rejoined Molly and the children, who had returned earlier to  Portland. The family expanded with two more daughters, Joy (1969), Heidi (1972) and son Curtis (1979).  Barnes has said “Having a child—or more than one child—is an expression of optimism.  We were, and are, very optimistic.” Molly ran the household and returned to teaching in 1989 when she became the librarian at the newly-started Arbor School of Arts and Science in Tualatin.