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The Mystery Man 

Court nominee Claude Allen is often “hard to pin down.”

Uncertain whether the gesture was intended as a joke or a jab, Khalfani decided not to confront Allen, one of two black members of Gilmore’s cabinet. But the incident three years ago still troubles the NAACP leader, especially now that Allen has been nominated to a judgeship on what has been widely regarded as one of the nation’s most conservative federal appeals court.

Khalfani’s encounter with Allen illustrates the difficulties critics face in challenging the Republican’s nomination to the 13-judge 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“He’s a hard guy to pin down,” Khalfani says. “Nobody knows what he’s about.”

Allen’s opponents denounce the 42-year-old as a right-wing ideologue. But his resume gives them little insight into his opinions on issues such as capital punishment and immigration law. He spent several years practicing law after earning his law degree from Duke University, but he has no judicial experience.

Those concerns were highlighted late last month when the American Bar Association rated Allen as “qualified” for the bench, but withheld the organization’s top evaluation of “well qualified.” The ABA panel did not explain its rating, although the criteria it uses suggest that a nominee to federal court should have been admitted to the bar for at least 12 years. Allen spent a total of 7 « years as a judicial clerk, as a private attorney and working for the Virginia Attorney General’s Office.

As an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Allen joined a liberal white fraternity, then worked as press secretary to arch-conservative U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms.

Allen later was appointed Virginia’s secretary of health and human resources and is now deputy U.S. secretary of health and human services. In those jobs, he has cultivated the image of a crisp, just-following-orders bureaucrat, even when hip-deep in controversial right-to-die and sex-education issues. Some associates say his compassion for youngsters trying to escape poverty is colored by a moralistic and simplistic approach to complex problems.

If confirmed, Allen would join the 4th Circuit at a time when a variety of high-profile cases are within its jurisdiction. The court may be asked to rule on capital punishment and other constitutional questions raised in the trial of accused terrorist Zacarias Moussaoui.

Although they are being tried in state courts, sniper suspects John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo may wind up filing appeals that would be handled by the 4th Circuit. Observers also expect the court to handle key cases affecting employment discrimination and immigration.

The national NAACP is not formally opposing Allen’s nomination. It has chosen, instead, to focus on other judicial candidates with clear-cut records. But the group can’t afford to ignore the 4th Circuit, long the subject of Capitol Hill battles over its racial and political makeup. Its first black judge, Roger L. Gregory of Richmond, was appointed in December 2000.

Allen, who is married and has three children who are home-schooled, is not granting interviews during his pending nomination. His supporters say he has a sharp legal mind and is well-suited to the federal bench.

“There’s a tendency today to label somebody whose views you don’t agree with as an ideologue. It’s just that Claude has a well thought-out set of principles,” Gilmore says. “But it would not surprise me if you did get results from Claude that he may not be personally comfortable with, but he felt were compelled by the law.”

James E. Coleman Jr., a law professor at Duke, taught Allen in a seminar that examined disparities in how the death penalty is applied.

“The impression I had of him in class was that he was a thoughtful, analytical person,” says Coleman, noting that students were never asked to express their opinions about capital punishment.

“I felt he was open-minded about how the death penalty was administered because, otherwise, he would have to ignore the flaws that are obvious in the system,” Coleman says. “My hope would be he has life experiences that cause him to be open-minded.”

Allen grew up in Washington. His father worked in the physical plant at Georgetown University, and his mother was a tutor at the Catholic elementary school Claude attended.

In an interview with Stephen M. King, a former professor at Regent University, Allen said he first encountered racism as a child when the family moved to Raleigh, N.C.

King, now an associate professor at Campbell University in North Carolina, interviewed Allen twice for a 2000 paper on Allen’s religious beliefs and their influence on his public service career. Allen told King that he felt uncomfortable because his family lived in a white neighborhood. He also vividly recalled seeing Ku Klux Klan billboards erected along a highway.

“That made a distinct impression on him about being a black man living in a white man’s society,” King says. “He wanted to see individuals pursue their dreams and pursue their ambitions and not be hindered by racist attitudes.”

Allen told King that he was “born again” while a freshman at UNC.

“It really shaped and focused everything I did,” Allen told King. “I don’t think in partisan terms in that way. I do think in terms of … being saved and not saved. I think that is the distinction.”

Acquaintances say that Allen’s faith is apparent in everything he does, yet he rarely speaks about it.

“He is private in that regard,” says Martin D. Brown, a businessman who worked for Allen in Gilmore’s administration and attended the same nondenominational church in Richmond. “He doesn’t wear his faith on his sleeve. He just lives it.”

Allen’s parents, both Democrats, were surprised when he began working on Republican congressional campaigns after college. But his UNC fraternity brothers were not, even when Allen signed up as press secretary to Helms.

“I felt the folks he was working for fit in with his beliefs,” says Donald Beeson, who was a member with Allen in Chi Psi, an overwhelmingly white and liberal fraternity.

Allen was active in campus religious groups and open about his conservative politics, Beeson says, but managed to avoid friction with other members.

“Claude was a very tolerant individual,” he says. “He didn’t press his individual views and got along well with people who had different views.”

Beeson worked for then-Gov. James B. Hunt in his failed 1984 campaign to unseat Helms, a race that drew national attention. Allen drew fire when he accused Hunt’s campaign of having connections “with the queers.”

“That campaign was such a heated campaign. There were so many outrageous charges and comments. I would characterize it as his getting caught up in the moment,” Beeson says.

After the campaign, Allen left politics to attend law school and then joined a Washington law firm, where he specialized in handling whistle-blower cases. Gilmore, then Virginia’s attorney general, hired Allen in 1995 and assigned him to mobilize efforts to crack down on a rash of church burnings. When Gilmore was elected governor, he named Allen secretary of health and human resources.

Allen was criticized for his agency’s slowness to sign up children for a state health insurance program for the working poor. But legislators give him credit for working with the General Assembly to design the program in a way that overcame Gilmore’s objections that it was an expansion of welfare.

Allen’s most controversial moment as secretary occurred in 1998, when Gilmore sought to prevent doctors from removing the feeding tube from Hugh Finn, a newscaster who had suffered brain injuries in a car accident three years earlier.

The issue pitted state leaders against Finn’s wife, Michele, who said her husband had told her that he did not want to be kept alive by artificial means. Gilmore, with advice from Allen, said he was intervening on behalf of Hugh Finn’s parents, who wanted to keep their son alive.

After an emotional battle that lasted for weeks, a court gave Michele Finn the authority to disconnect her husband from life support.

“It was a very difficult situation,” says David E. Anderson, Gilmore’s legal counsel. “The facts we were getting were conflicting. Claude presented all that dispassionately and did what he was supposed to do.”

Michele Finn says she spoke directly with Allen only once. She called to confront him about sending health department investigators to examine her husband without her permission.

“He was polite, detached,” she recalls.

She still believes Allen and administration officials withheld information gleaned from their investigation that supported her decision.

“He had the discretion to determine these complaints were not legitimate,” she says. “Any judge has to be able to set aside their own personal and moral conviction to protect the public interest. His actions in my husband’s case show that he’s incapable of doing that.”

Although Allen developed programs in Virginia to promote sexual abstinence until marriage, his beliefs about sex education received little attention until Bush appointed him deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

William A. Smith, director of public policy for the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, says Allen and other Bush appointees have increased funding for school and community health programs that stress the failure rate for condoms and encourage abstinence as the preferred method for reducing disease and pregnancy.

“The secretary is willing to look science in the face about how HIV is prevented and say, ‘That’s fine, but we’re not going to promote condoms,’ ” Smith says. “Abstinence is, of course, the safest method, but we know most people aren’t abstinent.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee has not yet scheduled a hearing to consider Allen’s nomination. Although the Re-publican’s beliefs on reproduction, immigration and other topics are likely to be scrutinized closely, it is unclear how many organizations will formally oppose the nomination.

Khalfani is waiting to see whether his own national organization, the NAACP, will be among those opposing Allen. Meanwhile, he’s wondering whether to dig out that picture of Robert E. Lee.

“If he gets through and becomes a judge, I might get him to sign it,” Khalfani says with a wry chuckle. S

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