As she stood before the camera crews in her first rainy moments of freedom, a reporter asked Elizabeth Morgan, “Where will you go?”
“Wherever my fiance takes me,” she replied, beaming.
The man on her arm, unblinking in the lights, was Paul R. Michel, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington. But who was this earnest gentleman, and what was he doing in the picture? How did a federal judge find himself in the supporting cast of so sensational a piece of legal and political theater?
Michel, 48, gives a fiance’s time-honored answer: He struck up a conversation with Morgan in September, 1986, and “it was instantly apparent to me that this was the most wonderful woman I had ever met. . . . I really fell in love with her in about two seconds.”
Though he knew that his new love had trouble with her former husband, dental surgeon Eric A. Foretich, Michel had no idea what he was getting into. Morgan vs. Foretich--the lawsuit, the public spectacle, maybe soon to be the major motion picture--was already all-consuming in Morgan’s life.
Headed for Jail
Then 39, Morgan was edging closer to a jail cell for defying a D.C. court’s orders to allow Foretich to see their 4-year-old daughter. Hilary, now 7, has not been seen since Morgan said she sent her underground in August, 1987. That same month, Morgan became engaged to Michel and began what would be 25 months in jail for civil contempt of court.
“It was like a wartime romance,” Michel said in an interview. “There were bombs and blood all over the place, so it was an unusual circumstance in which to carry out a courtship.”
The war knew no noncombatants. Initially a dispute over the custody and visitation of Hilary, it grew rapidly into the most voluminous and expensive proceeding in the history of the D.C. Superior Court’s family division.
As Morgan pressed her accusation that Foretich had sexually abused their child, and as Foretich pressed his claim that she was unstable, the wrenching dispute spilled out well beyond the courtroom.
Michel--who said, “absolutely I would do it all again, without any hesitation at all"--stepped boldly into the vortex, writing letters and sending clippings on Morgan’s behalf.
Limited by Position
But he said his ascension to a judgeship, for which he was nominated by President Reagan in December, 1987, and confirmed by the Senate in February, 1988, has sharply limited his participation in the case.
In the interview, Michel declined to discuss legal or factual details, referring a reporter to his testimony under subpoena in December, 1988, and in June.
The December appearance, before Superior Court Judge Herbert B. Dixon Jr., created a minor sensation in the courtroom. Michel testified that the greatest regret of his life was that he had advised Morgan “to obey orders of this court” and that he had twice driven Hilary to court-ordered visits with Foretich.
Foretich filed judicial misconduct claims against Michel the following month, maintaining that Michel’s testimony had been tantamount to “condoning child abduction,” and arguing that Michel had given legal and personal support to Morgan’s defiance of the law. Howard T. Markey, the chief judge of Michel’s court, dismissed the claims without a hearing.
In a tension-filled, second appearance before Dixon, Michel began defending himself against an objection from Foretich’s lawyer when Dixon interrupted sharply: “Judge Michel! My court. Objection overruled.”
The animus of the two judges, apparent from their demeanor, remained unspoken. It has been much the same between husband-to-be and former husband: Michel has made clear that he takes Morgan’s side against Foretich, but has said nothing publicly about the details.
In interviews, Michel raised ominous specters but declined to put a name on his fears.
He said he has often been followed “by a young man in a black Jeep with Virginia license plates, and I speculate that he may be a private detective.” Working late one night in his chambers, he said, he heard someone break in and rifle a stack of papers on Morgan’s case.
“I got frightened and left,” he said.
Having moved to Northwest Washington in anticipation of his fiancee’s release, Michel said he was “keeping the new location undisclosed because I think she may be in substantial physical danger.”
What danger? a reporter asked.
“I think it’s obvious,” he said. “I think that her personal safety is at risk. I’m not making any accusations, but I’m taking precautions.”
Asked about the man in the Jeep and the alleged break-in, Foretich said, “I can tell you I didn’t do it, and if he implies that I did it he better have proof.” Asked about Michel’s second statement, Foretich replied with some heat.
“Elizabeth’s at risk?” he asked. “From me? If the implication is from me, I have never ever ever . . . " Here he paused, then added, “This could be a smoke screen, all part of their strategy to make me look bad. . . . If I wanted to have Elizabeth harmed, I could have paid one of those inmates in the D.C. Jail 100 bucks and had her harmed, and it would have been easy to do.”
A 1966 graduate of the University of Virginia Law School, Michel rose through the ranks of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office under Arlen Specter. When the Republican Specter won a Senate seat in 1980, Michel became his chief aide--but not before serving as assistant Watergate special prosecutor and working for the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Justice Department.
Michel’s toughest job may be ahead. Enough litigation remains to dominate Morgan’s life, and his, for years to come.
“I think it may be true,” Michel responded, when asked about that prospect in the interview. “I don’t seek it, nor do I fear it.”