WASHINGTON -- In winning a key court victory last month, Clovis lawyer Brian Leighton advanced his marathon legal battle for a longtime friend -- and attracted national attention for beating the CIA in court.
In an eye-opening order, a federal judge concluded CIA and Justice Department officials repeatedly had misled him in defending against a lawsuit Leighton filed 15 years ago.
The judge's order made public hundreds of previously secret documents.
It revealed government attorneys face potential sanctions for misconduct, and it rewarded Leighton's determination to challenge administrations that protect themselves from lawsuits by invoking national security.
"I'm a bulldog," Leighton said. "I don't give up."
Leighton and former Fresno-based narcotics agent Richard Horn contend State Department and CIA officials illegally eavesdropped on Horn while he was the Drug Enforcement Administration's top officer in Burma.
Leighton, too, is a former Justice Department employee. He was a federal prosecutor in the San Joaquin Valley for six years, working alongside Horn in the 1980s.
Now, both of these Justice Department alumni share deep scorn for how their former colleagues have handled the case, first filed in August 1994.
The Justice Department first succeeded in placing the case and its voluminous filings under seal, which shut out the public.
Then the department convinced a trial judge to throw out the entire suit, on the grounds that it couldn't be pursued without endangering state secrets.
An appellate court later reversed that decision.
"The common component to all these strategies is to delay, delay, delay," Horn said in an e-mail interview.
"In their view there's always a chance that ... Brian Leighton or I will stumble out in front of a Mack truck."
Horn, who says his adversaries in the government forced him out of Burma, eventually felt obliged to retire from the DEA.
Leighton's tough journey
Leighton, a 59-year-old Fresno State graduate, has faced challenges of his own. He said he has been threatened with prosecution for revealing government secrets. He's been told his secretary can't type legal briefs because she lacks a security clearance.
Even a federal judge now says the government has engaged in "misconduct" and "misrepresentations" in fighting Leighton.
"The only thing I can see you've done is try to stall at every turn," a furious U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth told Justice Department and CIA attorneys at a May 19 hearing, a newly public transcript shows. "You handcuffed the court with this nonsense."
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment, saying that "this is an ongoing matter." A CIA spokesman has said only that the agency takes its legal obligations seriously.
At first blush, Leighton might seem an unlikely antagonist in a D.C.-centered case.
After getting a law degree from Humphreys College, a small law school based in Stockton, he spent six years as a prosecutor in Fresno with the U.S. Attorney's Office.
He's now a solo practitioner with an office in Clovis and a roster of farm clients.
Most notably, the self-styled libertarian has represented San Joaquin Valley farmers who object to paying mandatory fees to promote the table grape, raisin, cherry and cut-flower industries, among others.
"He's very aggressive, let's put it that way," said Manuel Cunha, president of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League and a supporter of the practice, called agricultural marketing orders.