From the moment Robert Morgan took the stand in District of Columbia Superior Court, it was clear he was headed for a showdown with Judge Herbert Dixon Jr. Morgan, 39, a respected Washington lawyer in the U.S. Attorney’s office, had been summoned to disclose the whereabouts of his sister Elizabeth Morgan’s 6-year-old daughter, Hilary. And like his sister before him, he threw down the gauntlet. “I respectfully decline to answer…any question that might lead to the discovery of my niece,” Morgan said, his quiet voice creating a stir in the packed room. Clenching his jaw in anger and threatening “possible pain of contempt,” Dixon repeated his order 26 times; unflinching, Morgan refused to obey it.

The courtroom scene was the latest in a case that has evolved into a furious test of unbending wills. In August 1987, Dixon sent Elizabeth Morgan to the District of Columbia jail when she refused to produce Hilary for an unsupervised two-week visit with her father, Eric Foretich. A well-known plastic surgeon, Morgan had sent the child into hiding, convinced that her ex-husband had sexually abused Hilary since infancy. (Foretich, 46, a prosperous oral surgeon, adamantly denies the allegations.) Nearly two years later, Elizabeth, now 41, still languishes behind bars, while Hilary and her grandparents William and Antonia Morgan remain exiled to a fugitive life underground.

Now it appears that Judge Dixon is prepared to up the ante in his war of attrition with Elizabeth and her family. His confrontation with Robert Morgan took place June 9, after a D.C. appeals court ordered Dixon to determine whether his decision to jail Elizabeth was ever likely to force her into bringing Hilary out of hiding. Dixon, refusing to back down, concluded that Morgan could produce the child if she wished, and that she should remain in prison. His findings raised the possibility that Robert Morgan, too, could be jailed for civil contempt, without right to a jury trial, and taken from his wife, Janice Erich, 39, and their 5-year-old daughter, Erica.

“This is like medieval torture where they put someone in jail, then grab a member of the family and put his feet to the fire,” says Alice Monroe, coordinator of a Washington-based support group for Elizabeth Morgan. Robert’s elder brother, Jim Morgan, 43, a New York commodities broker, agrees. “It’s an outrage that a family court judge would attempt to break us apart,” he says. “Dixon has lost all contact with reality in this case and is totally out of control.”

Robert Morgan’s defiance of Dixon could jeopardize his legal career. A Yale graduate, he joined the Army Special Forces and was awarded a Bronze Star during his stint in Vietnam before earning an M.B.A, from Harvard in 1974 and a law degree from the University of Virginia three years later. He was hired by a prestigious Washington law firm specializing in corporate work but found his greatest satisfaction handling pro bono cases for poor tenants involved in disputes with their landlords. In 1984 he joined the U.S. Attorney’s office, gaining trial experience prosecuting criminal cases.

Due to the strains of rallying to his sister’s defense, Morgan had planned to resign early in July. But on June 13, four days after refusing to answer questions in court about Hilary, he was involuntarily placed on administrative leave. Now Morgan may not get the chance to practice on his own; even if Judge Dixon does not order him jailed, he could still face disbarment proceedings.

So far, Dixon has given no indication whether he will push the case that far. A native of Savannah, Ga., Dixon graduated from Howard University in 1970, earned a law degree from Georgetown University and in the late ’70s set up a small private firm. Since his appointment to the D.C. Superior Court in 1985, he has had mixed reviews. “Dixon is uncompassionate,” says one local attorney who has tried several cases in his court. “He doesn’t have that little touch of humanity. He’s cold.” Washington-based civil rights lawyer Joseph Rauh has even harsher words. “Everything the judge is doing is wrong. The effort to hold this woman forever is outrageous.” Adds Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree: “The possibility that the brother faces comparable punishment makes one really wonder whether the system is working. The litigation could be endless.”

Eric Foretich disagrees. At a Father’s Day rally in the capital, he and some 30 supporters carried placards that read THANK YOU JUDGE DIXON. Foretich, who has concurred with Dixon’s view that Hilary, once returned, could be turned over to social service authorities, applauds the judge’s decision. “A rational person would have to say that this [finding] gives Hilary protection,” he says, adding that Dixon’s pressure on Robert Morgan is also “proper and correct…. It is very clear he knows where my daughter is.”

Meantime, the Morgans are anxiously awaiting a decision by the D.C. appeals court, which could dismiss Dixon’s order jailing Elizabeth within weeks. But even that victory would not be complete. Elizabeth has vowed to keep Hilary in hiding until the court acknowledges that the little girl needs protection. “Letting Elizabeth go won’t bring back my parents or Hilary,” says Robert, “and Dixon would still be in control of my niece’s life.”

As they have learned to do over the past two years, he and Elizabeth are bracing for the worst. After the court proceedings, Elizabeth wrote a five-page letter to her brother, including some practical advice about going to jail. “Take $50 cash to put direct into your jail canteen account,” she suggested, and urged him to bring “Vaseline for lips, wax earplugs…[and] a couple packs of cigarettes, if you are going to barter. Order peanut butter. The empty jars are our only cups.”

Finally, Elizabeth offered a bit of hard-earned wisdom. “Come mentally prepared to stay,” she wrote. “It’s the expecting to go home that drives people frantic.”

—David Grogan, Jane Sims Podesta and Margie Bonnett Sellinger in Washington

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