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Court mainstay lauded for quiet competence

– With its speeches, balls and parades, Inauguration Day presents Washington at its grandest and, some would say, most grandiose.

Amid the pomp and exaltation, I found myself thinking about someone who wasn’t in the crowd this year, though I suspect he would have wanted very much to take it all in: Francis J. Lorson, who passed away a few days ago at age 69.

No doubt many of you have never heard of Frank. There is often a great incongruity between one’s fame and the quality of one’s public service, a fact of Washington life that Frank’s career abundantly illustrated.

For 30 years, from 1972 to 2002, he labored behind the scenes at the U.S. Supreme Court, rising from assistant clerk to chief deputy clerk. These vaguely Dickensian job designations matched the nature of his work, which, at each level of the clerk’s office’s hierarchy, served essentially the same, prosaic objective: to make sure that lawyers follow the court’s rules, especially the rules about filing their papers on time and in the proper form – thousands and thousands of times each year.

But no job title could describe the informal role Frank played as a creative and discreet interpreter of the court’s practices and procedures, hand-holder to nervous lawyers – and friend and confidant of court personnel, up to and including the justices.

As the court’s institutional memory, Frank was also a great source of information to those of us in the media corps, though he was frustratingly conscientious about never betraying what went on “upstairs,” in the justices’ chambers.

In short, Frank’s efficiency was anything but chilly. He helped the court operate not only smoothly but also humanely. And he did so even when the country and the court were deeply divided, over matters such as Paula Jones’ lawsuit against then-President Bill Clinton or the Bush v. Gore election battle in 2000.

This is why his funeral Mass last week at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church was attended not only by family, friends and co-workers but also by a majority of the Supreme Court’s current members and the U.S. solicitor general.

They came to pay their respects because, as Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. put it in his eulogy: “We all needed Frank’s help.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is nearing 80, recalled Frank’s “reassuring smile” as she prepared to argue before the high court during the 1970s – and, more intimately, she spoke of his support for her years later, when she was a member of the court and was battling cancer. Frank had survived the same disease, and his advice made the illness “less frightening,” Ginsburg said.

“Bureaucrat” is a bad word, and truth be told, too many of the people who serve time in government deserve the label, in its worst sense. But there are a lot of people in Washington like Frank Lorson – people who don’t just put in their hours or blindly obsess over petty rules.

They understand, as Frank did, the purposes behind the rules and procedures. And one of those purposes, epitomized by the Supreme Court’s rituals, is to direct human conflict into peaceful channels.

Civilization does not exactly hinge on the fulfillment of Supreme Court Rule 33, subparagraph 1(g), which requires that every Brief in Opposition be submitted to the court in an orange booklet. But it does hinge on it a little bit. And every little bit helps.

So celebrate the president, vice president, Congress, justices and all the other big shots who populate the upper echelons of the republic.

But recall, too, the humbler legions who stand behind our leaders, or off to the side, keeping them on schedule and helping them be great – or seemingly so.

Spare a thought for Frank Lorson, a man whose funeral brought together the mighty and the modest, just as death itself will someday unify, and equalize, us all.

He was, the chief justice said, that rarest of Washington characters: “a quiet, unassuming man who had the charisma of one who knew what he was doing.”

Charles Lane is a member of the Washington Post’s editorial board.