Will O.J. Get The Kids?

THERE MAY BE A GAG ORDER IMPOSED on O. J. Simpson for his upcoming civil trial, but you would have hardly known it last week. Sure, he didn't say anything substantive about the trial (set to begin Sept. 17). But in another of a series of visits to black churches, Simpson spoke at Washington, D.C.'s Scripture Cathedral and managed to stir more headlines. He attacked the white media, hinting at one point he has a ""hit list'' of news organizations he might sue for what he called ""untruths.'' He went after CNBC's Geraldo Rivera, likening him to a ""jackal'' and a ""buzzard'' (an attack Rivera said he took as a badge of achievement). And, noting that blacks are sometimes told to go back to Africa, Simpson said whites who don't like his acquittal on murder charges could go back to Europe.

Simpson remained publicly silent, though, on what could be the biggest event in his life since his acquittal last October. In the next week or two the Simpson camp is anticipating that a family-court judge will grant the former football star full custody of his two children from his marriage with slain ex-wife Nicole. The two children, Sydney, 10, and Justin, 8, have been living with Nicole's parents, Juditha and Louis Brown, since Simpson's arrest in June 1994. This summer Simpson, who cares for the children on alternating weekends, petitioned the court to end the Browns' temporary guardianship and award him sole custody. The Browns have objected.

While records are sealed and lawyers aren't talking, the Brown and Simpson families were spotted last week at an Orange County, Calif., courthouse, where hearings are underway. Simpson is optimistic. A close Simpson friend, Florence Anthony, told NEWSWEEK that a court-appointed doctor recommended to the judge that the ""children would be best served by being placed with O.J.'' The judge is likely to rule shortly because school is about to start. According to Simpson associates, O.J. has already enrolled his children in a private school in Brentwood, where he lives. The children have been attending the private Anneliese School in Laguna Beach, near the Browns.

Several legal experts said that while judges have wide discretion in custody matters, Simpson clearly has the law on his side. He's been acquitted, and the law strongly favors biological parents. And Simpson's involvement in the 1989 beating of Nicole didn't deter a judge from awarding him joint custody of the children after his divorce. ""If he doesn't get custody, the letter of the law has not been followed,'' said Sorrell Trope, regarded as the dean of Los Angeles's family-court lawyers. Simpson friends also mention that the Browns are elderly (Juditha is 65, Louis 73). And, they say, he is devoted to his children and determined that they be raised among blacks. In O.J.'s family room an embroidered pillow reads #1 DAD. He may soon learn if he can still claim that title.