art work

Good judge. Bad person.

Jamison KoehlerAssault, Current Events, D.C. Superior Court

He was always one of my favorite judges. 

He ran his courtroom efficiently.  Calling the docket himself, he would acknowledge you when you came into the courtroom.  He would apologize to you when there were delays, and he would let you know when you could expect to have your case called. 

Mr. Smith, he would say.  We are running a bit late.  I don’t want to keep you waiting.  Why don’t you come back in a half hour or so?   Or:  Mr. Smith.  You are next.  Please stay in the courtroom.  

He treated everyone in the courtroom with respect.  He was plain spoken and you hated to be the target of his ire.  Fortunately for defense lawyers, his criticism – which could be withering – was usually directed at the prosecution.  He did not pull punches.  He did not sugarcoat.  The criticism was always deserved.  

His take-down of a complaining witness was one of my favorites of all-time.  Noting that the witness had told him two very different stories within the past 30 seconds, the judge reminded the witness of his oath to tell the truth.  

THE COURT:  Okay?  You got it?
THE WITNESS:  (No audible response.)
THE COURT:  What’s the trouble?
THE WITNESS:  The trouble’s the way that you’re addressing me.
THE COURT:  Sir, I am instructing you that you’re under oath and you are to tell us what you remember, and that is my instruction to you.

He knew the law.  He applied the law.  And he always explained his legal reasoning in terms everyone in the courtroom could understand.  

And, as it turns out, he was hiding a secret from his past.  

According to a Washington Post story published this past weekend, his abrupt retirement earlier this year was the result of accusations that he had sexually molested a 16-year-old girl – the daughter of family friends — when he was in his 30s. 

According to the Post, the judge has acknowledged that “sexual touching” occurred:  “Whether or not I thought my contacts were welcome is completely irrelevant.  I certainly appreciate that sexual touching of any kind without clear permission is not acceptable at any age.”  

The reaction of my colleagues to the news has been mixed.  One colleague condemned him.  Others pointed to the irony of defense lawyers condemning anyone on the basis of unproven allegations.  

Although I have no way of knowing the truth, his acknowledgement of sexual contact with a minor raises all sorts of issues.  So too do some of his recent statements.  It is disheartening, for example, that a man of such careful words would seek to clarify that the victim was 16 and a half years old at the time of the assault – as if a six-month difference in her age would somehow make his conduct less egregious. 

We like to think in absolutes, in black and white.  Life is more nuanced.  He could in fact be, as the Post reported, a terrific mentor and a renowned criminal justice reformer during his 40 years on the bench.  He could also be an awful person at the same time.

I condemn his actions.  I will miss the jurist.