A Conversation With Eric T. Washington
From Washington Lawyer, October 2005
By Julie Reynolds
On August 5 Eric T. Washington took the oath of office as the new chief judge of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.
Washington has been an associate judge on the Court of Appeals since 1999, serving as cochair of the Strategic Planning Leadership Council for the District of Columbia courts and as a member of the Standing Committee on Fairness and Access to the D.C. Courts and the newly created Access to Justice Commission. He was an associate judge on the Superior Court from 1995 to 1999.
Prior to joining the Superior Court, Washington was a partner at Hogan & Hartson L.L.P. He also served as special counsel to the D.C. Office of the Corporation Counsel (now the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia) and principal deputy corporation counsel.
Washington graduated in 1976 from Tufts University and received his law degree in 1979 from Columbia University School of Law.
Judge Washington recently spoke with D.C. Bar staff reporter Julie Reynolds about his career and the course he will set for the court in the coming years.
Tell us a little about your background.
I was born and grew up in northern New Jersey. My father is a retired orthopedic surgeon and my mother was formerly the manager of social services for the Newark Preschool Council, a part of the Head Start program. I have two brothers and a sister. We moved from Newark to Maplewood when I was in junior high school, and I graduated from Columbia High School in the early 1970s. After graduation I attended Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, before going on to law school at Columbia University. In both high school and college I played basketball and tennis, and sports continues to be a passion of mine.
What made you decide to pursue a legal career and
ultimately become a judge?
Organic chemistry. Well, that’s not entirely true, even though taking the course certainly reinforced my decision not to pursue medicine as a career. As corny as it sounds, I first became interested in the law after watching a few episodes of Perry Mason as a youngster. I thought that solving mysteries in the course of interrogating someone in a courtroom was pretty cool. As you may recall, Perry Mason solved cases by bringing all of the suspects to court as witnesses and one by one calling them to the witness stand and accusing them of committing the crime. Eventually one of them would crack under the pressure and confess that he or she, and not Perry Mason’s client, had committed the crime. Unfortunately, I later found out that it doesn’t work quite that way in the real world. But I was still hooked.
I was also motivated to pursue a legal career by the successful exploits of pioneering lawyers like Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall, who through their brilliance changed the legal landscape of this country and really set us on a path toward a more perfect union. As a young person growing up during the 1960s and 1970s, I was very aware that our generation was at the forefront of a social revolution brought about by the legal and political victories of the 1950s and early 1960s that led to the dismantling of many of the discriminatory practices that had prevented our parents from enjoying the full benefits of U.S. citizenship. Most of my friends also realized and accepted that, as the beneficiaries of those victories, we had a responsibility to continue to advocate for social justice. I saw the law as the best way to accomplish that goal.
It also didn’t hurt that my father had a number of good friends who were lawyers or that several of them went on to become judges. Because of my father’s friendships with these lawyers and judges, I was exposed to the less glamorous but very important nitty-gritty practice of law early on, and was able to gain a real appreciation for the kind of work lawyers did every day. That confirmed for me that the law was an honorable profession and that being a judge is a high calling that allows you to make a real difference in people’s lives.
You were exposed to the inner workings of the courtroom fairly early in life. Did you find your law school experience at all divorced from the reality of court work?
Maybe early on to some degree, but you have to remember that prior to law school I got a glimpse of what it was really like to practice law and what to expect from law school. For example, I knew when I applied to law school that I would not be spending time in a courtroom learning how to try cases. I understood that the purpose of law school was to train one’s mind to think about and analyze issues in a particular way. So I wasn’t disappointed by my law school experience because I wasn’t really thinking about law school in the way your question suggests. Nevertheless, I did sign up to participate in a clinical program that provided representation to low-income tenants in landlord–tenant court during my third year of law school, because I wanted to gain some practical experience and I wanted to use what I had learned to help people who really needed legal assistance.
How did you end up in Texas after living in New Jersey and going to law school in New York City?
I chose to accept an offer from Fulbright & Jaworski in Houston, Texas, because I felt that the firm would be the best fit for me. I wanted to do trial work and Fulbright & Jaworski was a preeminent litigation firm. More importantly, Fulbright & Jaworski ran a litigation training program that would have made the National Institute for Trial Advocacy proud. Young associates in litigation-related practices were given training in trial advocacy techniques. The training also included several opportunities to participate in mock trials where senior partners acted as judges and the roles of jurors and witnesses were played by other firm employees—or in some cases by ordinary citizens who were recruited from the streets of Houston or from the various area law schools.
I recall being scared to death when I participated in my first mock trial because it was a personal injury case and I had to examine a child witness with one of the firm’s most accomplished trial lawyers acting as judge. It was a great experience, but what was even better was the fact that our performances were taped and you had a chance to review your performance with other partners and senior associates, who were always willing to offer constructive criticism and suggestions for improving.
In addition to the workshops and mock trials, the firm made a real effort to maintain client relationships with insurance companies so that young associates would have an opportunity, soon after completing the litigation training program, to actually try some relatively simple insurance defense cases. The firm couldn’t bill full value for those cases, but it was evidently okay, because those cases provided such a good training opportunity for young associates, and as far as I was aware, none of the other firms with whom I interviewed offered a similar litigation training program.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Fulbright & Jaworski had a young African American partner, Marty Wickliff, whom I met during the interview process and with whom I quickly struck up a strong friendship. While firms now openly discuss the benefits of diversity, it wasn’t always so, and having someone of color who was a partner at the firm was a huge selling point to me.
What brought you to Washington, D.C.?
Politics, of course. I have always been interested in politics. I was a political science major in college and going to law school in New York only fueled the fire. Between 1970 and 1980 Houston’s population grew so much that the congressional districts were redrawn and an additional district was added. Michael A. Andrews, a relatively young partner in another Houston law firm whom I knew and liked, was interested in running and asked me to help him with his campaign in 1982. He won the election and offered me a job as his legislative director and counsel here in Washington. Although I had some misgivings about leaving Houston and Fulbright & Jaworski after such a short period of time, I was excited about the opportunity to work on the Hill. So with the blessing of the firm’s managing partner, Gibson Gayle, I sold my home and moved to D.C. to work for Congressman Andrews.
How has your employment experience informed your work as a judge?
I like to believe that the diverse experiences I have had in the public and private sectors have made me a more well-rounded jurist. I have worked in all three branches of government and have represented clients in a broad range of matters before both administrative tribunals and the courts. Those experiences have given me certain perspectives that others may not have, and it is those perspectives and experiences that help inform my decisions. For example, as judges on the D.C. Court of Appeals, we are sometimes faced with questions that involve difficult issues of statutory interpretation. Having participated in the drafting and/or shepherding of legislation through two very different legislative bodies, I may glean something from a bill’s legislative history that others who have not had my experiences would not. I think my experiences as a trial judge also help inform my decisions as an appellate judge. I know, for example, that many things happen at trial that are not part of the record on appeal. I feel that having experienced some of those situations helps me better evaluate whether the parties in fact received a fair trial despite claims that the trial court’s decisions were improper.
What are your goals for your tenure as chief judge?
The Strategic Planning Leadership Council, a body that I have had the pleasure of cochairing for the past three-plus years, prepared and submitted a five-year strategic plan to the Joint Committee on Judicial Administration in 2002. The plan, which was adopted by the Joint Committee under the leadership of my predecessor, Judge Annice M. Wagner, addresses many of the areas that were identified by court employees and court users as impediments to realizing our goal of being the model court system for the nation. The strategic plan outlines goals, objectives, and strategies for moving the D.C. courts closer to reaching our aspirational goal of being a court system that is “open to all, trusted by all, with justice for all.” So, a major responsibility I have as chair of the Joint Committee on Judicial Administration is to ensure that the strategic plan is fully implemented in a way that achieves its stated goals and objectives.
In addition to fully implementing the strategic plan, my goals as chief judge of the Court of Appeals are to improve our court’s performance with respect to the timely disposition of cases and to ensure that the renovation of the Old Courthouse, the crown jewel of Judiciary Square and the future home of the D.C. Court of Appeals, is completed on time and within budget.
With respect to the timely disposition of cases, we have made tremendous strides over the past few years in resolving some of the administrative roadblocks that made it difficult to timely calendar pending cases. In resolving those problems, however, we have created new challenges for ourselves. We now have more cases ready for calendaring sooner than can be readily accommodated. Additionally, there are a significant number of cases that have been argued or submitted for disposition but have not yet been resolved. My colleagues and I are focusing our energies on addressing both of these issues. For example, earlier this year the Board of Judges voted to institute a formal summer appellate mediation project to see if some of those cases awaiting calendaring could be resolved prior to argument or formal submission. We have been pleasantly surprised at the results and will soon consider a proposal to implement a more ambitious early intervention mediation pilot program this fall or early winter.
In addition to initiating alternative-dispute-resolution programs in our court, we are undertaking a comprehensive review of our own internal operating procedures for the first time since the early 1990s to see whether our procedures are consistent with best practices for appellate courts throughout the country. Our goal will be to ensure that our time standards and other operational procedures are consistent with best practices without unreasonably impacting on a judge’s opportunity to thoughtfully consider each case. Judges on the Court of Appeals are very aware of the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court rarely, if ever, decides to review one of our decisions. That means that we are the last word on 99 percent of the matters that come before us. For that reason, we are committed to giving those matters very careful review. However, we are also mindful that “justice delayed is justice denied,” so in reviewing our internal procedures we have to achieve both objectives.
Finally, as I mentioned earlier, and thanks in large part to Judge Wagner’s perseverance and leadership, the courts have received the necessary funding and administrative approvals to begin the renovation of the Old Courthouse and original city hall of the District of Columbia for use as the new home for the D.C. Court of Appeals. This is truly an exciting project. The building itself is rich in history, a history that we certainly intend to preserve and celebrate. In fact, Judge Wagner has accepted an appointment from the Joint Committee to chair a new advisory committee that will make recommendations on just what steps should be taken, not only to preserve the history of that building, but to preserve and celebrate the history of the local courts generally.
In addition to the Court of Appeals renovation project, there are several other construction projects taking place on our Judiciary Square campus, including the construction of an underground garage at the corner of 5th Street and Indiana Avenue NW. That garage will provide parking for D.C. Court of Appeals personnel as well as for the judges and employees of our neighboring court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. The Joint Committee is committed to making sure that those two projects, as well as the other ongoing projects in and around Judiciary Square, are completed in a timely manner and within budget.
Are there any issues facing the Bar that you think are especially important?
I know that our Bar leadership is working very hard on a number of very important matters. I will soon be meeting with Bar President John Cruden, President-Elect James Sandman, and Executive Director Katherine Mazzaferri to discuss many of these issues as well as some new initiatives that I understand are under consideration. From my prior conversations with the Bar’s leadership, I know that access-to-justice issues remain a top priority for this administration, and I applaud the Bar’s initiatives in this area. Addressing barriers to access is, of course, a key to the court’s ability to maintain the public’s trust and confidence.
The Bar and the Board on Professional Responsibility are also working hard to ensure that the attorney disciplinary system in the District of Columbia is adequately funded and staffed. Again, this is a critical issue because one of the keys to the courtbeing able to maintain the public’s trust and confidence, as well as its judicial independence, is its ability to ensure that the attorneys whom we admit to practice in this jurisdiction are appropriately disciplined for violating our local rules of professional conduct. In order to do that, we need to have in place an adequately funded and credible attorney disciplinary system.
The District of Columbia Bar is either the second or third largest Bar in the country, so it is no small task to fully fund and support such an operation. The Bar and the board are currently engaged in a very constructive dialogue about these funding issues, and the court is hopeful that an agreement can be reached that will allocate Bar funds in a way that will ensure that our disciplinary system can continue to perform its very important duties in an exemplary fashion. So, I believe that although this is a very difficult issue, it will ultimately be resolved in a way that allows the Bar to continue to provide the high-quality programs and services that it currently offers members while providing adequate funding for the Bar’s disciplinary functions.
On a related note, the Board of Governors of the District of Columbia Bar recently sent to us for our review and consideration proposed amendments to the District of Columbia Rules of Professional Conduct. These proposed amendments to our rules were developed in response to model rules promulgated by the American Bar Association as part of its Ethics 2000 initiative. Consideration of the proposed amendments to our rules will also be a priority for the Court of Appeals this fall.
As recent events have shown, court security is increasingly important. How do you think security can be reconciled with maintaining public access to the courts?
I certainly believe that we currently provide a safe and secure environment for court participants to peacefully resolve their disputes without setting up unreasonable barriers to access. In fact, our investment in technology and the benefits that flow from that investment, like the court’s new web site, have really made our court more accessible than ever before. Litigants and other court users can now get answers to common questions, download forms, file certain papers, and read opinions of the court without ever having to come to Judiciary Square.
We understand, however, that because of the work that takes place in our court buildings, we must continue to monitor and evaluate our security procedures to ensure that we are taking reasonable steps to protect our employees as well as the public from the kind of senseless violence we have seen occur in courthouses around the country. In order to address these issues on an ongoing basis, the Joint Committee formed a court security committee that meets regularly with the U.S. Marshals Service and our court security officers to develop policies that balance the needs of law enforcement to maintain a safe and secure environment with the goals of the court to be open and easily accessible.
Our approach thus far has been similar to the approach taken in most urban jurisdictions. We have purchased and deployed state-of-the-art screening devices such as magnetometers at all of our entrances and have increased the quality of our screening process. We have invested in training our security personnel to be more vigilant in performing their duties, and we have also asked our court personnel to be more conscious of and to report any unusual activities they might observe. The committee is also constantly evaluating the effectiveness of our approaches to staffing courtrooms and will continue to do so on an ongoing basis. Access to the courthouse is very important to the fair administration of justice, so as we continue to make every effort to ensure the safety of our employees and visitors, we will also strive to ensure that there are no unreasonable barriers to our citizens’ ability to access the courts.