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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: Portraits on a Wall

From Washington Lawyer, September 2011

By Jacob A. Stein

spectator When I was last in the E. Barrett Prettyman Courthouse ceremonial courtroom, I looked, as I usually do, at the 30 or more portraits of the judges of the past that adorn the walls. The thought came to me that I either had lost a motion or lost a trial, or both, before each one of the West wall judges.

The first loss was in 1950 before Judge Richmond Keech. I was court–appointed to represent a defendant charged with burglary. The defense was alibi. After the verdict and the sentencing, I thought my connection with the case was over. I was wrong.

The defendant sent me a jailhouse letter reporting a very unusual coincidence. The defendant discovered a witness who saw him at the movies at the very time the prosecutor claimed the defendant was committing the burglary. I went to the jail right away to get a statement from that coincidental witness, and then I filed a motion for a new trial based on newly discovered evidence.

Judge Keech, after argument, denied the motion. He asked to see me in chambers. Why did he want to see me? What had I done wrong?

In his chambers, he said I did a good job. He added: “Do you see that four–drawer file case next to your chair? Please take a file from one of the drawers.” I fumbled around and took out a file.

“Look in that file, and you will see a motion for a new trial with an affidavit attached.” I fumbled again. I saw just such a motion.

Judge Keech said: “I am always surprised to see how many coincidences occur in jail.”

On the East wall of the ceremonial courtroom is the portrait of Judge Wendell Stafford who was appointed in 1904 to the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, which had both federal and local jurisdiction. Judge Stafford served here for 27 years. He died in 1953, at the age of 91.

George Monk and Ed Campbell, friends of mine, recalled Judge Stafford as a man of no nonsense who ran a strict court. He was mustachioed, of erect posture, dignified, and reserved.

Judge Stafford liked to write. His writings consist of several books of poetry, an equity textbook, and a book of his collected speeches, with reflections on law and lawyers. I have on my office wall Judge Stafford’s poem about the courthouse:

This is that theater the muse loves best.
All dramas ever dreamed are acted here.
The roles are one in earnest, none in jest.
Hero and dupe and villain all appear.

Here falsehood skulks behind an honest mask.
And witless truth lets fall a saving word,
As the blind goddess tends her patient task
And in the hush the shears of fate are heard.

Here the slow–shod avengers keep their dates;
Here innocence uncoils her snow–white bloom;
From here the untrapped swindle walks elate,
And stolid murder goes to meet his doom.

Now back to the West wall to take a look at the vivid portrait of Judge Luther Youngdahl, who served as a U.S. district judge from 1951 until his death in 1978. The artist who painted that portrait must have had a good time. The full head of white hair. The rugged features. The look of authority.

Judge Youngdahl was good at settling cases. Perhaps it was the impact of his background, a Minnesota football star, lawyer, judge, and a three–term governor of Minnesota. He served on the Minneapolis Municipal Court for six years; the District Court of Hennepin County, Minnesota, for seven years; and the Minnesota Supreme Court for four years.

I recall a settlement discussion in Judge Youngdahl’s chambers. The plaintiff was General Motors Acceptance Corporation. However, there was a counterclaim, which, so Judge Youngdahl explained to counsel, was far better than the General Motors’ claim.

He told Joe Luria, General Motors’ lawyer, that the client should make a worthwhile offer and settle the case. Judge Youngdahl suggested a reasonable payment. Joe said the suggestion was certainly reasonable, but General Motors, by its corporate charter, could only accept money, not give it away.

Judge Youngdahl, with no change of expression, and with the voice of the three–term governor, said to Joe, “Get Mr. Finance Acceptance on the telephone, I want to talk to him.” The case settled.

There has been a gradual change since those days. The change is from speech to e–mail. Those West wall judges enjoyed the give–and–take with the lawyers in the courtroom. Judge Mark R. Kravitz, a U.S. district judge in Connecticut, commented on this change in his article in volume 10 of the Journal of Appellate Practice and Process (2009). He writes that:

[S]peech is dynamic in a way that writing can never be. Oral argument can convey a sense of urgency, sincerity, and (dare I say?) emotion that is not easily communicated by a written brief, for the speaker has at his disposal intonation, gesture, and other non–verbal cues that are unavailable to the writer. . . .

As I took a last glance at the West wall, I recalled a courtroom exchange between Judge Oliver Gasch and a lawyer who was pressing his motion for summary judgment. When the lawyer concluded, Judge Gasch said: “I now understand your point. Two and two make five.”

Reach Jacob A. Stein at jstein@steinmitchell.com.