A Conversation with Fred B. Ugast
(Appeared in Bar Report, February/March 1997)
Born and raised in the District, Fred B. Ugast graduated from the Catholic University and Harvard Law School before beginning a 23-year career in various sections of the U.S. Department of Justice. Ugast was appointed an associate judge of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia in 1973, presiding judge of the Criminal Division in 1981, and chief judge in 1986. Under Ugast the court introduced one-day/one trial jury service, mandatory use of alternative dispute resolution techniques in civil cases, the Civil Delay Reduction program, the Office of Interpreter Coordinators to aid non-English-speaking residents among other technological and procedural innovations. Since his retirement in 1993, Ugast has remained in active service as a senior judge and as judge in residence at the Catholic University Law School.
BAR REPORT: What part of the District did you live in?
FRED B. UGAST: We first lived in Brightwood off Georgia Avenue, and then on Legation Street off of Connecticut Avenue just below Chevy Chase Circle. Washington was a relatively small city in those days. As a youngster I went to my first World Series in 1933 to see the Senators play the Giants. Games were all played in the afternoon. We’d take a streetcar down Connecticut, across the Calvert Bridge, down 18th to Florida Avenue, and straight to Griffith Stadium, which is now the Howard University Medical Center.
BR: Where did you go to school?
FBU: I went to parochial grade school here in town, Blessed Sacrament, and to a prep school called St. Charles College in Catonsville, Maryland. Actually it was a prep seminary and I was studying for the priesthood. Then I was awarded a Basselin Scholarship to Catholic University which was a three-year course in philosophy and public speaking leading to an M.A. in philosophy. I completed the course and a year of theology when I decided to leave and go to law school.
BR: Why didn’t you become a priest?
FBU: I just decided that wasn’t my calling. You give a lot of thought to such a vocation and, if you have any doubts at all, you probably should not continue. I had thought about becoming a lawyer. I wrote a short paper in the eight grade about wanting to be a lawyer.
BR: Why did you choose Harvard Law School?
FBU: I decided to go up to Harvard in 1947 because it was a national law school. And I thought it would be good to get away from home for awhile since I was taking on a whole new perspective about what my life and career were going to be like. I met Mary in the summer of 1948, and we were married at the beginning of my third year of law school.
BR: What were your job prospects after graduation?
FBU: The federal government offered great opportunities for young lawyers, so I came back to Washington in 1950. A friend of mine knew the assistant attorney general in charge of the old Lands Division of the Department of Justice. I got in touch with him and said I’m taking the bar in June, I’m married, we’re expecting a baby in a month, and I’m looking for a job. At that time recently enacted legislation permitted various Indian tribes to sue the U.S. for taking land to which they had "aboriginal title"in other words, they were there and it had been taken from themor to sue for the failure of the U.S. to abide by treaties. The Indian Claims Commission, which was established to hear the claims, functioned as a three-person trial court. The Justice Department needed some lawyers to defend these suits, and I got the job.
BR: What kind of work did you do?
FBU: I was assigned as a trial attorney in these large cases
involving millions of dollars and hundreds of acres of land. We’d receive
a complaint, but before we could file an answer on behalf of the United
States we had to go over to the old stacks in the Archives and research
what we had in terms of the history. The Archives had old letter books
where every letter was written by hand. I remember finding letters signed "A.
Lincoln". If there was liability, we had to try have the land evaluated
and appraised as of the date of the taking. If there were minerals present
but they weren’t known at the time, that didn’t figure in the valuation.
It was challenging, but the cases took years to complete. The cases were tried as civil cases, to three commissioners. Then we filed briefs and argued before the Commission, so you got the appellate as well as the trial experience.
BR: Why did you decide to leave?
FBU: It was very fascinating and offered real trial experience, but at some point this litigation was going to end and who’d be interested in a young lawyer whose specialty was fighting Indians? In 1953 I learned the Tax Division was expanding, and I had heard the attorneys tried their own cases. I found out that there were going to be some openings in the Criminal Section of the Tax Division. I applied, was accepted, and was fortunate enough in the next few years to try some major criminal tax cases around the country.
BR: Tell us about some of your cases.
FBU: I tried my first major case in Austin, Texas, in 1955.
The case involved the chief of police of Galveston with respect to income
in the form of bribes from the houses of prostitution. In those days
we were trying "net worthexpenditure cases" in which
the government didn’t have direct evidence of income. But we could establish
a starting point and show the net worth at the end of the year and the
expenditures and ask, "Where did the money come from?" Galveston
was apparently wide open back in the ë40s and, since the tax cases take
a couple of years to develop, we were looking at stuff from 1945, 46,
47. Convincing one of the madams to testify was a major factor in the
trial, as we had to show the source of income. I was fortunate enough
to be permitted to handle the appeals in this case and other cases that
In 1957 the Tax Division set up a new Claims Section and I was named assistant chief. We were the lawyers for the IRS involving all suits to collect taxes, the operation of receiverships, tax claims in bankruptcies, and summons enforcement. We would occasionally place companies in receivership. One of the big receiverships my section handled involved a foundry company in Chicago. It was the sole source of a certain type of parts for aircraft used in the Vietnam War. We had conflicting interests. The Defense Department said "Don’t put them out of business" and the IRS said "Sell ’em." We ultimately did sell but kept it operating for a couple of years.
BR: What else did you do at Justice?
FBU: After Robert Kennedy became attorney general, the Department
wanted to move quickly against organized crime. There was a potential
criminal case in Miami involving a man named Trigger Mike Coppola who
had originally operated in East Harlem and was then living in Miami.
The IRS said this case was ready to go and would be a good start against
organized crime. The assistant attorney general, Louis Oberdorfer, asked
me to present it to the grand jury and to try it. The newspapers wrote
that they "sent the Mighty Mite sent down from Washington"my
children enjoyed thatand an entire book was written about the case, Syndicate
Wife by Hank Messick. The case had a serious witness security problem
because Coppola’s former wife was the principal informer regarding large
cash shipments sent from New York and hidden in their home in Florida.
One of the first things I did was to have the wife placed at the Homestead
Air Force Base with off-duty military as security. After three days of
trial and 30 witnesses, juror misconduct resulted in a mistrial. Ultimately
there was a plea.
Shortly afterward, in 1962, I became chief of the General Litigation Sectionthe name had been changed from the Claims Section. Then in 1969, Johnnie Walters became assistant attorney general of the Tax Division and named me the deputy assistant attorney general. I was responsible for all settlements, all appellate recommendations to the solicitor general, and general administration. We had about 200 lawyers and 200 support staff, but I used to go out and argue some appeals. My extra-curricular duties in those years included assignment as liaison to the D.C. chief of police for three days during the May Day demonstrations in 1971. I had also served as one of the Justice liaisons with the Metropolitan Police Department during the six-week Resurrection City encampment in 1968. A very rainy season!
BR: How did you first get involved with the D.C. courts?
FBU: In 1970, when the Superior Court of the District of Columbia was being set up, the Justice Department was asked to recommend attorneys for appointment as judges to the new court. The President nominated 14 new judges including now Chief Judge John Garrett Penn of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia who had been an assistant chief in the General Litigation Section. Chief Judge Eugene N. Hamilton was also in this first group.
BR: Did you want to be on the court?
FBU: Most trial lawyers believe they would like to be trial
judges. I had grown up here and wanted to be involved in our city court
system. When the Superior Court judge handling tax cases retired, I asked
the attorney general to consider recommending me for the vacancy.
I was nominated in August 1973. Congress went into recess the next day, and then the "Saturday Night Massacre" occurred in October while my nomination was pending before the Senate. I began to wonder if I was ever going to make it. Fortunately I didit ended up that Bob [Robert H.] Bork signed my commission as acting attorney generaland I was sworn in in December 1973 by Chief Judge Penn.
BR: Tell us about the early days of the court.
FBU: When I went on the court, Judge Harold H. Greene was the
chief judge and he kept us moving. My appointment brought us to full
strength44 judges. Our assignments were for just one month at a
time. Sometimes things moved so fast we learned of our assignments in
the elevator on the Friday before the change. The rules and procedures
were different in each division, so you really had to bone up on that
division’s rules, particularly if you’d never had the assignment.
In those days, there were 17 courtrooms and 17 chambers in the old Pension Building [now the National Building Museum]. We had to walk from the other buildings over to the courtrooms there. The bailiffswe had them thenwould go with us, and of course the prisoners had to be walked from the B Building cellblock across the street in cuffs. My first misdemeanor case was in the Pension Building at the same time as a Christmas party in the Great Hall. I was trying to get this case tried with a jury while a band was playing very loudly. Fortunately, we got through the trial and the jury came in with a verdict before the music and party became too loud.
BR: What changes did you initiate as a trial judge?
FBU: In 1974 I became interested in problems with mental competency
and insanity issues. Purely by chanceI was sitting in the Arraignment
CourtI learned that St. Elizabeths Hospital did not have sufficient
space to house defendants requiring examinations to determine whether
they were competent to stand trial. They were languishing in the jail
for as much as 60 days, some of them at times in strait jackets. Under
these circumstances I issued an order sending a defendant to D.C. General
Hospital because the statute provided for examinations at a psychiatric
ward there. What I did not know was that they had abolished the ward,
and exams had to be performed at St. Elizabeths. I talked to Chief Judge
Greene and we set up what came to be called, for lack of a better name,
the Ugast Committee. It involved all the players: people from St. Elizabeths,
the Corporation Counsel’s office, D.C. Forensic Office, Corrections,
and the court. We finally determined that competency exams didn’t have
to be conducted in a hospital setting, and so we established a unit at
the D.C. jail for having exams made by St. Elizabeths’ doctors or D.C.
forensic psychiatrists. But there were others who were too ill to have
that kind of examination made in the jail unit.
Ultimately, with a lot of help from Mayor Washington and many others, we established a 30-bed ward in a building adjacent to the D.C. jail to provide a hospital setting for mental exams that could not be performed in jail. I was surprised and honored when at the dedication in 1976 the named that unit The Ugast Center. You usually don’t get anything named after you until you’re dead! When the new jail was built they demolished this building, so we had to work with St. Elizabeths to get additional pre-trial wards set up. They renamed a ward at St. Elizabeths the Ugast Pre-Trial Ward, and now 20 years later that’s what’s in place. To this day I frequently handle the Mental Observation Calendar which involves hearings for individuals who have been found not guilty by reason of insanity and are asking for various types of conditional release.
BR: After presiding over courts in every division, which section did you prefer?
FBU: I liked the Criminal Felony I which included the major cases: first degree murder cases, rape, and conspiracy. I had the assignment for the first time in 1975 and again in 1981. Over the years, I’ve had my share of first degree murder cases, but it’s much more violent today. The crimes appear more cold and calculating, and the gang aspect, the drug aspect, and witness intimidation all make these cases more difficult.
BR: How did your appointment as chief judge come about?
FBU: After I became presiding judge of Criminal in 1981, which was the largest division with 20-some judges, I worked closely with Chief Judge H. Carl Moultrie I; my chambers were right next to his. When he would be away or ill, he often designated me acting chief judge. I would go with him up to the Hill for the appropriation hearings. In that way I gained some experience and knowledge about the monetary and personnel problems of the court. Chief Judge Moultrie died on April 9, 1986. The Nominating Commission that nominates the new judges also designates the chief judge. You had to apply for it and submit your resume and have your interview. I was named chief judge for the next four years. I took over on June 1, 1986, was reappointed as a judge for 15 years in 1988, and was renamed chief judge for four more years in 1990.
BR: What kind of a court did you take over?
FBU: Prior to 1971 this had been a court of limited jurisdiction.
There was a $10,000 civil suit limit and it handled only misdemeanor
offenses. Harold Greene and the judges that served with him brought the
Superior Court into existence. They drafted all the rules and procedures
and set up the entire general organization. Judge Moultrie became chief
judge in 1978 and led the court into new areas. We were given seven new
judicial positions in 1984.
I was fortunate to become chief judge when we were at a point of refining the procedures of the court as it became a recognized urban court that had to meet the changing needs of the city, whether on the criminal, civil, or family side.
BR: What did you do first?
FBU: At the outset I decided to create what we call "deputy presiding judges." Judge Moultrie had started the idea of divisions with presiding judges. I felt a good way to develop additional judges with administrative experience was to get more people involved in administration. At one of the first meetings I appointed deputy presiding judges to each of the divisions. We wanted those divisions to start functioning on an independent basis with the policy made by the presiding judges and the chief judge.
BR: What alterations did you make in the assignment system?
FBU: Because I thought both the Bar and the judges would find
it helpful if judges remained in their assignments longer, I changed
the assignment period to a year. As I said earlier, for my first five
years the assignments were for one month, and in 1978 Chief Judge Moultrie
made them three months. I made them one year and I believe that is still
One other thing I did right after I was appointed was to determine the role of commissioners in the court. There had been commissioners for a long time, one or two just in the Family Division. I feltand Judge Moultrie had felt toothat there was a role for commissioners in arraignments, preliminary hearings, traffic, small claims, and other assignments in the Family Division that were taking judges away from trials. We expanded the number of commissioners from three to 14 or 15 who now have broadened responsibilities.
BR: What other programs are you particularly proud of?
FBU: The Drug Court Program got started in 1992 when Judge Bruce
D. Beaudin, who had been head of Pre-Trial Services, told me funds and
grant money were going to be available for drug courts and treatment
options. The result was a grant for five years (which is about to run
out) to set up a program, to be administered by the Pre-Trial Services
Agency with the court as the principal player, that would involve different
sanctions and treatment options. As part of the program, we were able
to place computers in the courtroom with on-line capability.
One day/one trial was something that had been worked on even before Judge Moultrie died, but it was not put into place until 1987 or 1988. Congress established additional judge positions in 1990we now had 59 judgesand that made even greater demands on the numbers of jurors. People would tell me they had lived here all their lives and never received a jury summons. When we got one day/one trial started, many more were called to serve.
I am also very proud of the Civil Delay Program which was started in 1991 and changed the way civil litigation would be handled in our court. Most of all I believe the spirit of collegiality of our judges and staffthe Superior Court Familyis a tradition we are all proud of.
BR: Have you had much interaction with the D.C. Bar?
FBU: The court’s existence is almost commensurate with the Barthey
both started some 25 years agoand the association between them
has been close since day one. On a personal note, I worked closely with
Katherine A. Mazzaferri, the executive director, and with Judge Paul
L. Friedman, Judge James Robertson, and other presidents during my term.
One big cooperative project was the beginning of the Multi-Door Dispute
Resolution operation, our alternative dispute resolution (ADR) program.
It started in 1985 and expanded in 1987 with Settlement Week when we
asked lawyers to come in for a full week to try to settle the 900 or
so oldest cases. When we made Multi-Door a division in February 1989,
the Bar was most supportive, particularly with getting the word out to
the membership for volunteers and allowing us to use its training facilities.
Our ADR program is now nationally recognized.
Much earlier I worked on a committee with the D.C. Bar that Judge Theodore R. Newman Jr. established to come up with a set of internal procedures for the Court of Appeals. The Bar was involved when I chaired the Sentencing Guidelines Commission that Judge Moultrie established in the early ’80s and later chaired by Judge Frederick H. Weisberg. In 1993 I asked the D.C. Bar to sponsor a committee chaired by Bob Muse to review the attorney appointment process under the Criminal Justice Act.
As I look back, the integrated DC Bar has been part and parcel of our growth and maturity. The court system is indebted to the D.C. Bar and the voluntary bar associations for their continuous support over the years.
BR: We understand that you created a number of task forces just before your retirement.
FBU: I set up four task forces in areas where I really wanted
the court to move. Three did come into fruition. The first was the Domestic
Violence Task Force that I asked Judge Gladys Kessler to chair originally
and which Judge Rufus G. King III took over when she went to the U.S.
District Court. All the D.C. agencies and the private sector organizations
became involved, and now the court has set up a new Domestic Violence
Program with specific courts devoted to these cases.
I set up a task force on probate reform, which the lawyers in that area said we needed badly. Their report proposed modernizing our probate laws and setting up administrative procedures of probate that other jurisdictions have in place. The third one, that I believe will soon be implemented, involves Criminal Justice Act appointments of attorneys to represent indigent criminal defendants. The task force was asked to determine how to make the appointment process fair, whether we could develop a system to ensure an experience level to handle the more serious cases.
The task force still on hold is the Camera in the Courts study, chaired by Judges Henry F. Greene and Rufus King. We had done a similar study in 1985 and by a very close vote the judges rejected the idea of cameras in the court. In 1993 it was another issue that I thought a big urban court ought to look at again. The task force did quite a bit of work, and we were getting close to presenting it to the judges for at least a pilot program when I retired and the O. J. Simpson case came along and any interest in that proposal languished. We were all concerned about jury issues and witness intimidation issues, but some of us thought those could be worked out with restrictions on camera replacement and specific rules.
BR: What problems does the court face today?
FBU: As always one of the major problems is resources,
having the funds necessary to develop the programs to carry out the court’s
responsibility. That goes across the board: technology, personnel, ability
to process case filings promptly, and treatment and placement options
for adults and juveniles. Then, on a continuing basis, the court needs
to be sensitive to the changing needs of a large city and to reach out
to the community. There’s been a great deal done in that area by Chief
Judge Hamilton and the court recently, particularly in programs for young
people that represent a determined effort to help youngsters before they
become involved in the system.
I believe this court enjoys a national reputation as one of the finest urban trial courts in the country, both in the quality of justice and in the way it is administered. It’s a great court now, well-respected for the way it meets the needs of its citizens, and I hope the city can continue to support and be proud of the entire D.C. Court System.