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Judges Reveal Struggles From the Bench

By Susannah Buell

October 18, 2019

Tough Cases Judges

The D.C. Bar Communities Office hosted Judges Gregory E. Mize, Reggie B. Walton, Russell F. Canan, and Frederick H. Weisberg on October 10 to discuss the book Tough Cases, which they co-wrote with nine other judges from around the country.

On October 10 four District of Columbia judges gathered at the D.C. Bar to discuss Tough Cases: Judges Tell the Stories of Some of the Hardest Decisions They’ve Ever Made, a book in which 13 judges from across the United States describe how they came to a difficult ruling that altered the course of people’s lives. 

D.C. Superior Court Senior Judge Russell F. Canan said the book, published in 2018, came about after he and some colleagues started talking about past cases they just could not forget. They soon realized that a first-hand account of these cases could help explain the complexity of the judicial decision-making process to the public. 

“Although there’s a lot of material out there for academia and professionals, there’s actually very little written for the general public as to what actually goes on in trial court,” Canan said.  

In the chapter “Rough Justice,” Canan recalled the proceedings in United States v. Sam Johnson, in which it seemed the jury was about to find an innocent man guilty of assault with a dangerous weapon and possession of a firearm during a crime of violence. The latter charge carries a mandatory five-year prison sentence. If the defendant pleaded guilty to a major felony, assault with intent to kill, the judge could simply place him on probation. Canan decided to bring up the plea idea without violating the rule against judicial participation in plea bargaining. 

Although the case had a positive outcome, Canan wonders whether he’d do the same today. “Do the ends justify the means if the ends are just?” he asked. 

Senior Judge Reggie B. Walton of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia presided over the case United States v. I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby. Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, was charged with making false statements to the FBI, perjury, and obstruction of justice in the federal investigation into the leaking of a CIA agent’s identity. For Judge Walton, one huge challenge was keeping an impartial jury due to the intense media attention. He also faced the reality that “because of the political nature of the case and the status Libby held with the Bush administration, there was a good chance that he’d be pardoned” no matter how much work went into the trial.  

In July 2009 the harrowing case against a woman accused of murdering her four daughters and living with their decaying remains for months came before D.C. Superior Court Senior Judge Frederick H. Weisberg. The case, United States v. Banita Jacks, is the subject of the book’s chapter “Crazy or Cruel: The Trial of an Unexplained Filicide.” Jacks strenuously refused to raise the insanity defense and waived her right to a jury trial. Not only was she found competent to stand trial, but she also demonstrated that she made those decisions rationally. 

After relaying the details of the case, Judge Weisberg noted “the difficulty in trying this case without a jury with the overlay of mental illness that was not being raised as a defense.”  

For Senior Judge Gregory E. Mize of the D.C. Superior Court, the events occurring after his decision in a child abuse matter made it the toughest case in his experience. Over a period of three years, Judge Mize conducted review hearings where it was clear that the mother, who suffered from Munchausen syndrome by proxy and had been making her daughter sick, was not making progress in therapy and should be denied visitation rights. 

Mize said the case left him with a “haunting feeling” about keeping a mother and her child apart. Mize said he found some relief years later after meeting with the adult “Jenny,” who had grown up happy despite her ordeal.  

After the presentation ended, an audience member asked the judges how they feel about the legal system. Judge Walton responded that he has “a lot of faith in juries” but is concerned whether we have a fair and just system, while Judge Mize said he is “proud of the administration of justice in D.C.” 

As Canan, Mize, and Weisberg wrote in the book’s introduction, they said they hoped readers “will come away with a renewed faith that our justice system — sometimes maligned and not always perfect — is still the best in the world.”