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The Path to the Judiciary

By Thai Phi Le

June 2, 2017

Judge Herbert Dixon

D.C. Superior Court Judge Herbert Dixon wouldn’t call his process to becoming a judge “daunting,” but it wasn’t easy. “I found that you couldn’t just submit your application, sit back, and hope everything just falls in place. You really do have to go after it,” he said.

So what does it take to get on the bench? Join the D.C. Bar Communities (formerly Sections) on June 6 for “Career Pathways to the Judiciary” to get a glimpse of life as a judge, from the job’s challenges to the professional and personal attributes that will serve you well. Judge Dixon will be joined on a panel with Judges Nicholas H. Cobbs, District of Columbia Office of Administrative Hearings; Roy McLeese, D.C. Court of Appeals; and Kenia Seoane Lopez, D.C. Superior Court.

Prior to the D.C. Bar Communities (formerly Sections) program, Judge Dixon sat down to talk to the Bar about his own path to the judiciary and offer a sneak peek of the discussion.

Where were you in your career when you were considering applying to be a judge?

I had been in practice for approximately 12 years. When the [opening] came up, I was thrilled at the opportunity that it might present.

This was beyond the civil and criminal practice that I had before. I had moved into public utility work involving public representation before the Public Service Commission. I represented staff in cases that involved requests for rate increases by [the] telephone company at the time and Potomac Electric Power Company.

It was a combination of things that caused me to throw my name into consideration.

What were some of those things?

From a positive standpoint, the opportunity for public service, the belief that I was a pretty good lawyer, and the thought that I would be a pretty good judge.

From a negative standpoint, the public scrutiny that could occur that I had not experienced before and the “life in a glass house” [feeling] that would surely exist if I were to make it onto the bench.

I was very involved in extracurricular activities and most were things that I wanted to continue being involved in, even if on the bench. There was nothing that would suggest that I couldn’t, but I didn’t know too many judges who remained active in their various extracurricular activities when they left practice to go onto the bench. That was part of the hesitation that I experienced when I was deciding whether or not I should really do this.

Has the application process changed?

The process that existed then is the same as the process now. With the advent of the Internet, which was not a major factor then, a lot of people now, who might not have taken the time to say anything, are probably participating online in the selection process, making their recommendations known.

When I was up for consideration, folks wrote letters. I think they still write letters, but I know the Judicial Nomination Commission encourages online input now. I suspect that they probably have a lot more input than they did when they were relying primarily on paper letters.

What was your first year as a judge like? Did it meet your expectations?

It was in line with what I expected, but I was a law clerk and had an exposure from inside the courthouse, watching my judge and matters that came before him.

I was [also] in a very general private practice where I had handled civil cases, criminal cases, a few probate cases, and even administrative cases. I had a good breadth of experience in terms of what I might expect in a courtroom from the other side of the bench.

I think everyone comes to the position probably with the knowledge of the law that they need to have. The individuals have a good understanding of law [and] a good capacity to learn the particular law in that new area [they are assigned to]. They just have to be prepared for the nuances that occur when you move into a different field. They adapt very quickly to being able to handle the job. It’s not like there’s a long learning curve or anything of that nature.

Is there one thing people should know before exploring a career as a judge?

They should be aware of the scrutiny on an individual as a judge. Whether they’re in the judicial context or on the street, it is different from what they experienced when they were operating in the world as just a lawyer.

As a judge, folks expect a certain decorum. As a judge, folks expect that there will be a little discretion in terms of things that individuals say or do. If individuals violate that decorum or expectation, what’s going to be said is, “And can you believe they’re a judge?”

On my first official day on the bench, my courtroom was in the main building, but my chambers were in Building A. As I am going back to chambers from the [H. Carl] Moultrie Courthouse, I walked through the street. There were no cars coming. The only problem is that it’s a red light and a “Don’t Walk” sign. I’m in the middle of the street and somebody yells out, “Hey judge!” I think they were actually saying hello to me. They weren’t pointing out the fact, I don’t believe, that I was jaywalking. [laughs]

Ever since that occasion, I now stand at the corner with no cars coming, everybody else crossing. I’ll wait until the light changes so I can walk across the street!

No more jaywalking for you!

Of course, that was very minor, but there are other things. There are occasions where there are things that I might have liked to have contested, and it might involve me having to file a small claims lawsuit, but I decided that I just have to let that go. I don’t need to be in court as a litigant in a small claims case if I don’t have to be. I let things go that I would not have let go before I became a judge.

You could be in a private organization, but you still have to be very careful with the image that you give, even in that private setting.

I’ve heard female judges tell me that they are… very careful about the way they dress so that comments are not invited. Now that doesn’t stop us from going to the beach and wearing a swimsuit just like everybody else. That’s not really the issue.

Conduct, even in private settings, has to be considered.

Why should people attend the Career Pathways to the Judiciary event?

[First] learning what the life of the judge is like in terms of some of the issues that I mentioned. Also, if it’s something that after hearing what the life is like, they want to pursue it, they will hear the stories of individuals who have gone through the process and are willing to share. Here is what happened to me. Here are the things I did. Here are the things I heard about with respect to others. Here are the things that you need to know about and be aware of.

The amount of information that is gained will not only help one decide if this is the life they’re willing to take, but they’ll also gain some insight into the things that others have done in order to reach that point.

“Career Pathways to the Judiciary” will be held from 3 to 5 p.m. on June 6 at the D.C. Bar, located at 1101 K Street, NW. There will be a brief networking opportunity with the judges before the program from 3 to 3:30 p.m. D.C. Bar membership is not required to attend. 

Register today!