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A Conversation with Chief Judge Richard W. Roberts

December 3, 2013

CCE Board Director Michael Hays of Dow Lohnes recently sat down for a one-on-one conversation with CCE Executive Committee member and Public Service Committee Chair, Chief Judge Richard Roberts of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.

Michael Hays (MH):  Chief Judge Roberts, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule for an interview.  Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you did before you became a judge?


Chief Judge Roberts (CJR): Well, immediately before I became a judge I was the chief of the Criminal Section of the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department.  That was something of a homecoming for me because when I finished law school, my first job was as a trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division Criminal Section.  So, I spent about 4 years there learning the ropes, learning how to try cases. 


The portfolio there was one that was very stimulating to me.  We investigated and prosecuted racially motivated violent crimes, hate crimes, police brutality cases, involuntary servitude and slavery cases, abortion clinic violence, and church burnings cases.  It was a wonderful experience for me and after about 4 years of that I went to Covington and Burling, a firm here in town to get some civil litigation experience because I had concluded around that time that I really wanted to be a litigator.  And while I was there long enough to get some civil litigation experience, I realized that I couldn’t be away from criminal cases for too long.  So as a native New Yorker, I went up to the US Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York, back home from where I am from, and joined that office.


MH: And what year was that?


CJR:  I went to the SDNY in 1986.  And I stayed there for about three years.  As fate would have it, the minute I got up there, I started dating a woman who was down here in Washington whose practice really was Washington, DC focused.  She was a telecommunications lawyer who did lots of work before the FCC and was a partner at her law firm here in Washington, Arent Fox.  So, somebody had to move.  But I had really fallen in love with DC, despite the fact that I am a New Yorker at heart.  I moved back down and joined the US Attorney’s Office here in DC.  After I joined the office here, Eric Holder became the United States Attorney, and I had known him from law school.  He asked me to be his principal assistant, which is his second in command.  So, I was fortunate to be able to do that.


In 1995, Attorney General Janet Reno asked me to come to the DOJ Criminal Section where I had started out because the chief of the section at that time, Linda Davis, had become a judge here in Superior Court.  So that was a bit of a homecoming for me to go back and become the chief of the section where I had begun practicing law.  And I did that until coming onto the bench here in 1998.


MH:  Were some of the same people still there that had been in the section when you left?


CJR:  There were a few of the same people, and it was those real veterans that really allow for the continuity.  The information pool tends to get lost when people leave so it was very helpful to go back there but still have some of the veterans there that I had worked with earlier. 


MH:  Can you describe some of the interesting cases that you have had in New York or in DC?


CJR: I suppose the most interesting case that I had was only my second federal court trial ever.  That’s not to say that it has been all downhill since then, but it probably underscores, in part, the difference that I tell students about between starting out in private practice versus starting out doing government service.  I had started at the department in 1978.  By 1980, I did a detail at the US Attorney’s Office in DC in the Superior Court misdemeanor trial section to essentially get some trial experience before going full hog into the portfolio of the Civil Rights Division Criminal Section.  By 1980, I was assigned to prosecute a man by the name of Joseph Paul Franklin who was indicted for having shot and killed two black men who were jogging with two white women in a city park in Salt Lake City in 1980.  It was a heinous, heinous shooting and really did disrupt the normal rhythm and life of the people in Salt Lake City.  Fortunately, we were able to convince a jury to convict on the two counts of civil rights violations and the judge sentenced him to two consecutive life terms in prison.


MH:  What was the defense in that case?


CJR:  Well, I should probably refer you to the defense counsel.  A lot of it, frankly, was identity because much of our case was circumstantial.  We did not have a single witness that could sit in the witness stand and say, “That man sitting right over there is the man that I saw pull the trigger on that 3060 rifle and shoot the two black men that were jogging with the two white women.”  We didn’t have any such witness. So, our case was built on a powerful amount, but an amount nevertheless, of circumstantial evidence having to do with individuals who could identify this man as having been the man in the Salt Lake City region at the time of the murders, having expressed some very racist views about black and white people mixing, having driven a specific car that was seen leaving the scene of the shooting and his having been in certain locations after the murders.  We had evidence of flight as consciousness of guilt, evidence of him attempting to change his physical appearance by dying his hair or cutting his hair, and so on.  So, we had different chapters of events where we brought in circumstantial evidence.  We had probably 70 witnesses that we had to put on and over 100 exhibits.  This was only my second federal court trial ever, and I co-tried it with a first assistant US Attorney in Salt Lake City.  We teamed up and split up the work fairly evenly.  And we fortunately got a conviction.


 MH:  It sounds like a tough circumstantial evidence case.


CJR:  It was a tough case, and it was at a time where the FBI decided to pour a fair amount of investigative resources into it.  And I can’t say this enough about the FBI, when they decide to get the evidence, they know how to do it and they did it that time.


MH:  Did the state refuse to indict?


CJR:  We had been in discussions with the state’s attorney right after the shooting and encouraging the state’s attorney to take the lead in the investigation and charges to be brought.  But at the time, there had been a different view about the strength of the evidence and the state’s attorney’s office did not view the strength of the evidence compiled at that point as strong enough to constitute probable cause before a grand jury to get an indictment.  Our view at the time was different.  We thought that the clock was still ticking and we still needed to get an arrest warrant out.  And we had to do that through indictment.  So, we went ahead and presented the evidence to a grand jury in federal court, and they decided there was enough evidence to indict.  We issued an arrest warrant.  I’ll never forget, when President Carter and candidate Reagan were scheduled to have their presidential debate, that night in October 1980, I was all ready with my bag of popcorn ready to watch the debate which would have been riveting itself.  Just before the debate began, there was a newsflash across the bottom of the screen saying, “Joseph Paul Franklin arrested for trying to sell his blood in a blood bank in Florida to make some money to live off of.”  So, I never got to see that debate.  I had to put my popcorn aside and packed up because the next thing I’d get was a call saying, “Get out to Salt Lake City.”  And that’s exactly what happened; we had to fly out there and proceed to put the case together.


MH:  So, you were living in Salt Lake City for a period time? 


CJR:  Salt Lake City and I got to know each other a little bit.  One of the benefits, however, of co-trying it with lawyers there in the US Attorney’s Office was that I got to meet a prosecutor in that office who was also a ski instructor.  And he convinced me to let him teach me how to ski.  However, I had no interest in trying this case on a broken leg and a crutch.  I agreed to let him teach me how to ski after the case was over.  And let me tell you, I fell in love with western powder skiing.  I got to know Utah more than I thought that I would.


MH:  You have just been elevated to Chief Judge of the US District Court for DC.  How is being a chief judge different from being a district judge?


CJR:  There are responsibilities that the chief judge in this district carries that are different than a line judge.  The chief judge is responsible for all of the grand jury matters that arise.  If for example, someone is challenging a subpoena, for example a journalist, and the journalist’s lawyer files a motion to quash the grand jury subpoena, that motion does not go to a line judge; it goes to the chief judge.  For 15 years on the bench, I have never seen a motion to quash a grand jury subpoena because they never came to us.  I have to empanel the new grand juries when they come in.  I have to entertain requests to be excused from grand jury service.  So, I get all of the grand jury matters.  The chief judge also gets all of the matters where there is a request to seal.  For example, these include requests for people receiving subpoenas to keep them under seal and to direct them not to disclose the existence of a subpoena.  Sometimes a service provider---like a Yahoo or Google  -- is being subpoenaed for documents, and the government will often ask for documents to be sealed and ask that the person under subpoena be directed not to reveal the existence of the subpoena.  So, I get all of the sealing matters.  I also get matters that are no longer being handled by judges on the bench, such as criminal matters that come back after being on appeal.  Those come to me. 


MH: Do such cases come back to you to try or for reassignment?


CJR:  In general, in instances where the judge who originally handled the case has retired from the bench, I will generally handle the matter.  These include cases coming back from appeal where the Court of Appeals vacated the conviction and remanded it for retrial, or where a defendant is now out on supervised release, and there is a petition from the Probation Office to revoke release on the grounds that the supervisee has violated his or her release conditions.  Those matters will come to the chief judge because the sentencing judge is no longer on the bench.


There are a host of other things that I am still learning that come to the chief judge.  If a judge to whom a criminal case is assigned has some emergency matter that arises when that judge is away, then that matter does not go to the motion judge, but comes to the chief judge.  In civil matters, it goes to the motions judge, but for criminal matters those come to the chief judge.


And I will tell you that I am still learning what some of the responsibilities are as more and more of these things come to me from time to time, and I have to figure out what do I do.


Click here to read the rest of the interview with Chief Judge Roberts.

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