GW Law School Fall 2003
A Magazine for Alumni and Friends

GW Law's Utah Connection

By Kathleen Kocks

Courts nationwide face increased case loads and administrative responsibilities, yet struggle to obtain adequate funding from legislatures. The courts are also addressing complex societal issues, like same-sex marriages and rights-to-die, and are striving to issue rulings that follow the laws of the land.

But the greatest challenge is a growing threat to independence of the judiciary. It is under insidious attack, public and partisan, by people who don’t understand or don’t agree with the courts’ interpretations of laws. “Rule how we want, not as the law says” seems to be the cry. Many Americans appear to have forgotten that legislatures make laws, and courts make decisions based on laws.

This great challenge was universally voiced by nine GW Law alumni who share a common perspective, as justices on their states’ Supreme Court. Generously granting interviews, each justice gave candid insight to the challenges, responsibilities, lessons learned, and enjoyment of being at their state’s top court. Their words are worth heeding.


Justice Paul L. Rudman, JD ’60

Maine Supreme Court, 1992–2005

Q: What are your court’s biggest issues and challenges?

Our biggest legal issue is the appeals resulting from the U.S. Supreme Court rulings in Blakely v. Washington and United States v. Booker on sentencing guidelines. These decisions and their progeny affect our sentencing statutes, and we are grappling with those changes at great length.

Our biggest challenge is money. We are grossly underfunded, which presents very serious problems for the third branch of government. We can handle the cases, but we have to look to others for money.

A serious problem at both the state and the federal levels is that the judiciary is under attack, and the courts don’t have the public respect they once had. Why the judicial branch has lost respect is a troubling question.

I think it partly results from a gross misunderstanding about the judicial branch by the executive and legislative branches. Our coequals don’t seem to feel the need for judicial independence. We are in a period of “in-your-face” politics that says, “I have the purse strings and the votes, and I don’t care what you think.”

You also hear complaints about “activist” judges. But if you go back in history, you see a number of decisions that were then considered unusual but are universally approved today. Were those judges activists or were they just very enlightened?

Q: Why did you become a justice and what does your job entail?

Perhaps I became a justice because my father served on this court and sons sometimes like to follow in their fathers’ footsteps. Then again, I always felt this position was the ultimate for any lawyer, the pinnacle of the profession. I can indulge in dealing with legal issues and thinking. It’s been a very enjoyable experience. I think it is the best job in state government.

I’d say three years at GW and 32 years as a lawyer in a very, varied practice best prepared me for this job. The more experiences an appellate judge has, the better he or she can perform.

Maine has no intermediate appellate court, so the Supreme Court gets everything. We are a very congenial court, and most of our decisions are the result of everyone throwing in something. Sometimes we disagree, but no one gets disagreeable.

As to changes during my 14-year tenure, we have many more administrative meetings. Domestic violence cases are increasing, and we’re seeing more results of the drug problem, a problem we are not solving. We have had some improvements, with drug courts to help addicted people as opposed to just throwing them in jail.

But the cases that tug at your heartstrings are parental termination cases. In the past, extended families often took care of the child. In many cases now, the child ends up in limbo, not with a real family, but in a state institution for years. Those are very significant cases.

Looking back, I think the court is better off and more sensitive to a lot of issues. I am pleased to have played a part in those improvements.

I recently resigned my position, effective July 1. I plan to return to practicing law, working in mediation and arbitration. I think I’ve learned a thing or two about what grabs the attention of—or offends—an appellate judge.

Q: What did you learn from being a Supreme Court justice?

I learned that lawyers can make a big difference in trial court results. They can help the judge or mislead the judge, selling something they should not be able to sell. In many cases, you wonder why the trial court came to the conclusion it did, and when you look around, you see the poor judge was snookered by a lawyer.


Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar, JD ’62

California Supreme Court, 1994–2014

Q: What are your court’s biggest issues and challenges?

We have several issues at the forefront. One is punitive damages; in two recent U.S. Supreme Court cases, the court articulated some due process limits on punitive damages, but the language was very vague. We also have takings, a constantly evolving issue that concerns when restrictions on private property use become a taking requiring compensation. Another issue is the application of sentencing guidelines. And we have a range of family law issues and ramifications of the state’s domestic partnership law.

We also have separation of powers issues. To what degree can different branches of government be involved with each other without violating the separation of powers? This is a big issue here and nationally, where some legislators are suggesting a watchdog agency for the federal judiciary.

The biggest challenge our Supreme Court faces is the timely processing of our death penalty cases. Appeals come directly to us from the trial courts. We are balancing the need for efficiency with the needs to provide defendants with competent representation and allow the court time to give the issues fair and thorough consideration.

Q: Why did you become a justice and what does your job entail?

When I graduated from GW and returned to San Francisco, I wouldn’t have dreamed of becoming a Supreme Court justice. But looking back, I see how my path brought me to where I am today. After law school, I worked in Washington in the Appeals and Research Section of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, then worked in California writing and editing books for the state Bar’s continuing education program. Next I served as a law professor, then as a law clerk to a California Supreme Court justice.

By the late ’80s, I was accustomed to analyzing the law from academic and impartial perspectives, and I had drafted many judicial opinions. I was encouraged to apply for the appellate court, was appointed, then elevated to the Supreme Court. I still am amazed at where I am today.

It’s thrilling to be involved with contemporary legal issues, and every legal issue of importance to the citizens ultimately comes to us. Being immersed in the law of the state and in the judicial system keeps you stimulated, challenged, and active. It’s a tremendous responsibility, but a great privilege to be engaged with my colleagues and staff and to serve the people of the state.

Q: What did you learn from being a Supreme Court justice?

Reasonable minds can differ, and you have to respect the judgment of your colleagues, even if you don’t agree with them. You have to reach into inner reservoirs, try to put aside your preferences and resolve the case as best you can, given what the parties argued, what the research supports and what the ramifications of the ruling will be.

I also believe that a dissent improves an opinion. Everyone thinks harder as the opinion and dissent go back and forth through several drafts, addressing the various points until everyone has had their say.

I have also learned that the public has little understanding of the role of appellate courts. In the trial court, the jury finds the facts of a case and the court applies the law based on the jury’s findings. The Supreme Court grants review of cases that require us to decide questions of law and speak to a broad legal principle.

People may also not understand courts cannot reach out and make law, and courts are constrained by what cases come before them. More importantly, the public doesn’t seem to understand—particularly when appellate courts make very unpopular rulings—that the courts’ role is not to implement the will of the people, but to be the buffer between the people and what the enduring principles of law in our state and federal constitutions require. We implement the rule of law.

It is also our job to interpret statutes. However, I’ve found that legislatures often leave a lot to the courts. To get some bills passed, they sometimes leave provisions ambiguous or contradictory. In those cases, the courts have to figure out what the legislature intended. If legislation is unconstitutional, as the court understands it, then we have to strike down a law.


Chief Justice Clifford W. Taylor, JD ’67

Michigan Supreme Court, 1997–2008

Q: What are your court’s biggest issues and challenges?

We get the usual run of cases, but many are very consequential to the state’s jurisprudence. The hottest current state issue is whether citizens have the right to walk the Great Lakes beaches without limitation or whether people who own property along the beaches can preclude walkers. This is important because Michigan has an extensive shoreline, greater, I believe, than any contiguous U.S. state. We also are dealing with many cases relating to the tort reform legislation of the last decade.

On a more philosophical plane, one of the great issues here, and in the country, is whether courts are improperly usurping legislative authority. I believe our court is on the forefront of this discussion. We strive to not engage in policymaking from the bench. When any court gets into policymaking, outside the common law, it becomes inevitably partisan and is usually crowding out the legislature. This is unfortunate as it miscomprehends the proper delegations of power to both us and the legislature in the Constitution.

Q: Why did you become a justice and what does your job entail?

I was very content practicing law and never anticipated becoming a judge, but this opportunity arose and was attractive to me. It is a very intellectually rewarding job and serving as chief of this great court is an honor. Historically, important legal issues that have affected the country generally seem to frequently arise in Michigan first, such as worker injury and compensation, union issues, and environmental concerns.

We have a very fine court with judicial conservatives and liberals. The court is thoughtful. As to what I didn’t expect, it is the monastic environment of such a court. Unlike trial courts, where you have a lot of contact with litigants, most days we only see clerks and our colleagues on the court. Yet, one gets used to it and even comes to appreciate it.

The difference between being a justice and the chief justice is trying, in some sense greater than is the responsibility of other justices, to look to the needs of the institution. I am the fortunate beneficiary of a strong administrative staff and they have made being chief justice not as demanding as I had anticipated.

Q: What did you learn from being a Supreme Court justice?

I’ve learned to be careful in reaching conclusions. Sometimes your first impression about a case isn’t the correct one. It’s also important to understand that the people in this country, not judges, govern. We must, as the founders did, respect this. It is well to recall that this is the central organizing principle of our Constitution.


Chief Justice Barbara J. Pariente, JD ’73

Florida Supreme Court, 1997–2006

Q: What are your court’s biggest issues and challenges?

Maintaining the integrity, impartiality, and independence of the judiciary is probably our biggest issue and challenge. An increasing lack of basic understanding of our democracy’s three coequal branches of government and of the judicial branch’s role is creating more need to preserve the independence of the judiciary against attacks.

Adding to the problem, more courts are required to rule on issues that are deemed controversial. We have been in the forefront of such issues, most recently with the Terri Schiavo case. We’ve also had to rule on abortion issues, death penalty issues, and the presidential election of 2000. We will soon have to rule on school voucher issues. Any issue that involves the constitutionality of a statute also raises controversy. But ruling on such issues is our obligation.

I also think the media contributes to the problem because it doesn’t look at issues in depth. Itreduces these very complex issues into being “for” or “against” something.

Maybe the judiciary is just a good political whipping boy. But we can’t respond to these attacks without violating our ethical duties rooted in the guarantee of due process. Meanwhile, everyone says they are for a fair and independent judiciary, but they are also saying “only ifyou rule as we want.”

Another challenge is the budget. Our state court system’s budget is less than 1 percent of the state budget, but we have to fight for every dollar allocated.

A third challenge is security for judges. It is a challenge to not just have a good plan but also have the increased money for security.

Q: Why did you become a justice and what does your job entail?

After 20 years of practicing law, it was time to take the next step in my career, and I became a judge on the state appellate court. I hoped to pay something back to the system and have a broader impact, while also being more intellectually involved in the law. Three years later an opening came on the state Supreme Court and I was qualified for the position.

I had an excellent education at GW, a two-year clerkship with a federal judge, a well-rounded practice of law and experience at the intermediate appellate court. Even my undergraduate degree in communications made me suited for this position.

It is so multifaceted. In Florida, we handle all death penalty appeals, so we are involved from the first appeal until the process ends. We have oral arguments one week a month and weekly court conferences on various matters. We are responsible for discipline of all the state’s judges and lawyers, and for all rules of court and applications of justice.

I wear two hats—as chief justice of the court and as the head officer of the state’s judicial branch. I am very involved in several initiatives within our court. These include forming a diversity commission to ensure our staff and law clerks are as diverse as possible, holding institutes to help our legislators’ understand the judiciary, attending events or speaking to service groups and advocating for increased civic education in our schools.

In early May, we were promoting the use of the drug court model in Florida for adults, juveniles, and for child welfare cases when parents are in dependency situations. The drug court model doesn’t just punish people. It also deals with the underlying addiction. If you just send people to jail, you are being penny wise but pound foolish.

Another innovation is Florida’s unified family court. It allows us to manage family cases to get better, consistent results, while also serving as a link to community services. The basic concept is that a single judge handles all of the legal problems involving a single family. Some say judges shouldn’t be social workers or become involved in such problem solving. This is naïve thinking, because people don’t realize the kind of problems the courts see today.

Q: What did you learn from being a Supreme Court justice?

It is one thing to say the judicial branch needs to be independent, and it’s another thing when you are facing public outcry and budget crises. I’ve also learned that almost every issue that arises has far more nuances than you originally thought and the solution is far more complex.


Justice Barbara Milano Keenan, JD ’74

Virginia Supreme Court, 1991–2015

Q: What are your court’s biggest issues and challenges?

Every session of court hears cases that affect people in our state; so in that regard, whatever happens in our court is the biggest issue. However, Virginia is a death penalty state, and the fair application of the death penalty is an issue that always weighs heavily on our court.

Looking at the greatest challenge, I’d say that all courts today face the issue of judicial independence and pressure from the executive and legislative branches. In terms of seeking people who have defined political philosophies, that’s always been a prerogative of the person who selects judges. But the Terri Schiavo case is a recent example of the pressure that can be put improperly on judges. In such instances, judges have to stand our ground, be very clear about our decisions and be very mindful of what is at stake if we do not.

Q: Why did you become a justice and what does your job entail?

After I got my law degree, I just wanted to be a good lawyer. But when I became a litigator, I had more opportunity to observe the judges and decided I wanted to become a trial judge. I never thought of becoming a Supreme Court judge, but opportunity came my way in 1991, after I had been a trial judge and intermediate appellate judge, and I took it. I really love the job.

Being a Supreme Court justice is intellectually challenging and every day is different. It’s also a lot of work. People don’t appreciate or know about the huge volume of information we have to review for each case. It’s no exaggeration to say we read hundreds of pages a day of fairly complex material. There’s also a lot of writing, and trying to communicate simply and concisely is always a challenge.

Our court also oversees the other state courts in Virginia. We are also starting a program to evaluate judges’ performances, as required by the cannons of judicial conduct. We have a commission to administer the program, and I am chair of the project. The program will evaluate the manner in which judges administer justice, rather than the content of decisions.

The program gives self-improvement information to judges who typically get little feedback about how others perceive them. We think it is very important for judges to have an idea of how the people who appear before them feel about the judge’s demeanor, courtesy, diligence, attention, and similar factors. Attorneys, jurors, and others in the judges’ courts fill out surveys rating the judge.

The program also will inform the legislature about how judges are perceived. The first evaluations will be confidential to the judges, who have the opportunity to act upon the evaluations. A second evaluation will be seen by the judge and the legislature.

Q: What did you learn from being a Supreme Court justice?

We have to be constantly mindful that no matter how arcane, complex, or futuristic the issues before us are, there are real people in front of the court and many others who will be affected by our decisions. This is not an ivory tower and we have a tremendous responsibility in terms of the impact of our decisions.


Justice James C. Nelson, JD ’74

Montana Supreme Court, 1993–2012

Q: What are your court’s biggest issues and challenges?

One very hot topic right now is school funding. We upheld a district court decision that declared the funding scheme was unconstitutional, and the state legislature is now trying to work out a solution.

Another issue involved the state’s public defender system, prompted by an ACLU lawsuit against some counties. Some have public-defender offices, but others do not and judges appoint private attorneys to do the work. This raised questions about the quality of that representation and the funding available to properly defend these clients. The legislature addressed this through a new law, but it’s too early to know whether it resolves the problem.

Our Supreme Court’s biggest challenge is funding. We’ve been historically underfunded in Montana, particularly when it comes to information technology. The legislature addressed this aspect last session, and we now have a good source of steady revenue.

The biggest challenge the state and federal judiciary branch face is judicial independence. We are seeing increasing attempts by special interest groups to influence the judicial system. Some groups have dumped millions of dollars into selected judicial races throughout the country to unseat judges who are not in their pocket or to elect judges who are. These groups don’t want independent, fair, and impartial judges; they want judges who vote their way.

That’s not the way the judiciary works. We take an oath to uphold our state and federal constitutions. When we start electing judges who are pawns of special interest groups, then our democracy is in real trouble and we’ve essentially destroyed our third branch of government. Our country seems to be forgetting about the notion of judicial independence and judges are increasingly defending what we do, how we do it, and our constitutional right to do it.

Q: Why did you become a justice and what does your job entail?

Becoming a judge interested me from the time I started practicing law. I liked the academic side of the law and when the opportunity to become a Supreme Court justice came, I applied and was fortunately appointed. I love the job, interpreting the law and helping people.

Montana’s constitution is unique, the crown jewel in terms of fundamental rights for people. We have 17 rights protected in our constitution that are not in the U.S. constitution and it’s an honor to be able to uphold that document.

I think my 20-year experience as a lawyer best prepared me for this position. My private practice was broad-based; I was also a county prosecutor for 14 years; and I served on several state boards and commissions. It all gave me a very broad-based practice in the sorts of cases that we deal with every day in the Supreme Court.

Montana doesn’t have an intermediate appellate court system, so we take all the appeals. Our work is very interesting and our workload is tremendous.

Q: What did you learn from being a Supreme Court justice?

I’ve learned how the courts are really the last refuge for many of our citizens, particularly the poor and powerless. That’s why it troubles me to see attacks on the judicial branch that infringe on the ability of the court to protect people’s constitutional rights.


Justice Henry duPont Ridgely, LLM ’74

Delaware Supreme Court, 2004–2016

Q: What are your court’s biggest issues and challenges?

Appeals to the Delaware Supreme Court are a matter of right from our Court of Chancery, Superior Court, and Family Court. In addition to the major claims all appellate courts have, we have a special set of circumstances in Delaware. There are more than 600,000 business entities registered in Delaware, including about 60 percent of the Fortune 500 companies. It should be no surprise that the Delaware courts address business issues with national and international significance. Issues of corporate governance, mergers and acquisitions, fiduciary duties in the post-Enron era, and major commercial cases brought by and against business entities are a steady part of our civil dockets. Many of these cases involve matters of first impression and in any such case, the challenge is to do justice in a way that not only fairly resolves the issues before us but also sets a clear precedent that allows business to plan their transactions based upon a body of law that is stable and predictable.

We are seeing growing demands on all our courts due to rising caseloads. Our courts face resource issues in the face of this growth, especially in the area of indigent services. The good news is that Delaware has fared better than many other states because our governors and members of the General Assembly have historically recognized the importance of adequate funding for the judicial branch. But there is constant pressure on them to spend money on other areas of public need.

It is a challenge everywhere for judges to find the time to join with the Bar and educators in teaching the public about the importance of the rule of law and the role that an independent judiciary has in preserving our freedoms and way of life. Emerging democracies around the world certainly see that importance and our nation’s leadership role in the fair administration of justice has been the example for them to follow.

Q: Why did you become a justice and what does your job entail?

I think most trial judges think about being appellate judges at some point. I was a judge on the state Superior Court for 20 years and the president judge of the court for the last 14 years. As such, I sat by special designation on our Supreme Court dozens of times and lived that experience before my appointment as a justice. Participating in a court that has the last word and sets precedents is challenging and satisfying. I wanted to bring my experience to the Supreme Court and, with my colleagues, shape Delaware common law for the better.

If I have to identify the experiences that best prepared me to be a justice, it was my work as a Superior Court judge, working with very talented people and benefiting from mentors as a lawyer and a judge. My best mentor was my father, Henry J. Ridgely, who practiced law in Delaware for 50 years and also was a graduate of the GW Law School in 1939. My trial court experience has been important because in every case that comes before the state Supreme Court, there are arguments that the trial judge erred in some way. The collective task of the justices is to evaluate the performance of the trial judge. My experience as a trial judge helps me do that.

The decision-making process is different as an appellate judge. A trial judge decides alone, based on information usually given in open court. At the Supreme Court, we are involved in a collegial review. Case information is in a written record or presented through oral arguments by some of the country’s best lawyers. While we each make up our own minds, we discuss the case with each other and work together to form a consensus. As the junior justice, I get to speak or write my opinion first. So you have to make up your own mind and express your views, then reconsider it after you have had the benefit of your colleagues’ insights.

This is my first year on the court and I’m appreciating what goes on behind the scenes, the collegial process, and the wit and wisdom of my colleagues. We all get along very well and share our responsibilities. The Supreme Court as a whole approves the rules for the administration of justice in Delaware. Each justice has liaison responsibilities with one or more courts and the Arms of the Court. I have liaison responsibilities with the Delaware General Assembly, our Superior Court, and Court of Common Pleas. Outreach programs also keep us very active.

Q: What did you learn from being a Supreme Court justice?

In one sense, it’s like déjà vu from my first days as a trial judge. I was surprised at how much occurred behind the scenes to run a trial court, with the support staff, budgets, and logistics. I had the experience again as a justice after seeing the work the Supreme Court does. Today, I have a much better appreciation for the Supreme Court’s adjudicative and administrative responsibilities for the entire Judicial Branch and the Delaware Bar. Being a justice is a great responsibility and honor, for which I am very grateful. My gratitude also extends to GW Law for the education I received there in my LLM program in corporation law.


Justice Russell A. Anderson, LLM ’77

Minnesota Supreme Court, 1998–2006

Q: What are your court’s biggest issues and challenges?

We’re busy dealing with the implications of two recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions. The case of Blakely v. Washington, which requires that juries find the facts necessary before any upward departure from a presumptive sentence, impacts Minnesota’s sentencing guidelines system. We have a number of cases before us with Blakely issues. The other U.S. Supreme Court decision, Crawford v. Washington, concerns the Sixth Amendment right of defendants to confront the witnesses against them. Left open by the Crawford decision is the question of the admissibility of certain out-of-court statements under traditional hearsay exceptions. The Crawford question before our court, and I assume all state Supreme Courts, is: What are “testimonial statements”? For example, is the out-of court statement of a child victim of sexual abuse to a social worker admissible without the child’s in-court testimony?

I should also mention that our chief justice, Kathleen Blatz, has established The Children’s Justice Initiative, a five-year program that joins our court, Minnesota’s Department of Human Services, social workers, county attorneys, police, and others statewide in an initiative to improve the timeliness of decisions in child protection cases and to expedite permanent, secure placements for children.

I must also mention the very significant challenge that state judges are facing to maintain their traditional independence and yet remain accountable. There is a movement to politicize the state judiciary by allowing political party endorsements of candidates in judicial elections, by allowing judicial candidates to make campaign promises on substantive issues that might reach the court, and by allowing a system of fundraising for judicial elections in which justice, if not bought, may be perceived as favoring the most generous contributors.

These are notions that are not an issue in the federal judiciary, where judges are appointed for life. Their introduction into state court systems, where judges are elected, has introduced a serious challenge to a strong and independent state judiciary. After all, judges are not supposed to be partisans or advocates but neutral arbiters.

Q: Why did you become a justice and what does your job entail?

The governor at that time had decided that the Supreme Court needed an experienced trial judge from greater Minnesota. I happened to fit the bill and I was happy to get the call. Thus began my work with my very wonderful colleagues on this court. I believe it is important that members of the Supreme Court be a diverse group with different professional and life experiences. Justices should not all be cut from the same cloth, and the justices on our court certainly are not.

As for me, my nearly 16 years of experience as a trial judge best prepared me for this work. I am also grateful for my professional experience in the Navy JAG Corps, and for the opportunity I was given to complete a master of laws degree at GW. Those were wonderful years. As to the job of Supreme Court justice, in addition to hearing cases and writing opinions, members of our court serve on many administrative committees and boards, and also serve as liaisons between these committees and the court. It is a lot of work but also a lot of fun.

Q: What did you learn from being a Supreme Court justice?

While a trial court judge, I sat alone and decided cases alone. The life of a Supreme Court justice is a much more collaborative experience. To prevail in your view of how a case should be decided, you need to persuade at least three other justices to join you. Skills of persuasion so important to the success of a trial lawyer tend to lie somewhat dormant in the singular work of a trial judge. Those skills are once again important in this collaborative setting.


Chief Justice Nancy A. Becker, JD ’79

Nevada Supreme Court, 1998–2006

Q: What are your court’s biggest issues and challenges?

What is testimonial evidence in a post-Crawford world where the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t define the term and we have to reevaluate hundreds of previous cases?

What is permissible judicial speech in a post-Republican v. White world?

What is the status of the death penalty in light of U.S. Supreme Court decisions of the past five years?

And what can we do to educate the public on the role of the judiciary as an independent branch of the government?

For the latter issue, we are beginning a massive public outreach program. It includes broadcasting arguments live over the Internet and making presentations to various groups statewide, to educate them on the history of the third branch of government and why it is independent. We also show them how the courts work, the role of the jury, how judges make decisions, how busy the judiciary is, what resources it has, and other similar topics.

We started this because people are forgetting the fundamental basis on which this country was founded. When the independence of the judiciary is threatened, it undermines the one aspect that makes our country unique.

The biggest challenge we face is resources. The governor and legislature are trying to address the needs of the judiciary, but we are experiencing tremendous urban growth and have had a 40 percent increase in caseload over the past four years. Processing cases in a timely, fair fashion is impossible with our current resources.

Q: Why did you become a justice and what does your job entail?

It probably started at George Washington when I was student director of the Community Legal Clinics under Eric Sirulnik; we looked for areas where the system went wrong, then we tried to make improvements. When I returned to Las Vegas and became a prosecutor, I felt the traditional method in which judges were handling cases wasn’t addressing 21st-century problems. The system didn’t distinguish between hard-core individuals and people with drug, alcohol, or mental problems who could be rehabilitated. There was no counseling to help these unfortunate people. They were just sentenced to prison and recidivism was high. I felt change was needed, toward a combination of punishment where appropriate and rehabilitation where appropriate.

After experience as a municipal and trial court judge, I ran for the Supreme Court because some changes could only be made from the state’s highest court. While the quality of education at George Washington and its clinical programs were a tremendous benefit, my years as a judge prepared me more for the Supreme Court. Also beneficial was being active in the community and understanding the needs for revamping the legal system.

I became a justice in 1998 and chief justice in 2004, and it is a completely different job from being a justice. You are like a company CEO, responsible for personnel and budget decisions, working with the legislature, looking at the operation of the lower courts, and making improvements where needed. It also gives you a lot of opportunities.

Looking at my six years as a justice, I’m proud of the work we’ve done to clean up death penalty jurisprudence. We’ve also cleaned up other areas of jurisprudence and inconsistent case law that resulted from high caseloads and not having an intermediate appellate state court. I’m also proud of the court’s efforts to improve access to justice, through pro-bono services and help for pro se litigants.

Q: What did you learn from being a Supreme Court justice?

The greatest learning curve is having to look at the direction the law will take based on your decision and the quality of the opinion you write. I learned how important it is to take the time to write good, tight, clean opinions. I also learned, as the administrative head of the court, that it is vital to make the public aware of the importance of the courts. Failure to teach civics in school has resulted in a generation that does not realize how important the judiciary is in protecting citizen rights.


In Good Company

Of the law schools attended by the 325 current state supreme court justices, GW ranks third in the number of alumni, with seven JDs and two LLMs, according to our research.

The University of Virginia ranks first, with 32 alumni, but of these, only eight hold JDs and the remainder hold LLMs at the university's well-known Judicial Process program for judges.

Harvard University is second, with 20 alumni (18 JDs and two LLMs).

Besides the nine justices mentioned in this article, the following GW Law alumni are retired from the bench:


Joseph F. Baca, JD ’64
Former Chief Justice
New Mexico Supreme Court

Thomas L. Steffen, JD ’64
Former Chief Justice
Nevada Supreme Court

David Newbern, LLM ’63
Former Associate Justice
Arkansas Supreme Court


James Moeller, JD ’59
Former Vice Chief Justice
Arizona Supreme Court

Maurice A. Hartnett III, JD ’54
Former Justice
Delaware Supreme Court

Harry L. Carrico, JD ’42
Former Chief Justice
Virginia Supreme Court


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