A Big Robe to Fill

My first job out of law school was a clerkship for Judge Natalia Combs Greene in the DC Superior Court.  I think most young lawyers who clerk immediately out of law school have good experiences and learn a lot.  I think that I personally had a special experience clerking for Judge Combs Greene.  Throughout my two years with her, she treated me like an equal.  She valued my opinion even when I strenuously disagreed with her.  In fact, I think she liked it when I disagreed because it helped her work through difficult decisions to argue both sides of a particular issue.  She taught me immeasurable lessons about trial advocacy, the court system, and lawyering.  Without having clerked for her specifically, I would have never had the courage to start Scrofano Law at such a young age.

Judge Combs Greene started as an Assistant United States Attorney (“AUSA”).  In other words, she began her career as a prosecutor.  She was an AUSA before the DC City Council eviscerated the right to a jury trial.  In her day, misdemeanors were jury demandable, so she gained a ton of jury trial experience—unlike today where a charge is only jury demandable if the maximum penalty is more than 180 days in jail.  She left for private practice in California and ultimately returned to United States Attorney’s Office where she was eventually appointed as the Director of Training.  In that position, she was responsible for training the new AUSA’s.  I think that was a testament to her trial skills that they asked to run the training program for new prosecutors.  From that position, then-President Clinton appointed her as an Associate Judge to the DC Superior Court.

She announced her retirement this year and her last day is September 30.  The DC Judicial Nomination Commission, which is an organization that selects three nominees for the President to choose one for appointment, is seeking comment on the 18 attorneys who have applied to serve as her replacement.  This process has sparked some debate in the DC criminal defense community as to what qualities make a good judge.  That discussion has stirred some strong feelings in me about who should serve as her replacement.  I have unique insight into what qualities she personally brought to the bench and cannot help feel invested in who replaces her.

In my opinion, we have too many judges who have spent their careers serving large institutions as opposed to representing individuals.  Lawyers who represent people bring special insight and perspective to the bench.  I am hoping this will be the case with the recent appointment of Judge Michael O’Keefe.  Lawyers who represent individuals possess empathy.  We see the struggles our clients go through.  We see the shame and indignities they suffer at the hands of large institutions that so many judges spent their careers serving.  That is not to say judges who represented institutions do not have empathy or cannot put compassion for the individual over the interests of a large institution.  I clerked for one.  However, after representing over 250 people in DC Superior Court, I have sadly concluded that Judge Combs Greene is the exception—not the rule.

There are many qualified candidates vying for her seat on the bench and many who would no doubt make great jurists.  However, I personally believe we need a candidate as her replacement who spent her career representing people not governments, individuals not institutions.  I plan to express support for such a candidate and I hope other DC criminal defense lawyers will do the same.