University of Georgia School of Law Professor Peter Rutledge, who wrote in 2006 that the decision posed a threat to judicial independence, said that although he hasn't seen a flurry of similar removal petitions, it represented a "tarnishing" of the judiciary's power to hold another branch of government accountable. "If you disagree with the judge, get him or her reversed on the merits," he said.
In less fraught instances, Lamberth has made headlines for injecting personality into his opinions; a January opinion compared Medicare laws to a text "written by James Joyce and edited by E.E. Cummings." At the time, Lamberth credited a clerk with the idea for the line.
Crossing the line
The D.C. attorney general's office has borne some of the strongest of Lamberth's colorful verbiage in recent years. In May 2011, he chastised city lawyers for committing a discovery violation "so extreme as to be literally unheard of."
Attorney General Irvin Nathan said in a statement that his office "has great regard for Chief Judge Lamberth, whom we accurately called a 'respected jurist' in our recent motion for reconsideration," referring to the city's objection to Lamberth's October opinion.
Covington & Burling senior counsel Peter Nickles, Nathan's predecessor as D.C. attorney general, said that although Lamberth is "tough," he couldn't think of an opinion that crossed a line. Nickles, who often clashed with city officials, said he could understand when Lamberth's opinions reflected an impatience with attorneys before him.
"Lawyers know when they are crossing the line, or close to crossing the line; this is not a mystery. Lawyers know when they have an argument that's a bunch of baloney," Nickles said. "Lamberth will call you out in a second."
Lamberth said he feels an obligation to correct government lawyers not meeting high ethical and professional standards. "As a former career government lawyer myself, I think the court expects government lawyers to perform at the highest standard of the profession," he said. "I think society expects that of the government's lawyers and I certainly expect it."
When Lamberth turns 70 next July, he plans to take senior status; federal law requires that he step aside as chief judge. Stanley Sporkin, a former D.C. federal judge, said being on the bench can be liberating, especially if a judge isn't actively angling for appointment to a higher court. "That's the great thing I found about being a district court judge; I owed nobody anything. I think he probably has that same feeling," he said. "He doesn't need to satisfy anybody."
Zoe Tillman writes for The National Law Journal. a Daily Report affiliate.