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When a young man landed in federal court for fencing stolen computers, Judge Reggie Walton spared the first-time offender from doing prison time, instead placing him on probation. It was rare for the Republican-appointed judge to give the defendant a second chance. And a year later, when the man ended up in the same courtroom, he quickly learned Walton wasn’t going to be as forgiving. Walton shook his head, frustrated that his efforts to “salvage another young black man from going to prison” were for naught. He then sentenced the defendant, a government employee, to 18 months in a federal prison for accepting bribes, saying, “You burned me once. You can’t burn me twice.” Walton now is presiding over the criminal case of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby. The former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney is charged with perjury, obstructing justice, and making false statements in the CIA leak investigation. If Libby’s case makes it to trial and if the former aide is convicted, Walton may not be the judge to look to for leniency. In fact, the judge’s tough-on-crime posture, especially where punishment is concerned, has some local lawyers suggesting that Libby’s defense team may want to rethink its game plan simply because Walton is on the bench. During his first court appearance, last Thursday, Libby pleaded not guilty before Walton in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, where he was flanked by two new prominent attorneys: Theodore Wells Jr., a partner with the New York office of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, and William Jeffress Jr., a partner with Baker Botts in Washington. A few seats away from Libby at the defense table sat attorney Joseph Tate, a partner with Dechert in Philadelphia who, until now, was Libby’s lead attorney. Libby was indicted Oct. 28, the final day of a 22-month grand jury probe to determine who leaked the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame to the media. The investigation, led by special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, has focused on whether White House officials released Plame’s name to retaliate against her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who accused the Bush administration of relying on faulty intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war. Libby was the only person indicted by this grand jury, but Fitzgerald says the investigation is ongoing. And top presidential aide Karl Rove could still be charged. If convicted on all five counts, Libby faces up to 30 years in prison, although sentencing guidelines likely would recommend just a few years behind bars. In light of the potential for prison time, coupled with Walton’s tough reputation on the bench, some lawyers say it’s possible Libby and his attorneys might be increasingly interested in a plea deal. But for now, the defense is showing no signs of moving in that direction. After the arraignment, Wells told reporters outside the courthouse that Libby intends to fight the charges and is looking forward to a jury trial. Although Libby’s is not a typical criminal case, one lawyer familiar with Walton says that many defendants in Libby’s position look to cut a deal. “He’s very harsh,” says the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Because of that, lawyers would urge clients to plead and cooperate. It’s the only way to get out from under the heel of the boot.” On the other hand, the source suggests Walton’s ties to Republicans may mean Libby has an easier road ahead than many defendants who go before the judge. “I don’t know where this judge is going to fall, because of the politics,” he says, adding, “These are his people.” It’s undeniable that the GOP has been key in advancing Walton’s judicial career. President George W. Bush appointed Walton, a Republican, to the federal bench in 2001. But one of Walton’s longtime colleagues says that the judge would never bring personal politics into the courtroom. “I can’t think of anyone who would get less personally involved in a case,” says Senior Judge Nan Shuker, who sits on the bench in the Superior Court for the District of Columbia. “He won’t do it politically. He won’t do it any other way than professionally.” She says that judges have no control over who appoints them to the bench, Republicans or Democrats, and that it makes no difference. BENCH BRAWLER After working briefly as a public defender in Philadelphia and then as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District, Walton was appointed to the Superior Court bench by President Ronald Reagan in 1981. Then, in 1989, President George H.W. Bush tapped Walton to serve as deputy drug czar under William Bennett.
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In this role, Walton traveled the country spreading an anti-drug message, especially among juveniles in predominately black, urban communities. During his tenure, Walton managed to avoid the criticism Bennett experienced for his hard-line approach to waging a war on drugs. Shuker says that Walton took the job not for political reasons but because he was dedicated to the cause. “He feels very strongly that the young black male population is being killed by drugs. He wanted to play his part,” she says. In 1991, Walton was reappointed to the Superior Court, where he served until moving on to the federal bench. Despite Walton’s Republican ties, his judicial record includes rulings that have sparked criticism from both liberals and conservatives, making it more difficult to peg him philosophically. Walton’s 2004 decision to dismiss the case of Federal Bureau of Investigation translator Sibel Edmonds drew the ire of Bush administration critics, who believed the government was trying to quiet Edmonds from publicly criticizing the agency for alleged failures she claims led to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Edmonds, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the FBI, claiming she was fired in retaliation for accusing the bureau of misconduct and negligence. In response to the suit, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft invoked the rarely used “state secrets privilege,” arguing that going forward with the case in open court could jeopardize national security. Walton ultimately dismissed the case, “albeit with great consternation, in the interests of national security.” His decision was upheld earlier this year by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. A few months before Walton’s decision in the FBI whistle-blower case, he upheld the District’s ban on handguns and semiautomatic weapons, a move that outraged many conservatives and gun rights advocates. Walton rejected the National Rifle Association-backed lawsuit, which was filed by a group of D.C. residents who called the gun ban unconstitutional. Although in court transcripts Walton indicated he doesn’t believe the ban necessarily reduces gun violence, he wrote in his opinion, “The Second Amendment does not confer an individual right to possess firearms. Rather, the Amendment’s objective is to ensure the vitality of state militias.” TOUGH TACTICS Throughout his career, Walton has handled several high-profile cases. None, however, can match the magnitude of the Libby matter. Yet those who know him say Walton won’t let the sharp glare of publicity distort the proceedings. “There won’t be a significant difference between this and other cases, except the courtroom will be a bit more crowded,” says Shuker, adding she believes that Walton will run a typically strict and proper courtroom. Long before Walton gained a reputation as a tough judge, he earned a similar reputation as a streetwise teenager growing up in the small steel town of Donora, Pa. He has openly discussed his youthful indiscretions, which included several encounters with police for getting into fights. Because of the media attention surrounding the Libby case, Walton declined to be interviewed. But in a profile published by the Justice Department in 2000, Walton talked of his rough background and what finally turned him around � a fight he was involved in that nearly killed a young man. He drove the teen to the hospital, saving his life, then left behind his wayward ways. Walton went on to college at West Virginia State on a football scholarship, and, eventually, thanks to a federal program aimed at increasing the number of black attorneys, he earned a law degree from American University. But a recent encounter with an assault in progress suggests that Walton hasn’t completely forgotten the lessons of his youth. Earlier this summer, while driving through Chevy Chase, Md., Walton noticed someone attacking another man in the street. Walton wrestled the attacker to the ground and held him until police arrived. More often these days, however, he reserves his aggression for the courtroom. “I think that he takes great pride in having made it after being in trouble,” says D.C. Superior Court Judge Geoffrey Alprin. “I suspect he thinks that most of the people that come in front of him � I’m not talking about Scooter Libby, I’m talking about defendants who commit street crimes � I think he thinks that if he made it, most of them can.” There was little opportunity for Walton to reveal his courtroom demeanor during Libby’s arraignment, which lasted less than 10 minutes. Libby only addressed the judge once, to say, “With respect, Your Honor, I plead not guilty.” Much of the hearing was spent discussing logistics, like the need for defense attorneys to obtain a government security clearance before going forward with discovery, which Fitzgerald says might involve “sensitive” information. At the prosecution’s table was Peter Zeidenberg, a Justice Department lawyer who has assisted Fitzgerald throughout his investigation. Walton scheduled the next hearing for Feb. 3, saying, “I want to try and have this matter resolved as expeditiously as possible.”


Sarah Kelley can be contacted at [email protected].

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