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Bob Shaw has logged more hours in D.C. courthouses than many veteran lawyers, scribbling a 30-year record of recalcitrant attorneys and no-nonsense judges. Shaw is not a lawyer, but he is perhaps the District’s most dedicated court watcher, a silent observer who slips through the courtrooms on a personal quest to see justice delivered, order maintained, and truth revealed. “It supports my search for the truth,” says the 64-year-old part-time accountant. “I don’t see myself like an ambulance chaser looking for excitement. It’s just what keeps me going.” Short and slight with graying hair, Shaw sits in the back row of the courtroom and pulls a pen and spiral notebook from his worn, green canvas bag. His trademark plastic-rimmed glasses and white-collar shirt are familiar to many courthouse regulars, but few know him by name. Shaw has no legal training, but he has devised his own rating system for judges and even gives out annual awards to his favorites. “It’s sort of like watching life go by, sitting on a corner. It’s part of my observing, analyzing, and commenting on culture,” he says. “It’s just the adversarial process is mentally stimulating. I view this as part of my cultural criticism.” Shaw says he feels alienated from today’s popular culture, believing rock-and-roll and violent movies have caused a downhill slide. He believes the administration of justice also is slipping, so he seeks rigor, discipline, and an enforcement of rules in the courthouse, a refuge with some semblance of order in an otherwise chaotic world. His mantra is straightforward: Justice delayed is justice denied. So Shaw keeps watch for judges who move cases forward quickly. If that means some attorneys get upbraided along the way, all the better. “It’s the process, and the discipline is the key to my thinking. I like to see how [judges] can discipline the system,” he says. “[Attorneys] have a role in society, but they certainly can tie things up. They don’t have an incentive to resolve things efficiently.” Shaw says he has been captivated by court cases since watching hearings from the mass arrests of anti-war demonstrators during the 1970s. “I was just curious how the system would handle such a situation,” he says. Other highlights have included the Watergate case, the breakup of AT&T, the Microsoft antitrust case, and the trial over the mishandling of Indian trust fund accounts by the U.S. government. But Shaw says he is more interested in the performance of judges and attorneys than in the particulars of any given case. Shaw makes time for his court watching, in part, because he never married or had children. (“That’s why I’m so disgruntled,” he jokes.) He lives in an apartment near American University and makes ends meet with his salary as a part-time accountant for the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy. About 10 years ago, he decided to make himself heard and began sending “flags” to judges when he was disturbed by their actions. Lately, though, Shaw has pulled the flags because he never got a response and he now tries “not to go negative.” “Awards are more positive reinforcement, more glamorous and so forth,” he says. Each year, Shaw gives his Court Critic’s Awards to the judges who have impressed him the most, sending them a simple certificate printed from a computer. He knows some judges may think his awards are silly, but he hopes that in their own small way, the awards will make a difference. Last year the winners were U.S. District Judge James Robertson and D.C. Superior Court Judges Judith Retchin and Michael Rankin. Retchin has been a favorite, winning for the past five years in a row. D.C. Superior Court Senior Judge Gregory Mize says he thirsts “for feedback from jurors and lawyers and citizens about what goes on in my courtroom.” So he was grateful when Shaw sent him awards in 1999 and 2000. U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth says he hasn’t always agreed with Shaw’s suggestions, but he recalls that one time he rethought his actions because of one of Shaw’s notes. And even when he doesn’t agree, Lamberth says, “We see so few members of the public. I’m glad to see people interested.” A TYPICAL DAY Shaw’s court watching begins each day at 10:15 a.m. at the U.S. District Court Clerk’s Office to review the daily calendar. During a recent morning, the offerings looked slim. The trial of D.C. developer Douglas Jemal had just been sent to the jury. Lamberth’s criminal trial was taking a break. And Shaw is wary of the hostage-taking case before Judge Thomas Hogan because, he says, “he’s good, but he’s a mumbler.” Shaw heads up to the fourth floor to Robertson’s courtroom, slipping into the back row and crossing his legs. He makes a bet: Within five minutes, Robertson will discipline one of the attorneys. At the podium is David Frulla, a Kelley Drye Collier Shannon partner representing the Legacy Fishing Co. and the Fishing Company of Alaska, which are contesting U.S. Commerce Department regulations on “bycatch” standards for fishing off the coast of Alaska. Frulla has done plenty of planning and has an easel set up to explain his point. But like clockwork, Robertson stops the lawyer within a few minutes. “My job here is not to second-guess all the decisions these agencies make,” the judge says. Shaw smiles. This is what he likes to see: a judge who tells lawyers when they go too far. As the hearing grinds through tedious talk of administrative rules and their effect on fishing companies, Shaw takes his cue: time to head to another courtroom. “It’s going technical,” he whispers. Next door is Hogan’s hostage-taking trial, and despite the security check at the door, Shaw decides to give the case another chance. Inside, the jury is already seated listening to the Spanish-language tape of the accused Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia member after his arrest in Ecuador in 2004. Shaw can’t understand the tape, and the only public video screen is too far away for him to read the subtitles. He turns to his notebook and writes down the words: “foreign language trial.” Technology, Shaw says, is supposed to help in the courtroom, but today he only feels lost. Shaw says he generally prefers U.S. District Court over D.C. Superior Court because the federal cases are “more complex and more global than just common murders,” but he regularly makes the trip across the courtyard to Superior Court, a busier and louder place where the hallways are packed with jurors, defendants, and lawyers. Here, Shaw makes his choices more by instinct than artful calculation, done with a quick glance through the courtroom doors at who is on the stand. He peers at one, then another, and settles on the courtroom of Judge Jennifer Anderson, who is handling a medical malpractice case. A doctor is on the stand being questioned about his medical background and experience in previous trials. Shaw sits patiently, but it’s clear he’s less than mesmerized by this r�sum� outline that is needed to establish the doctor as an expert witness. He scribbles in his notebook: “What’s the issue?” Moments later, the judge calls for a 15-minute recess. “She didn’t get a chance to intervene,” Shaw says, looking a bit disappointed. Shaw is back in the hallways, peering from room to room. Many are on break, so he heads upstairs to the courtroom of Judge Wendell Gardner Jr., who is presiding over a hearing in a homicide case. The prosecutor is in the middle of questioning a detective about statements the defendant allegedly made while in custody � some of which she’d heard herself, some of which she’d been told secondhand. The defense attorney objects. He wants the prosecutor to differentiate between these two sources. The prosecutor balks. Hearsay is admissible in this proceeding, he says. That isn’t the point, Gardner replies. “He has a right to know whether it is from personal knowledge or hearsay,” Gardner says. “It’s a valid objection, so make sure it is clear.” Shaw’s face lights up. Yet another lawyer put in his place. Shaw sits patiently. It’s been nearly half an hour � the longest time he’s stayed in a single courtroom so far. Soon the defense attorney takes his turn, pacing back and forth in front of the witness. He fires question after question, asking how the detective could know for sure this was all that was said by the defendant and whether she learned about the conversation months later. He goes around and around with these questions, prompting the judge to interject. “Counsel, don’t beat a dead horse. If you don’t have a question, you don’t have an answer,” Gardner says. Shaw takes a breath of relief. Don’t beat a dead horse. He likes that phrase, and perhaps more importantly, he likes the effect it has on the attorney, who finally turns to a new line of questioning. It’s nearing noon, so Shaw grabs his bag and heads toward the cafeteria. “That was fascinating,” he says as he steps into the hallway. “That’s what I call cat-and-mouse theater.”
Emma Schwartz can be contacted at [email protected].

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