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Judge David Sentelle is wearing a pair of cowboy boots he picked up in Houston — a pair President George W. Bush fussed over when he saw them at the confirmation ceremony for Judge Brett Kavanaugh, Sentelle’s newest colleague, in the White House Rose Garden in 2006. (“Hey, where’d you git those boots?” the president asked.) The requisite tan Stetson is lying on the table in the conference room adjoining his office. And on the wall beside the door to Sentelle’s chambers hangs a postcard-sized North Carolina state flag. The judge is known to occasionally serenade his clerks with Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue.” Sentelle sounds like a good ol’ boy, an outsider who contrasts sharply with the other D.C. Circuit judges, many of whom left white-shoe law firms or faculties at top 10 law schools to join the court. “He’s smart but not pretentious,” says Jack Sharman, a partner at Lightfoot, Franklin & White in Alabama who clerked for Sentelle in 1989 and 1990. Sentelle, who was best man at Sharman’s wedding, “was a great antidote to the way some Washington lawyers look at themselves, which is solely by title or client list or bar committee,” Sharman says. The thing is, Sentelle is about as inside as a federal judge can get. He’s been on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit for more than 20 years, and today, just a day shy of his 65th birthday, he takes over as the chief judge from Douglas Ginsburg. A seat on the D.C. Circuit is one of the most coveted in the judiciary, and Sentelle will now take on all of the court’s administrative responsibilities and represent it on the federal judiciary’s policy-making body. Sentelle is down-home, perhaps. But not so outside-the-Beltway as to decline a term as president of the Edward Bennett Williams American Inn of Court, named for perhaps the ultimate example of a Washington lawyer-insider. “His style makes him seem not as smart as he actually is,” one lawyer said, in an anonymous survey for the 2007 Almanac of the Federal Judiciary. Another said: “He is very smart. He is even shrewd.” A CALL FROM RON The son of a mill worker from Canton, N.C., Sentelle earned both his bachelor’s and law degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He established himself as a federal prosecutor in Charlotte early on, and by 1971, Sentelle, just three years out of law school, was running the U.S. Attorney’s Office there, as a first assistant. In 1974, he was elected state district judge, but he left in 1977 after his first term, with college tuition for his three daughters in mind, he says. For the next eight years, Sentelle made his way as name partner at the now-defunct Tucker, Hicks, Sentelle, Moon & Hodge, handling white-collar work and defending five capital murder cases, until his confirmation to the federal bench in Asheville, N.C., in 1985. During his time in private practice, he also cultivated his interest in Republican politics, serving as chairman of the Mecklenburg County Republican Party from 1979 to 1980, chairman of the state Republican convention in 1980 and 1981, and a delegate at the Republican National Convention in 1984. At the urging of then-Sen. Jesse Helms Jr. (R-N.C.), President Ronald Reagan appointed Sentelle to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, where the judge had assumed, with satisfaction, he would finish his career. “There was some reluctance to leave his post in North Carolina,” says Joan Larsen, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School who clerked for Sentelle in 1993 and 1994. “It was home, it was beautiful country, and he was doing a job he enjoyed very, very much.” Less than two years later, in February 1987, he got a call from Reagan. The judge allowed his law clerk to listen in, so that they could both lap up the Great Communicator’s voice. The conversation was brief. Reagan told Sentelle that he was staring at a nomination form with the judge’s name on it. Sentelle had been vetted recently for a judgeship on the D.C. Circuit, and in an interview with Justice Department officials, he had said he would accept the position if offered. “Should I sign this thing?” Reagan asked him. “If you think that’s the thing to do, then yes, sir,” Sentelle said. The judge says he still doesn’t know why or how his name found its way onto the Justice Department’s list. And at the time, he wasn’t sure he wanted it there. “This may sound corny .�.�. but I told myself, if God wants me to take it I will, but I’m not going to pursue it,” Sentelle says. “When the president offers you a job, you take it.” BARBECUE AND ICE-T U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, a native Texan whose chambers are three floors down from Sentelle’s, fell in with the judge immediately. Both were confirmed in 1987, Sentelle weeks before Lamberth, who will take over as chief judge of the district court in May. They gravitated to one another because they shared “more Southern, less urbane backgrounds than most of the other judges,” Sentelle says. (Lamberth is the expert on rodeo, while Sentelle presides over country music. Barbecue is another shared fondness, though there’s some dispute over which meat is more serviceable, North Carolina’s brand having been built around pork, and Texas’ beef.) The two judges are often described in the same terms by former clerks and lawyers: deceptively smart, amiable, funny, conservative in some respects but libertarian in others, and inclined to approach matters of law from the vantage point of a trial judge. For Lamberth, this last distinction is unexceptional, of course, but for Sentelle, it bears noting. “He’s one of the few that thinks like a district judge and not some goddamned law professor,” Lamberth says, chuckling. Occasionally, other circuit judges have called Sentelle for his trial expertise. Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson, another of Sentelle’s close friends, is the only other member of the court with experience as a federal trial judge. Since he arrived, Sentelle has made a practice of eating lunch with the district judges in their cafeteria, a room behind the main court cafeteria with a sign on the wall that reads, “Nothing said in this room shall be repeated outside these walls.” For a few years, he was the only one, but more circuit judges have started coming, Lamberth says. All of this is in keeping with Sentelle’s background, lawyers say. “He stays close to those roots,” says Brad Berenson, a partner at Sidley Austin and former associate counsel to President George W. Bush. “In cases directed outward to enemies of the U.S., he’s pretty deferential to the government, but in criminal cases, he can be pretty libertarian,” adds Berenson, also a member of the Edward Bennett Williams American Inn of Court. Sentelle, when asked whether he agrees, says only, “I’ve held men’s hands minutes before they found out whether or not they were condemned to die. That stays with you.” Sentelle says he would have eventually burned out on trials, but his appellate judgeship offers a menu of legal issues to keep him fresh. He calls it “a renaissance profession.” Advocates who practice before him say Sentelle is generally courteous but firm, more so if he disagrees with a legal position or suspects an attorney is ill-prepared. Lawyers surveyed in the almanac evaluated Sentelle’s ability favorably (“He sounds like a Southern good old boy but he is quite smart,” one said.). His judicial temperament drew mixed reviews (“He is very entertaining on the bench”; “He can be a bear on the bench”), but assessments of his political bent were plain (“He is very conservative”). The judge was unanimously praised for his clear and sometimes humorous opinions, and he’s not above the odd pop culture reference, as when he quoted rap star Ice-T’s lyrics to support the conviction of a District man in a 1992 ruling. Demonstrating the lethality of a shotgun, Sentelle borrowed from the song “Cop Killer”: “I got my 12-gauge sawed off. .�.�. I’m �bout to dust some cops off.” Since the early 1990s, Sentelle has written crime fiction, dosed with his experiences as a prosecutor and defense attorney, under the pen name Clyde Haywood. (Clyde is a town in Haywood County, N.C.) In 2002, he published a humorous account of his improbable attendance at the 1987 Rainbow Gathering. Sentelle’s book Judge Dave and the Rainbow People describes how, as a federal district judge, he had to reconcile the state’s permit law with the hippies’ First Amendment rights. STARR FACTOR Sentelle’s conservative cast, burnished by his early affiliations with North Carolina’s Republican Party, became a matter of media speculation in the 1990s. His name first turned up as a member of the three-judge panel that overturned the Iran-Contra convictions of Vice Adm. John Poindexter and his deputy, Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, and then as the judge who headed the panel that appointed Kenneth Starr to investigate Whitewater. He was branded by some as a partisan after it was revealed that a week before Starr’s appointment Sentelle had lunch with then-Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.), who had led an effort to remove the previous special prosecutor, Robert Fiske Jr., from the investigation for lack of aggressiveness. Two ethical complaints were filed against Sentelle, but then-Chief Judge Harry Edwards dismissed them. Sentelle says he’s still sour about the way he was portrayed in news reports, and he has studiously avoided publicity since. Lamberth says that he and Sentelle have discussed “the duties of the chief judge” and that he has been pushing Sentelle to crack the door a bit. Ginsburg, who will remain active on the court after Sentelle takes over, does not speak with media as a policy. In all other respects, Sentelle says he plans to follow in Ginsburg’s footsteps, and Edwards’ before him, as chief judge. Sentelle credits Edwards with reining in the court during a time when judges were warring openly in the press, usually along party lines. Edwards’ top priority “was to ensure this was a court of collegiality,” Sentelle says. “He operated in complete open and made it plain from the start that he had no agenda.” Edwards, who followed Judge Abner Mikva as chief, instituted bimonthly lunches with outside guests. (Sentelle mentions former Secretary of State Colin Powell, whom the judge describes as “one of the most impressive men I’ve ever met.”) As chief judge, Sentelle will adminster the clerk’s office, allocate the court’s budget and courthouse space, and appoint members of both the circuit and district courts to the seven-member judicial council, which controls circuit policy. Sentelle will also replace Ginsburg on the Judicial Conference, as one of 13 circuit judges. (However, against custom, Sentelle will not swap his chambers with Ginsburg when he becomes chief. He’s happy where he is, he says.) Sentelle will have the power to reprimand judges by removing them from cases (a rare occurrence in recent history), appoint them to special three-judge courts, or detail them to other courts. But Sentelle says his foremost duty will be to simply maintain the court’s current trajectory. “My job is to keep the airplane flying at the same level,” he says.
Joe Palazzolo can be contacted at [email protected].

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