U.S. District Judge Richard Leon’s flair for dramatic writing was on full display in his Dec. 16 opinion that took on a government surveillance program. The ruling featured expressive punctuation, sarcastic footnotes and sweeping criticism of the federal government’s secret monitoring efforts.
The U.S. Department of Justice’s position that a mass database of phone records might not include telecommunications giants Verizon Wireless, AT&T and Sprint? That “would be like omitting John, Paul, and George from a historical analysis of the Beatles,” the judge wrote in a footnote. “A Ringo-only database doesn’t make any sense.”
An FBI official’s concession in a court filing that the phone metadata only “sometimes” yielded information earlier than other investigative tools? “Such candor is as refreshing as it is rare,” Leon wrote (again, in a footnote).
Appointed to the bench by President George W. Bush in 2002, Leon previously worked in private practice — he was a partner at Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease when he was nominated — in the Department of Justice and on Capitol Hill.
Leon’s made waves on hot topics before. In March 2012, he found the U.S. Food and Drug Administration wrongly approved shipments of a drug used in lethal injections. In one of six lines to include an exclamation point, he wrote of the agency’s actions: “How utterly disappointing!”
In November 2008, he ordered five Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, detainees released, finding the government’s evidence weak. “To allow enemy combatancy to rest on so thin a reed would be inconsistent with this Court’s obligation…to protect petitioners from the risk of erroneous detention,” he wrote (emphasis in original).
On the bench, the judge similarly hasn’t minced words if he thought he was getting the run around from lawyers or litigants.
Former D.C. Council Chair man Kwame Brown, who pleaded guilty to bank fraud in 2012, earned Leon’s ire after violating the terms of his release. Leon told Brown his apology was “a little late in the game” and admonished him to not “tempt fate.”
In the following months, Brown on three occasions asked for Leon’s permission to travel. The judge denied all three requests.
When lawyers in a defamation case against the late publisher Andrew Breitbart failed to produce details on his estate following his March 2012 death, they got an earful from the judge. Leon said it seemed as though counsel were trying to “hide the ball.” The court, he said, “doesn’t appreciate hide the ball.”
Contact Zoe Tillman at email@example.com.