Outspoken Federal Judge Reflects on Career That Included Rulings on Surveillance Issues

Judge Royce Lamberth reflects on his career on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in August 2013.
National Journal
Aug. 29, 2013, 3:30 p.m.

Judge Royce Lam­berth had to give up his role as chief judge of the U.S. Dis­trict Court for the Dis­trict of Columbia on his 70th birth­day in Ju­ly. The party was great, but after a three-week va­ca­tion to Lon­don and Oslo, he’s ready to get back to what he does best: rul­ing on cases.

“The whole re­tire­ment ce­re­mony for me was al­most a roast,” Lam­berth says. “To me, it has kind of epi­tom­ized the change I’ve tried to bring to the court — judges can be hu­man be­ings, judges can show their emo­tion, judges can some­times say out­rageous things and get away with it.”

Lam­berth, a per­son­al friend of Chief Justice John Roberts, is well known in the leg­al world (and, uniquely, even out­side of it) as an un­usu­ally out­spoken judge who rarely minces words in his court opin­ions. He is opin­ion­ated and proud of it, mak­ing com­par­is­ons to Justice Ant­on­in Scalia, an­oth­er Su­preme Court jur­ist whom Lam­berth counts among his friends, hard to res­ist. (Lam­berth also says former Chief Justice Wil­li­am Rehnquist is his “fa­vor­ite justice of all time.”)

“Lots of judges really fig­ure out every way un­der the sun not to rule, be­cause [then] you can’t be re­versed,” Lam­berth notes. “And I don’t shrink from just rul­ing, just say­ing what I think is right. As a res­ult, I’ve done some con­tro­ver­sial things, and the Court of Ap­peals some­times is not go­ing to see it my way…. There are some very con­tro­ver­sial things I’ve done that I will go to my grave know­ing I was right and they were wrong.”

Lam­berth, per court rules, stepped down as chief judge of the Dis­trict Court when he turned 70 on Ju­ly 16, but he has no in­ten­tion of toss­ing his black robe in­to a closet. He now has the title of seni­or judge, avail­able to hear cases as needed but not work­ing on the bench full time.

An ebul­li­ent and gregari­ous man who sipped from a “#1 Boss” mug dur­ing an in­ter­view this month with Na­tion­al Journ­al Daily, Lam­berth hails from San Ant­o­nio, Texas, and got both his un­der­gradu­ate and law de­grees from the Uni­versity of Texas. He says he knew from age 7 that he wanted to be a law­yer, though he once also dreamed of be­ing gov­ernor. For a judge, he is sur­pris­ingly can­did about his polit­ic­al lean­ings.

“I grew up in Texas, so I grew up a Demo­crat,” Lam­berth says. “I nev­er knew a Re­pub­lic­an, I didn’t even know what they were.”¦ [Pres­id­ent] Carter sort of tipped me over fi­nally. He’s a nice guy, but, boy, was he in­ef­fec­tu­al.”

Out of law school, Lam­berth was a cap­tain in the Army’s JAG Corps, a stint that fea­tured one year in Vi­et­nam dur­ing the war’s zenith. He be­came an as­sist­ant U.S. at­tor­ney in 1974 and was nom­in­ated to the Dis­trict Court by Pres­id­ent Re­agan in 1987.

Lam­berth presided over many high-pro­file cases dur­ing his 25-year ca­reer on the fed­er­al bench, the last five of which as chief judge. He blocked an ex­ec­ut­ive or­der by Pres­id­ent Obama in 2010 that ex­pan­ded stem-cell re­search, cit­ing a ban that dis­al­lowed fed­er­al money to fund the de­struc­tion of em­bry­os. When the Justice De­part­ment sought search war­rants in 2010 to tap e-mail and phone re­cords of Fox News re­port­er James Rosen, Lam­berth ruled that Rosen did not need to be dir­ectly in­formed, al­though he apo­lo­gized earli­er this year for ad­min­is­trat­ive fail­ures that kept the court doc­u­ments sealed for 18 ad­di­tion­al months after Lam­berth ordered them un­sealed. In 2011, Lam­berth ordered the re­lease of the late Pres­id­ent Nix­on’s testi­mony on the Wa­ter­gate scan­dal.

Lam­berth also served from 1995 to 2002 on the For­eign In­tel­li­gence Sur­veil­lance Court, which has gained no­tori­ety in re­cent months fol­low­ing rev­el­a­tions about the its secret rul­ings al­low­ing the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency to carry out sweep­ing sur­veil­lance pro­grams. Though he was not sit­ting at the court when it made some of its con­tro­ver­sial rul­ings ex­posed by former Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Ad­min­is­tra­tion con­tract­or Ed­ward Snowden, Lam­berth main­tains con­tact with the FISA Court daily, and he does not hes­it­ate to vo­ci­fer­ously de­fend its rul­ings.

“They are very trouble­some is­sues, I un­der­stand, but for the fu­ture of our coun­try, we need to be do­ing the kind of things we’ve been do­ing,” Lam­berth says, lower­ing his tone. “That’s how we’ve stayed safe since 9/11.”

And he of­fers little sym­pathy for leak­ers such as Snowden or Brad­ley Man­ning. “Mar­tin Luth­er King thought all along that if you want to vi­ol­ate the law you’ve got to be pre­pared to pay the pen­alty,” con­tends Lam­berth, who at­ten­ded the March on Wash­ing­ton 50 years ago when he was work­ing as a waiter in D.C. dur­ing sum­mer break from law school. “These days, every­one wants to think they can en­gage in civil dis­obedi­ence, dis­trib­ute a mil­lion top-secret re­cords, and they should be her­oes and not pay any pen­alty. I don’t agree with that philo­sophy.”

When asked about his biggest re­gret, Lam­berth cites his 2006 re­mov­al from a $3.4 bil­lion class-ac­tion suit filed by a group of Nat­ive Amer­ic­ans against the In­teri­or De­part­ment. The re­gret is not for any­thing he did as a judge; he simply lamen­ted the de­cision by the U.S. Court of Ap­peals fo the D.C. Cir­cuit, which con­cluded, after the gov­ern­ment pe­ti­tioned for his re­mov­al fol­low­ing some es­pe­cially sharp-tongued opin­ions, that “this is one of those rare cases in which re­as­sign­ment is ne­ces­sary.”

“I was re­moved be­cause there wasn’t any ground to re­cuse me,” said Lam­berth, clearly still irked by the drama. “I will read in my ob­it­u­ary — if I could read my ob­it­u­ary — all about how I was re­moved from the In­di­an case. I will al­ways re­sent that.”

Lam­berth is as eager to talk about his per­son­al life as about his ca­reer. He met his wife, Janis, at his twin broth­er Cloyce’s wed­ding. Cloyce, whose name “was just made up to rhyme with Royce,” mar­ried Janis’s sis­ter al­most 50 years ago, and the two began hit­ting it off at the ur­ging of Royce’s moth­er, who told Janis, a teach­er, to call Royce when she went to Wash­ing­ton for work­shops on edu­ca­tion. Lam­berth con­cedes that his story is “some­what of an un­usu­al situ­ation.” The two mar­ried too late to have chil­dren. They have a cock­er span­iel named Taffy.

Lam­berth’s non-re­tire­ment re­tire­ment will also have him re­turn­ing to San Ant­o­nio for two months every year to sit as a vis­it­ing judge. He has no plans to move back to Texas — “I would be bored,” he says — but his ties to the state that no doubt helped to forge his no-apo­lo­gies swag­ger run deep. His of­fice is graced with Long­horn paraphernalia, giv­en to him over the years by his clerks. (He se­lects one clerk every year from his alma ma­ter, while the oth­ers typ­ic­ally come from oth­er top law schools.)

Al­though he is tak­ing a re­duced case­load as a seni­or judge, Lam­berth shows little sign of slow­ing down. He says he has an agree­ment with a young­er judge to tell him when it’s time to move on “be­cause I won’t ne­ces­sar­ily know when I’m too senile.”

He nev­er had as­pir­a­tions to be a judge, he says, but it’s a ca­reer that he un­ques­tion­ably looks back on with fond­ness and, already, a bit of nos­tal­gia.

“I don’t have the kind of out­side in­terests, oth­er than travel,” Lam­berth con­cludes. “I’ve been in­cred­ibly for­tu­nate in my ca­reer.”

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