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.”