Judge Gets Records Sealed on His Own Case
There are certain privileges that come with being a judge on the D.C. Superior Court. You get a parking space, a courtroom, a law clerk and a secretary, upwards of $150,000 a year, and the job security of a 15-year presidential appointment. But it's still a job for mortals. Judges have to pay for their own robes, and, unlike diplomats and juveniles, public records documenting their legal entanglements are well, still public. Except in the case of Judge Erik P. Christian.
Christian seems to think his personal business is none of your business, and he's convinced another judge to keep it that way. In July, Judge Jerry Byrd approved a motion to seal the records in a domestic relations case filed by Christian's ex-wife, Assistant U.S. Attorney Julieanne Himelstein.
According to Leah Gurowitz, a spokesperson for the Superior Court, domestic relations cases are rarely sealed. Gurowitz said reasons had to be given for sealing such records, but once the envelope is sealed, those reasons aren't public either.
Christian's efforts to keep his personal life under wraps elicit titters and groans among the attorneys who have worked in his courtroom. The judge, who was nominated by President Bush in 2001, has a reputation for taking extreme steps to maintain order. Even the most press-leery attorneys told me they wished they could tell their stories. Some of the tales have already made it into the press. There's the example of former public defender Gladys Weatherspoon, whom Christian sent to a holding cell after she told him she'd become exasperated with his rulings during a 2005 trial. A few months later, the judge locked the doors to his courtroom, leaving a reporter and a victim's advocate to wait in the hall while the jury delivered its verdict. A week before that, he had a spectator taken into custody and tested for drugs after the man started mumbling in the courtroom.
Then there's the matter of how Christian handled the trial of Percy Jordan, one of two men charged in the murder of New York Times reporter David Rosenbaum. According to Marcus Rosenbaum, David's brother, the problems started before the trial even began. Prosecutors asked Christian for permission to take a video-taped deposition of David's wife, who was suffering from colon cancer and might not live long enough to provide crucial testimony. Christian refused to allow the taping, even after she brought a note from her doctor. Christian said he needed a more detailed note and that the information would be given to the defense.
Marcus Rosenbaum says it felt like the judge wanted David's widow to get a note predicting the date of her death—something she didn't want to share with the lawyers representing the man who killed her husband. "It made the last few months of her life miserable," says Rosenbaum. "We found this to be absolutely ridiculous....There was no reason for him to do that, except maybe that he didn't want to sit in on the deposition." (Although the woman passed away before the trial began, defense attorneys agreed to allow the use of her grand jury testimony.) Rosenbaum says the judge continued to display disturbing behavior throughout the trial, noting, in particular, Christian's antagonistic relationship with prosecutor Amanda Haines.
In March 2007, following Jordan's conviction for murder, Rosenbaum wrote a letter to Christian outlining his concerns about the case. Receiving no reply, he wrote to Chief Judge Rufus King, who promised to talk with Christian about the needs of victims' families. Shortly thereafter, Christian read Rosenbaum's first letter in open court during a second trial against Jordan, for an unrelated robbery charge. Haines was the prosecutor once again and, Rosenbaum says, Christian "all but accused her of writing the letter herself or at least putting me up to it."
The case was eventually transferred to another prosecutor "for a host of reasons," according to Channing Phillips, a spokesman for the local U.S. attorney's office.
Rosenbaum went on to write a letters to King and then, a few months later, to the judicial tenure commission, filing a formal complaint. "This guy is a loose cannon," Rosenbaum says. "I think he should not be a judge. He clearly does not have the judicial temperament." The commission did not agree.
This March, Rosenbaum received a letter explaining that, following an investigation, the commission had concluded that Christian did not violate the code of conduct.
I tried on several occasions to get a comment from Christian. He did not return my calls. His ex-wife declined to comment. When I called the office of Byrd, who had approved the motion to seal Christian's case, I said I was from the City Paper and wanted to speak with Byrd about a case he had handled. His secretary chuckled and said she didn't think the judge would want to talk to me about "that case." She confirmed that "that case" was Christian's. But how, I asked, did she know?
"I just know," she said. "We know more than what you think we know."
I received a phone call from Byrd's office a few days later explaining that the judge could not comment on ongoing cases.