City Desk

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.

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  • Poochie Mae

    It's amazing how the media loves to attact a judge for maintaining order in his courtroom. Unlike other judges, Judge Christian has complete control of his courtroom. He is fair and not pursuaded by the prosecutors or defense attorneys one way or the other. He hears both sides but because he doesn't allow the media, courtstaff or attorneys control him, he is criticized. His personal case should be sealed. He already lives under a microscope and this is only fuel for those of you seeking to kill his good name. Unlike most public officials, he is not a sell out. He stands his ground. Why can't that be respected. Talk about how encourages those that try to help themselves or doesn't take the cases personal but according to the law. Geez. Give me a break. Talk about the judges that cut deals with their buddies they use to work with or forget the law because of the circumstance. Leave him alone. Because of him, the streets of DC are safer. Like him or not. That's a fact! Leah Gurowitz, who are you working for. The press?

  • Itch E. Scratchy

    And who are you, Poochie, the judge's law clerk?

    Let's hear from the D.C. Court of Appeals, which took the unusual step of blasting Judge Christian's draconian sentencing practices.

    I'll just quote Judge Schwelb's opinion in U.S. v. Cook, 932 A.2d 506 (D.C. 2007), where Mr. Cook had the simple misfortune of his case being assigned to Judge Christian, who gave him 12 years for possession of heroin with intent to distribute, despite the fact that the sentencing guidelines (i.e. every other judge) called for only three years:

    Nevertheless, in my judgment the sentence in this case is so severe that it warrants brief comment, albeit obiter dictum, at the appellate level. Cook contends, without contradiction by the government, that the twelve-year term of imprisonment imposed by the judge for unarmed possession of heroin with intent to distribute it (PWID) was:

    1. approximately four times as long as a sentence which would probably have been imposed pursuant to the Superior Court's "Voluntary Sentencing Guidelines" (SCVSG);

    2. substantially greater than the guideline range for PWID while armed;

    3. in excess of the range for several armed and violent offenses, including,inter alia, armed robbery and possession of a firearm during a crime of violence; and

    4. approximately three times as harsh as the penalty range under the federal sentencing guidelines.

    The SCVSG were issued on June 14, 2004, ten months after Cook was sentenced, but they had been in effect for approximately sixteen months when the judge denied Cook's motion to reduce sentence. Obviously, the guidelines did not apply to Cook's case when he was sentenced, for they were not yet in existence at the time. Moreover, they are voluntary guidelines, and the judge was not obliged to follow them when he acted on Cook's Rule 35 motion or, indeed, at any time. Nevertheless, the guidelines are revealing, for they were "based on historical data
    from the Superior Court Criminal Information System Computer over the past eight years, with some adjustments for consistency and symmetry." SCVSG at 1-1. In other words, the guidelines provide a sentencing judge with information regarding the range of sentence typically imposed by his or her colleagues under comparable circumstances over a substantial period of time.

    At the time the trial judge denied Cook's motion to reduce sentence, he had access to information tending to show that the sentence he had imposed--imprisonment for 144 months, i.e., for twelve years--was roughly four times as harsh as the typical punishment for an offender who had committed a similar crime and who had a similar prior criminal record. In my opinion, the imposition of such a sentence, and the refusal to reconsider it, were not only unfair to the defendant and his family (who will be forced to look on as other inmates who have committed similar or worse crimes are released from prison, while Cook has a great many more years to serve), but they also present to the general public an image of judicial arbitrariness, inconsistency, and unfairness, to the detriment of the reputation of the court and of the judicial system. It is worth noting that Cook has already served almost four years, with eight more years to go.

    "Our duty, to paraphrase Mr. Justice Holmes in a conversation with Judge Learned Hand, is not to do justice, but to apply the law and hope that justice is done." > Bifulco v. United States, 447 U.S. 381, 402, 100 S.Ct. 2247, 65 L.Ed.2d 205 (1980) (Burger, C.J., concurring). I am not persuaded that justice has been done in this case. Having sworn to uphold the law, however, I am constrained to join my colleagues in affirming the judgment.

  • Poochie

    Itch, Time has not permitted me to reply in detail but I want you to know I will reply. You sound like a bitter reporter who hasn't been able to manipulate this judge as you have others. What do you have personally agains this judge? Research some other judges. None are perfect but Judge Christian, by far, has much more of a consistent courtroom than others. Do your homework. Pull out more than the negative. I'll be back soon.

  • Loochie

    Sounds like Poochie is Judge Christian.