Over 25 years as a federal judge, Royce Lamberth has touched some of the biggest and most contentious issues in the country. He led the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court after the Sept. 11 attacks, reviewed petitions from detainees at the Guantanamo prison, and gave a boost to Native Americans suing the federal government.
Later this month, Lamberth is preparing to step aside from day-to-day management as chief judge of the important federal district court in Washington, D.C. Before he turns off the lights, Lamberth opened up this week about the highlights of his career — and one of the secrets to surviving in the nation's capital.
The judge, still wearing his black robe, used a break from a big MS-13 gang trial this week to chat with NPR. His 12-year-old cocker spaniel, Taffy, shook her dog tags and brushed his ankles when she saw her master approach.
"Harry Truman said, 'If you need a friend in Washington, get a dog,' so I took it to heart," Lamberth said.
Lamberth, a Republican nominated by President Ronald Reagan, needed that guidance for occasions when he's infuriated both Republican and Democratic administrations.
He threw the Obama White House into uproar almost three years ago when he blocked its move to expand stem cell research. And Lamberth often found himself at the center of controversies during the tenure of President Bill Clinton. The judge fined a White House aide several hundred thousand dollars for making misleading statements about the composition of then-first lady Hillary Clinton's health care task force. And in 2000, he ruled that President Clinton himself violated the Privacy Act by releasing personal letters to allegedly undermine the credibility of Kathleen Willey, who accused the then-president of making unwanted sexual advances.
More recently, Lamberth upset the media by approving a search warrant for the email and phone records of a Fox News reporter in a leak case.
The judge, who wears cowboy boots to stuffy legal events, doesn't really have a problem with that.
"Anybody from Texas would be proud to be called a maverick," he said with a laugh.
Lamberth, who led the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court from 1995 to 2002, has no regrets when he talks about that court's business. The court is in the news again for blessing nearly every Justice Department surveillance request, even for dragnet email and phone monitoring of American citizens.
Just about the only criticism Lamberth has is that the intelligence community and the Justice Department are not doing enough to defend the judges on the secret court.
"What I found that bothered me is the notion that the court was a rubber stamp because we're approving so much," the judge said. "We're approving it because it should be approved, because it's valid, because what the government's doing here is the kinds of things we should be doing."
Lamberth says he can't forget his experience running that court in the fall of 2001.
"And in the days following 9/11, I went to some of the most bloodcurdling meetings and briefings in my lifetime, to hear some of the things that were being told might be the next follow-up," he recalled.
Lamberth said another attack in some form or other is inevitable. So, he said, the U.S. can't stand down when it comes to security.
Outside the national security realm, the judge's most famous case is one that lasted for more than a dozen years. Lamberth repeatedly blasted the Interior Department for mismanaging trust funds that belonged to Native Americans before the appeals court yanked him from the case for calling the department a "dinosaur" and allegedly waiving his impartiality.
"It was clear to me that the Indians had been wronged by the government, and it was clear to me that the ultimate outcome where the government had to agree to pay $3.4 billion to the Indians showed that I was on the right track and on the right path all along," he said.
In a fitting coda, one of the judge's former law clerks, then-Justice Department official Tom Perrelli, helped engineer the multibillion-dollar settlement.
As for the smackdown from the appeals court, Lamberth said one of his most important legacies as chief judge is fostering more collegiality in the courthouse — especially in the tone of written opinions that sometimes take aim at him and other judges on the lower court.
"There is a way to write it in which you don't call the district judge a complete nincompoop and take digs that are unnecessary, and I think the circuit has done a remarkable job of really toning down that kind of comment," he said.
Lamberth will turn over his gavel later this month in a brief ceremony July 16, the same day he turns 70 years old.
He's not saying goodbye to the business of judging, though. He has plans to sit as a visiting judge in his hometown, San Antonio, early next year.
"I've had the opportunity to work on everything under the sun — terrorist cases, spy cases — you know, just a great variety of really interesting things to do," he said. "And I'm still doing them."
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