BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Linn Washington, author of "Black Judges on Justice," where did you get the idea for this book?
LINN WASHINGTON: Well, the idea was somewhat twofold. Andre Shiffern, the publisher at the New Press, he had the idea for a number of years. But at the time I was working with the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania Chief Justice Robert N. C. Nix. So I had been keeping a clip file on black judges because one of my myriad duties with him was speech writing. And I had known over the years, being a black history buff, that there wasn't that much information available. So anything that I could find I would clip, and I had a nice big file. So when we finally got together, that's how the two things came. I had the information; he had the idea, we were able to pull it off.
LAMB: Where do you live?
WASHINGTON: I live in Philadelphia.
LAMB: What were you doing when you started the process of writing this book?
WASHINGTON: Well, at the time -- I have been a journalist in Philadelphia going on 25 years now -- at the time I was serving as a special assistant for Chief Justice Nix. I did that for three years, and that's only time that I have been out of the newsroom. So I had been learning with the Chief Justice at the time when they got the opportunity to do the book.
LAMB: If someone buys the book, what do they get?
WASHINGTON: Well, I think they get two things -- and I'd like to say it's a window on America. One, you get tremendous stories, stories, all-American stories of people who, through their determination, through their grit, through their intellect, have overcome, many times through meager circumstances, to reach high pinnacles in our society, which judges occupy. But also you have an examination of what the underside of America, the broken promises of how there's not fair and equal justice all the time. So with that those two things are molded into the book. But, basically, it's a book of stories, and, I think, very interesting stories.
LAMB: Fourteen judges, black judges. How many black judges are in the United States?
WASHINGTON: The last figure I heard is between 1,000 and 1,200, because you get a number of appointments coming up, actually, every week, every month, but there's about 30,000 to 35,000 judges in America. So it's generally a small percentage, but the percentage of black judges is increasing. And it's been that way since the 1970s; that's when things started turning around. Prior to the 1970s, you could count them on two hands twice.
LAMB: When was the first black judge appointed on the federal basis?
WASHINGTON: 1960 was the first federal, black federal district judge. And in 1948 was the first black federal appeals court judge. The federal courts go back to the 1790s, mid-1790s is when they were first configured and put in place. So we went for over 100 years without any representation of African Americans on the federal bench.
LAMB: How did you pick these 14 judges?
WASHINGTON: Sometimes just pointing out with fingers. There were a few judges that I knew when I got the assignment that I wanted to talk to. One was Bruce Wright in New York. He had written a book called "Black Rules, White Justice," a very provocative book, so I knew that he had to be in there. There were a few others of similar character, a Judge Leon Higginbotham, I wanted to get him. There was a judge in Detroit who subsequently became a congressman, and I found him in Washington, D.C., George Crockett; I knew that I wanted to get him in there.
And then there were other judges that came up. One of the judges came from a clip file, the clip file I was keeping with the Chief Justice, Joe Brown, who's a trial court judge in Memphis, Tennessee. I read an article where they were talking about a program that he had called reverse theft, where, instead of putting a person in prison -- and there's a lot of reasons we can get into later about why they shouldn't go into prison due to the overcrowding -- but his program is that the victim can go into the perpetrator's house for a period of time and take anything they want up to a certain dollar amount. And this has been shown to have a greater impact than somebody sitting in jail for six months or eight months, Judge Brown was telling me.
LAMB: Now, go over that again. The victim can go into the perpetrator's house?
WASHINGTON: The person that victimized them, they come into trial, they're arrested, they go through the process. But instead of going in to being sentenced to jail time, they have an intensive probation. In Memphis the prisons are woefully overcrowded. So you get a situation that you go in with, say, a year's sentence, because of the severe overcrowding, you might do three or four weeks, six weeks. So to make the sentence and the punishment meaningful, you have to do something more than just throw a person in jail for three or four weeks.
So judge Brown's scheme is that the victim can go into the person who victimized them, into their house, and take whatever they want, stereo equipment, clothing. There was one instance in the book, where the victim goes into the house, sees a photograph of the criminal and his girlfriend, takes the photograph, breaks the frame, takes the photograph out, tears it up into a thousand little pieces and throws it at his feet. And the criminal starts crying because the photograph had value to him. It had value to him in here.
So that was a punishment that he wouldn't have gotten if he would have just went to prison for six weeks, played basketball, or watch some television, hang out with some of his friends. And then there's other alternative sentencing schemes that the various judges mention. And they've been doing this for a number of years, but this is a scheme ...
LAMB: Does it work?
WASHINGTON: Well, it has been working. It's proven to work. One of the problems with our criminal justice system is it's too driven by politics, and we're looking for the short answers, mandatory sentences, let's lock them up forever; that has proven to be a horrendous failure. And one of the leading judicial opponents of mandatory sentencing is Chief Justice William Renquist of the U.S. Supreme Court, a staunch conservative, no softie on crime. But he's shown with empirical evidence that it's just not working; it doesn't have a deterrent value, it's clogging up the courts, it's overcrowding the prisons. But the politicians, our elected officials, the ones who push these as easy solutions, never talk about the reality of these types of policies and how, really, they're selling the public short.
LAMB: One of the things you do in each case of the fourteen judges that you write about, you have a page that you tell some background on them. And on the page on Joseph Brown, Jr., from Memphis, you say that he wears judicial robes trimmed in African kinta cloth. How's that go over?
WASHINGTON: Well, Judge Brown fashions himself as the village chieftain, as he says. He went into being a judge to try to be a presence, to try to bring some order to somewhat chaotic communities. And I think it would be cliche to say he's Afrocentric, but he has been a part of the Black Pride, Black Power movement, at least intellectually, for a long time. And he feels that this type of costume, if you will, has a number of effects. One, it shows where he's coming from in terms of his ideology. But it has an impact on the persons who come into the courtroom, because they say, well, maybe this is not the type of place where -- maybe I can get some justice here. Interestingly enough, when defendants come into a courtroom, they just want to be treated fair. There is that very small minority that say, yeah, I'm guilty. But they're not going to say it, and they're going to hope to weasel out of it. But others will say, I'm here, I'm caught -- let me just get some fairness here in terms of my adjudication. And they're willing to accept the responsibility for what they've done.
LAMB: Take Judge Brown. How did you get the story from him?
WASHINGTON: I went to his chambers on a Saturday, and we talked for a couple of hours. And he was very talkative. One of the things I found very interesting in interviewing all fourteen judges, having dealt with judges through my duties with the Chief Justice, Robert Nix ...
LAMB: And what was his Chief Justice of?
WASHINGTON: He's Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
WASHINGTON: Yes, he still is. And he's the first African American to ever reach that position. He's the first African American Chief Justice of a state Supreme Court. There subsequently have been four. That's an interesting story, too. The first black who served on a state Supreme Court was a Pennsylvanian, a gentleman named Jonathon Jasper Wright. He served on the Supreme Court of South Carolina during the Reconstruction era. He was on there for about four or five years. This was in 1870. And then there wasn't another African American on a state Supreme Court until the 1950s in New York. So you had these ...
LAMB: Are you a lawyer?
WASHINGTON: No. I am a graduate of the Yale Journalism Fellowship Program where every year Yale Law School brings four or five journalists in and lets you play law student for a year. So I know enough about the law to get me in trouble, but not enough to get me out of trouble. But I have a master's degree in law.
LAMB: And the last judge in this group -- you have these different sections in your book and it's called the closing argument, and you actually mentioned him first, Bruce Wright. You're smiling.
WASHINGTON: He's a character. In fact, just a few weeks ago, I was in New York doing a radio interview, and he was on the program with me, and he's a very colorful gentleman. In his mid 80s, and you would think he was in his 40s in terms of his attitude, his spryness and his willingness to mix it up.
LAMB: I made a note here that police did not have a free reign in his courtroom.
WASHINGTON: No, he, still to this day, has some animosities with the police union.
LAMB: Where is he a judge?
WASHINGTON: In New York City. He retired early this year. He's on what is called their Supreme Court. In New York the trial courts, the highest level of trial courts of whatever jurisdiction, is called the Supreme Court, where their state Supreme Court is called the court of appeals. I guess in the Empire State they do things a little different. But he is really a New York City judge, and he's been fighting, really quite literally fighting, what he perceives as racism within the judiciary. He's filed complaints against judges; he's spoken out on it.
And the whole issue about police, I found that in a number of the judges, particularly the judges who are a little older -- and I have some young judges and some older judges -- but judges who went on the bench in the '60s and the early '70s, there was a process where police would just come in and would do whatever they want in the courtroom. In courtrooms there's a decorum, you have to sit in a certain place, you have to say certain things and do things in a certain manner. And police, pretty much in a lot of these towns, had free reign. They'd do whatever they want. And these guys, and, particularly, Judge Wright would say, "Wait a minute, you're in here, and you're no different from anyone else in here, including the defendant. You're not going to be treated with any less respect, but you're not going to get a carte blanche."
And that started a series of skirmishes where, it seemed like every two or three years, they were filing some sort of judicial or some sort of complaint against them with the Judicial Inquiry Board. And he says in his interview that there were times when he had been really penalized. His mail has been rifled, he's gotten death threats, he was -- although he was a senior judge, meaning that he had a lot of seniority on a bench -- he would always get the worst assignments: night court on New Year's Eve, Christmas. And the night court they sent him to was in the South Bronx. And it was traditional that any judge who did night court duty in the South Bronx, the police would drive them in and drive them out because of the caliber of the neighborhood. But he had to come in in either a cab or on the subway because he wouldn't get police escort that was traditionally and customarily extended to other jurists.
LAMB: Let me read you some of your book's words here. This is a quote from Judge Bruce Wright, "No person should be put on the bench unless they pass a test on black history and know the experiences of blacks."
WASHINGTON: A very profound statement. At first blush may seem radical, but when you look at the educational process of lawyers, there's very little information about the history of blacks in America. Just like a historian could go through a Yale or a Harvard, Princeton or Vanderbilt and get very little history outside of what is the traditional, white Western history. What he's saying that -- particularly jurists who serve in urban areas -- they have little to no acquaintance, understanding -- and I wouldn't want to go with empathy, but at least understanding -- of the people who come before them.
He says in the book that a lot of the judges perceive the mannerisms of a lot of the blacks who come before them as a sign of guilt. A lot of inner-city blacks when they walk they swagger. He says that psychologists call this compensatory arrogance; they don't have money, they don't have property, the only thing that they have to be proud and arrogant about is themselves. But a jurist sees him come in and, you know, stand a certain way and not have what they perceive as a deferential demeanor, that is a sign of guilt for them. And this sort of perception, a lot of times, overrides the evidence, or lack thereof, in terms of their decisions and their how they adjudicat cases.
LAMB: He also says, "I think the judges should have to pass psychological tests to see if racism taints their perceptions in fairness."
WASHINGTON: That's Judge Wright.
LAMB: What are the chances that will ever happen?
WASHINGTON: Slim to none. In fact, we'll just go with the none side. In a number of other countries -- and he points out in France -- judges go through a process where they're actually trained to be judges. In most jurisdictions in the United States, federal included, you go through a confirmation process or you go through a electorial process and that's it. And you could be a lawyer one day, not even a good lawyer, and the next day you're on the bench adjudicating cases, some that are very complex, some that have some very arcane legal issues. And there's no training.
Well, say with a doctor. A doctor goes through medical school; then they come out and do a residency. You take the book knowledge that you get, and you go through a process where you actually -- hands on, practical. That's not so with a judge. A good lawyer may not necessarily make a good judge. The same way with a good reporter may not make a good editor. I think that there's some merit in what he says in terms of the training. I don't know if we'll ever see either training and, particularly, psychological tests; I don't think that will ever happen.
LAMB: He says, "I'm opposed to jail. They don't work. We often forget the fact or just ignore the fact that many of those who are put in jail are falsely accused, and falsely convicted."
WASHINGTON: That is an issue that the American justice system looks the other side on, the point that he talks about, about the number of persons who are incarcerated who are innocent. Far too often the amount of money you have depends on, or is related to the type of caliber of the representation that you get. This is not a diminution or criticism of court appointed attorneys or public defenders. The reality, though, is that, particularly with public defenders, their caseloads are so high that they can't give the type of detailed attention that, say what's happening with O.J. Simpson. He's paying $15,000 a day, so he's going to get the best representation. So they can question every little bit of DNA and every speck of dirt. In L.A. over 90 percent of the cases end with a guilty plea, but the majority of those are because people can't get good representation. So, yes, there's more people in jail. The standard is that at least 10 percent of the people are. My experience as an investigative reporter is that it's a lot higher than that, and that's really something that is just never addressed.
LAMB: "Turn-'em-Loose Bruce"?
WASHINGTON: Well, because he had an aversion to just incarcerating people. There are a number of people that jail is not the best punishment for them. If we could have house arrest, if we could have intensive probation, community service, some of these things that are done routinely for while collar criminals, it would be fine. But the other one of his points is this: that there is a class base disparity in terms of the incarceration rates.
A person who steals three or four hamburgers from McDonald's -- maybe that's an extreme case. Maybe if they steal three or four hamburgers and one hundred dollars from the till at a McDonald's, they are going to a maximum security prison. A person who loots a savings and loans, two hundred fifty million dollars, either they pay a fine or they go to a minimum security prison where you have the tennis courts and the saunas and all that sort of stuff. When you look at the damage to people's lives, clearly the person who loots the savings and loan has caused more disruption, not only to the lives of individuals, but to the cost of society, because it's the FDIC, our tax dollars that make that savings and loan whole again. They should be prime candidates for the maximum security institutions, but they don't go in there; you don't find them there.
LAMB: There are a couple of threads in a lot of these different profiles that you had the interviews, and one of them was how people felt about Clarence Thomas. How many of these judges, of the 14 that you write about, are either conservative or republican?
WASHINGTON: I would say four are republicans and about that number considers themselves conservative. Then the dominant number of them are what you would consider moderate, and, I think, about four would be liberal and very proud to say it. One of the judges that I have in there is Henry Bramwell. And in our interview you had asked me earlier how did I pick a lot of these judges. I selected Judge Bramwell because he was one of the few black jurists, particularly black federal jurists, who stood up in a public way to defend Clarence Thomas.
Leon Higginbotham had written what he called an open letter to Judge Thomas where he took Judge Thomas to task for some of his previous stances, particularly as they related to Thurgood Marshall, the gentleman he replaced on the Supreme Court. Judge Bramwell was very livid and made a number of public criticisms against him. That's why I chose Judge Bramwell, just based on his defense of Clarence Thomas. And it's interesting, a lot of the people I selected for one reason for another and when I started talking with them and we got into an interview, I just found out so much more about them. And I just went to talk to Judge Bramwell about Clarence Thomas, and I come to find out this guy has an interesting life himself.
LAMB: Before I get to Judge Bramwell, let me read what Bruce Wright -- again I don't know why. Why did I hang on Bruce Wright so much? I mean, I underlined a lot more.
WASHINGTON: He's very provocative.
LAMB: Anyway, he says President George Bush says Clarence Thomas was the most qualified person to succeed Thurgood Marshall on the U.S. Supreme Court. He would be guilty of perjury if he had made the statement under oath.
WASHINGTON: Well, if you're in court and you're under oath then you're allegedly bound to tell the truth. And in the pantheon of judges who could have been selected, considering the ideological litmus test that the Reagan/Bush Administration had for their judges, they had to be conservative, they had to be republican, they had to be anti-affirmative action, anti-abortion and also pretty much pro-government when it came to either the government or the individuals. There were a number of black jurists and a number of black attorneys that were imminently qualified for that seat, a lot more qualified than Judge Thomas.
Judge Thomas had been on the court of appeals for about a year. Prior to that he had been the administrator for the Equal Opportunity Commission and had worked in government, I think, with Senator Danforth before that. Never gone into court and tried a case. And here he is, in line to go on to the Supreme Court. Now, I talked with a number of people about that, and they tend to say well, he could pick whoever he wants. He being the President. True, but if merit is merit, then we should have as many meritorious judges as we can. There are a number of people who could have done a lot better job, but Clarence Thomas wasn't particularly selected for his intellect. He was selected for his ideology. And it was, I guess from that perspective, it was a great selection, because he has voted with the most extreme right-wing section of the Supreme Court since he's been on there.
LAMB: Did you try to interview Justice Thomas?
WASHINGTON: No. I made a decision early on that, one, I knew at that particular point when I was doing the interviews, that he wasn't doing any interviews. He was very reclusive at that point. I just decided and came to the opinion that I wouldn't be able to get the interview, so I didn't want to expend the energy to try to do it. And also, quite truthfully, I had some real ideological problems with him, I mean, in terms of my own personal ideology. And to get a representation of -- my feeling is this, that there's going to be enough written on Judge Thomas. He'll be able to get his say and his due, whatever. There's a whole pantheon of other black jurists out there who won't get the time of day.
And one of the problems that I ran into when I first started doing the book, initially it was 12 interviews. And when I started checking around, I found out that there were so many exceptional, stellar jurists. A number of the jurists who actually ended up being interviewed, I had to twist their arms because the first thing they want to do is say, "You don't want to talk to me. You want to talk to this person. He wrote the book on this, or he wrote the book on evidence in California. You don't want to talk to me; I'm their student." I said, "No, no, no, I want to talk to you." "No, I'd rather you talk to this person or that person." So, it was difficult.
LAMB: Who do you spend the longest time with?
WASHINGTON: All of the interviews, initially, went about three hours, and then I called them back. So, I guess in terms of the person I spent the most time with over time has been Judge Wright, because I talked with him two times for an interview, a few other times for little nuts and bolts trying to take care of some things. I've been in a couple of lectures that he had, and we've been out socially once or twice.
LAMB: Any of their status changed since the book was written?
WASHINGTON: Yes. Judge Wright has retired. One of the other jurists, Ted McKee, who was a common police court judge in Philadelphia when I interviewed him, he's moved up to the third circuit court of appeals. He's a federal appeals court judge. I think one other person has moved up in terms of their judicial ranking, but the remainder are still jurists.
LAMB: Who will buy this book, in your opinion?
WASHINGTON: I hope everybody. I wrote it from the vantage of someone who has absolutely no understanding of the law and they can read it and get something out of it. I wrote it in the narrative form, took out the legal jargon. The legal jargon that I couldn't take out we parenthetically explained what it is so you won't have to run to Black's Law Dictionary, and, of course, every house has one. But just people who are interested in the legal system, who are interested in the judicial system, people who are interested in just American history in current culture, because that is encapsulated in it. Of course, those who are in the law, law students, jurists, lawyers, people who are in law enforcement, a lot of those have picked the book up and have read it and found some substance in it.
LAMB: The New Press, what is that? What publisher is that?
WASHINGTON: It's a New York-based publisher. Andre used to be with Random House for decades, and when they were bought out he decided that he wanted to move on. And so he founded his own firm. It's the largest, non-profit publishing house in the United States. And they specialize in publishing books that the other publishers won't touch for whatever reason, books that are of merit, enough substance, but may not have a commercial appeal.
LAMB: Where did you grow up?
WASHINGTON: I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Then almost 25 years ago I moved to Philadelphia, actually to complete my college. And when I graduated I was too poor to get a bus ticket back to Pittsburgh and ended up staying in Philadelphia and getting a job with newspapers. And I've been working in Philadelphia ever since then.
LAMB: What did your family do?
WASHINGTON: Both my mother and father were college-educated. My father was an attorney in Pittsburgh, one of the early black politicians there. My mother was pretty much a homemaker for the first twelve, fifteen years of my life, and then she went back into the work force. And she worked for the school system of Pittsburgh for a number of years. It was interesting; when she graduated from college in 1948, she had a degree in business teaching. And she couldn't get a job in the Pittsburgh school system because they didn't allow blacks to do that. You could teach English; you could teach some math; but any other subjects you couldn't teach. And so when she went back to the school system, she was a social worker because she went on and got an advanced degree.
LAMB: What did you get your undergraduate degree in?
WASHINGTON: My undergraduate degree is in communications. Strangely enough, I wanted to go into television production and do TV documentaries, so that's what my degree is in. Four hundred resumes later and no job, I said, "Well, let me think about writing." Because writing was something I always wanted to do, but I wanted to get into whatever profession it was. And it changed from week to week -- from nuclear scientist to educational administrator or this or that. But in my own plans as a teen, I would go out to the work force, make a million dollars, retire at 35 and then write novels; buy a sailboat, boat around the Caribbean. I'm a little beyond that; I'm working on my second million because I haven't reached the first one yet.
LAMB: What school did you end up graduating from?
WASHINGTON: I graduated from Temple University in Philadelphia, and then I went on to the Yale program.
LAMB: And how many brothers and sisters in the family in Pittsburgh?
WASHINGTON: I have one brother and one sister, both younger than me. My brother is three years younger than me, and my sister is four years younger than me.
LAMB: What year did you graduate, by the way, from Temple?
WASHINGTON: 1973. So I finally got out in December of '73.
LAMB: And you're doing what now?
WASHINGTON: I'm working as an editor for a weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, The Philadelphia New Observer. And we have about a 100,000 circulation within the City of Philadelphia, African American owned and orientated newspaper. And the format is positive news.
LAMB: In your book and of the 14 judges, which one told the story about growing up black that got your attention the most? I mean, there are a lot of stories about how difficult it was.
WASHINGTON: I think the one that I find the most compelling is George Crockett. George Crockett was a congressman who lives in the D.C. area right now, but he grew up in Jacksonville, Florida. He was born, I think, in 1909. And he talks about how segregated Jacksonville was and how the rent office was right next to the courthouse, but black people couldn't walk on the sidewalk in front of the courthouse. So every month when he had to pay the rent, he would have to walk across the street to go to the rent office. He also talks about his law school experience, how he wanted to go to Harvard, had been admitted to Harvard, but he didn't have the $150 tuition that it took to get into Harvard at the time. So he accepted a position at Michigan, the University of Michigan's law school.
And, not so much the difficulty, but the many currents that he went through there. He came out and became a lawyer, one of the first blacks to work for the Federal Labor Department. And then a very interesting experience happened to him. This is a gentleman -- all the judges I found, from a Joe Brown, who's more militant than most, to a Henry Bramwell, they all believe in the efficacy of the justice system and want to make it right.
And with Judge Crockett in the late '40s, we had this whole communist scare and everybody was chasing communists under rugs and trying to find them. And the government brought charges against the Communist Party leadership in New York City. One of the persons who was on trial was a black person. They couldn't get a lawyer to represent him. And a lawyer who worked for a trade union knew Judge Crockett -- at that time, lawyer Crockett -- asked him would he come represent this guy. And he recounts in his interview how he agonized over his duty as a lawyer to give representation to all who needs it with the realities of representing a communist during that time, because there were absolute downsides to it: you were blacklisted, you were ostraciz
So when he made the decision to do it, he talked about people who were his friends -- people who he had known for years would see him on the street and wouldn't talk to him. At the conclusion of the trial, the judge, who he calls the second prosecutor on the case, held all of the defense attorneys in contempt, saying that their joint defense was a conspiracy to subvert justice. The case went up to the Supreme Court; it was upheld. He spent four months in federal prison serving his contempt sentence. And it was while he was in prison that he decided that he wanted to be a judge, because he said that's where the real power is.
LAMB: Judge Crockett was in prison for four months?
WASHINGTON: For four months on a contempt conviction for being a lawyer.
LAMB: Now, we have seen a lot of him because he was a congressman. I've got to tell you, this couple of lines are something that I wanted to ask you about. He said in your book, "Tell you a little secret. Some of my reasons for running for Congress were personal." Now he ran for Congress -- when did he stop being a judge and then ran for Congress?
WASHINGTON: It would have been in the mid '70s that he stepped down from the bench.
LAMB: And he's now retired?
WASHINGTON: Yeah, well, he's now retired. He retired from Congress in 1989, I believe.
LAMB: And he still lives in Washington?
WASHINGTON: Yes, he still lives in Washington.
LAMB: This is the one. "To tell a little secret. Some of my reasons for running for Congress were personal. The woman I wanted to marry lived in Washington, and she said she would marry me, but she wouldn't move to Detroit."
WASHINGTON: Well, that just shows that there's all kinds of motivations.
LAMB: Was it that easy for him to get elected?
WASHINGTON: Well, yes. He had a tremendous stature in Detroit as a jurist, mainly because he stood up for what was right and proper, and too often people take the expedient way out. Again, in his interviews, he talks of during the Detroit riots in 1967, how he was criticized by the White House because he refused ...
LAMB: Lyndon Johnson's White House?
WASHINGTON: Lyndon Johnson's White House. Because he refused to go along with a scheme where the White House, in concert with the state and local authorities, were going to suppress the riot by arresting anybody who they can and put them in jail under high bail. Bail is not supposed to be for detainment; bail is to make sure that those who will have a likelihood of not showing up as a way of keeping them. But to use it to suppress a riot, that's illegal.
LAMB: Do you remember the Detroit riots?
LAMB: How old were you, do you remember?
WASHINGTON: It was '67. I would have been 17 at the time.
LAMB: I remember it because I remember the fact that 43 people were killed in Detroit in 1967. Do you remember what reason? What was the riot about?
WASHINGTON: The riot was over police brutality, horrendous police brutality in the city, and one incident sparked it off. You asked me earlier again about why I picked certain judges. Crockett was one of the ones who I wanted to interview from day one when I knew that I was going to get the assignment. And it was due to an incident in 1969 when I was a college student.
I just happened to be in Detroit, and I was at the convention of this organization called the Republic of the New Africa. It was a black nationalist organization. Their plan was to create a separate black nation in the United States out of the five states in the South where they had a large percentage of blacks, because it wasn't going to be done by armed revolution; it would be done by a union supervisor, plebiscite, quite traditional in a non-traditional sort of way. But, anyway, the organization was perceived, at least by the F.B.I. -- when you look at the mounds and mounds of documentation from the formerly secret F.B.I. files on it -- this was a group that they tried to suppress, even down to the point where they tried to assassinate the leadership of it.
But anyhow, young radical college student, I'm at this convention. The convention was held in a church. It was actually a church of a famous R&B singer, Aretha Franklin. It was her father's church. So we're sitting at the convention, and there's armed guards in there. And the thing that made us a little uneasy was that these armed R.N.A. guards were pointing their weapons at the people in the head. So we said, I think it's time to leave. On our way out two policemen came in and barged past us, knocked us out of the way. We go out, get in the car, and drive back to the college that we were at.
Well, what we subsequently found out 24 hours later was the policemen who went in, they got into a scuffle with the R.N.A. guards, that some shots were fired, two policemen were shot dead. The police went in there, shot up the whole place, arrested everybody that was in there, 150 people, three-quarters of them women and children and had them detained. So when we got back to the college I was at, people would say, "We thought you were arrested, thought you had been shot or killed."
Anyhow, Judge Crockett, he was the calendar judge on for that particular Sunday. And this was within a year of the Detroit riots, so there was fear that this would become a another volatile situation, and, particularly, because all these number of people that were being held. And, again, it was, the D.A. comes in, "I want a million dollars bail on everybody who was in there." "Well, what did they do?" "We don't know what they did; we think they didn't do anything but be there, but we want to keep them in jail for a couple of months until we can sort everything out." Crockett says, "No, you can't do this." And it became a big rigamarole and there was an effort to impeach him. But there was a study done by the Detroit Bar and a couple of the law schools there to take a look at it. They gave him a clean bill of health. They said that his ruling was four corners on the law.
LAMB: Which one of the judges did you feel was having the best time?
WASHINGTON: All of them. All of them.
LAMB: What about Abigail Rogers?
WASHINGTON: I don't want to seem chauvinistic here, but she was a very sweet person, genuine, really wants to help. And you're talking about a good time, she's having a great time.
LAMB: What's her story?
WASHINGTON: Well, there are a couple of stories there. One is the story that we started out with in the interview where she says on one of her first assignments after she became a judge -- she became a judge in 1991.
LAMB: Tell us where she is a judge.
WASHINGTON: Okay, she's in South Carolina. She's the first African American female state judge in South Carolina, 1991. South Carolina goes back to the colonial period.
LAMB: How old is she?
LAMB: How did she get to be a judge?
WASHINGTON: That was a great story. She grew up in Columbia, and she talked about how her parents would take her around as a child, and one of the places that they took her was the courtroom. Back in that day they had the white section and the colored section, so they had to sit up in the balcony. And from that time on, she decided that she wanted to be a lawyer, because she really admired the way the lawyers would get up and defend people. And after she got into the law, she decided that she wanted to be a judge.
Now, in South Carolina it's a different kind of a system. It's a combination of appointment and election, but it's not a popular election. The legislature elects the judges; they are the only ones that can vote on them. And she went through a process of, actually, two, two and a half years of lobbying everybody in the legislature to see her as a viable candidate as being a judge. She went before the Black Bar Association down there twice asked for their endorsement; he turned her down twice. She feels a slight combination of sexism and ageism and not being a part of the inner network.
LAMB: How did she get there then?
WASHINGTON: Well, she said that after she didn't get the endorsement of the Black Bar, that she actually just went around. She created a dossier of all the legislatures, and if they would have a barbecue dinner in Cowpoke, South Carolina, she was there talking to them, writing letters, just a tremendous lobbying effort. And she was finally elected. And she also said that part of her process of getting elected was that she said that it would probably be easier for me in terms of less threatening and less intimidating if I tried for a family court appointment, as opposed to an appointment on the court of general session. And if it was that or whatever, she succeeded, and she got on the bench.
LAMB: I interrupted you. You were telling another story about her.
WASHINGTON: Well, the other story was one of the first cases that she tried was in Greenville. And she said it was a family relations matter -- well, it was in family court. But it was a situation where a young girl -- straight A student, but from the projects -- her cousin, who's a proverbial bad egg, gives her some drugs to hold. She takes the drugs, as we tell children to do, and gives them to the principal and says, "These are bad; I don't want to have anything to do with them." The school expels her and the cousin, and then they put them both on trial. And she says, "I can't believe this. Here's a kid who's straight A, who wants to do the right thing. And we're just taking the letter of the law, ignoring the spirit of the law, and just trying to grind this kid up."
This is a kid that, even when she was on suspension or expulsion which was over a eight or nine-month period, she would go to her teacher's house at night to get the work. The school authorities found out about it and threatened to fire the teacher if the teacher kept doing that. And so it was a horrendous fight. She ordered that the kid -- she dropped the charges on her. And that was as far as she could do. But, from the bench she ordered that the school admit this girl and said that you're wrong and everything.
Well, the editorial writers in that town just went berserk saying, "How can this black woman come in here, telling us what to do," and so on and so forth. It was another three or four months before this girl could ctually get back into school. And how she got back into the school was that they were able to prove that her expulsion was done in violation of the established procedure. It had to go from the principal to the school board to the superintendent, and it didn't go through the administrative channels, and she was just thrown out. But some of the crazy things happen, and but for either good representation or the luck of the draw, a lot of people get crushed up by our, well, shall we say, fall through the safety net of our legal system.
LAMB: Tell me if I'm wrong, but of the 14 judges, every single one of them could tell stories about what they saw as racism.
WASHINGTON: Yes. Both as attorneys, prior to being attorneys, just as regular citizens, and as jurists. One of the judges, Justice Smith of Washington State, he was the first black trial court judge there and also the first black on their Supreme Court. Interesting enough, he served in the Justice Department under Bobby Kennedy, and he was the guy that took down Jimmy Hoffa.
LAMB: And was he involved in the Dave Beck trials?
WASHINGTON: Yes. He's now -- well, we can flash forward -- a number of decades from Jimmy Hoffa ...
LAMB: How old is he?
WASHINGTON: He's in his late 60s. But he told me, in fact, early on in the interview when I asked him about how he feels about his rank and that sort of thing. And he says, "Let me tell you a little story." He said, "Two years ago, a few blocks from where we're sitting right now," -- his office is in Olympia, Washington which is about 35, 40 miles south of Seattle Washington. Olympia is where the capital of Washington State is. He says, "I went into a supermarket. I bought $17 worth of food and wanted to write a check for it. I wrote the check. The clerk asked me for I.D. I gave him my drivers license. They wanted more I.D. I ended up giving him my whole wallet."
And he was saying that he felt that that was just pure discrimination in that he, who was dressed in a suit and a tie -- this is a very articulate man, very mild-mannered demeanor, doesn't have a bone in his nose, is not in there with an assault weapon -- but he said that while he was going through this, you know, here's who I am, here's where I live, here's where I went to school, here's my shoe size, he was saying that there were persons of other racial groups, white, who came in, who were dressed more shabbily than him, were writing checks for hundreds of dollars over the amount of their purchase, and there was no problem about I.D.
So, these types of stories are told throughout the book, personal experiences. One judge, a federal appeals court judge, Damon Keith, he decided to become a judge when he was a soldier during World War II. He said that he wasn't overseas; he was stationed in the South. But what grated on him more than anything else was that he was assigned to guard German prisoners, and the German prisoners were treated better than the black soldiers.
LAMB: In this country?
WASHINGTON: In this country. The German soldiers who were prisoners got to ride in the front of the buses, they would take them into restaurants; and the black soldiers couldn't go in and eat, couldn't ride in the front of the bus. And he said that that kind of stuck in his craw. And on the way back home to Detroit from Alabama, or wherever he was, he said he was sitting in the back of the bus, and he decided he wanted to go to law school at that point. And he went into Howard Law School, and he said he was taught by the legal giants: Thurgood Marshall, Spotswood Robinson, Charles Henry Houston, the real luminaries, the persons who were legal architects of what we now know as the Civil Rights Movement.
LAMB: Do you experience racism today?
LAMB: Give us an example of something that happened to you that you see all the time.
WASHINGTON: I see it in the lot of the stories that I cover, the lives of the people, employment discrimination, discrimination in education, or, shall we say, lack of opportunities in education. I do a lot of work in the criminal justice system, and right now one of the things that I'm investigating is this whole war on crack cocaine. It is actually a race war. It is just horrendous what's going on. Federal law right now penalizes crack cocaine one hundred times more severely than powder cocaine. Crack cocaine comes from powder cocaine. So, we now have a situation where ...
LAMB: What's the difference, for people that have never seen either?
WASHINGTON: Okay. Powder cocaine looks like salt; crack cocaine would be rock salt, like you put on your walkways during the wintertime. If you have one piece of rock salt, crack cocaine, possession, just possession, personal use, not trying to sell it or distribute it, federal law, five years, mandatory minimum. To get a five-year mandatory minimum for powder cocaine, you have to have over a pound. There's something grossly wrong with that. So, we have a situation now where 93 percent of all of the federal prisoners serving crack sentences are black, that's five years at least and up, where two-thirds of the crack users in America are white. There's a clear racial disparity there, racial impact.
Federal judges have pointed this out. The U.S. Sentencing Commission in February of this year pointed this out. Other justice departments studies have pointed this out. No one is touching it; no one is trying to change it around. There have been tremendous and very intricate, very brilliant legal arguments against this. The federal courts have thrown them all out. Even the Equal Protection is saying that it is not discrimination because of this sophistry, these legal words. there was no discriminatory intent on the part of Congress in passing this law. So, since nobody stood up and said, "I want to put all the niggers in jail," there's no discrimination, although it does have a very perceptible disparate impact.
LAMB: Who's Judge McKee?
WASHINGTON: Ted McKee, Philadelphia's trial court judge for a number of years, just, I think, a very genuine individual. He's an individual who works hard on the bench, 12 to13-hour days on the bench, and then does a lot of community mentoring and going around talking to people. He's one of the few judges that I know in Philadelphia who will visit a prison and talk to prisoners.
LAMB: How old?
WASHINGTON: He's in his 40s.
LAMB: Let me read you what he said and -- by the way, you say you spent three hours with most of these judges -- and the copy flows. I mean, once you introduce it, is that then edited at your discretion, or did you pass it on back to them so that they could...?
WASHINGTON: No. What I did, I took the question and answer interviews and just reorganized them into a narrative interview, such that it would have that flow. And, hopefully, if I did my job right, that it would be engaging and easy reading.
LAMB: Did they have approval of it before you printed it?
WASHINGTON: Well, my initial plans was to give them copies and let them read over it, but that just didn't work out in the production scheme. But I've heard from just about all of them. And only one of them said, "You had quoted me saying poor, but I didn't say poor. I wanted to say low-income." So, no one had any problems with it.
LAMB: You taped all those?
WASHINGTON: Yeah, all of them were taped.
LAMB: By the way, did you tape some that didn't get in the book?
WASHINGTON: No, all of the initial twelve. And then they wanted to do two more, and I went back. And that's when I was able to get Judge Higginbotham and also Judge Reggie Walton. When we looked over the book, we wanted to get some more conservatives in there.
LAMB: Reggie Walton used to be ...
WASHINGTON: He used to be the assistant drug czar for the Bush Administration. And he's a superior court judge here in Washington D.C., a city court judge.
LAMB: And this is what I wanted to read you from Judge McKee, Philadelphia. He says, "If I'm walking down a street in Center City, Philadelphia, at 2:00 in the morning, and I hear some footsteps behind me, and I turn around, and there's a couple of white dudes behind me, I'm probably not going to get very uptight. I'm probably not going to have the same reaction if I turn around and there is a proverbial black urban youth behind me." What did you think of that?
WASHINGTON: I could relate to it, because I ride the subways in Philadelphia late at night. There's been such a demonization of the urban black youth. And there's such a fear in the city. A lot of it is fanned, but there is some legitimate fear. And I could understand exactly what he's saying. He also goes on to say that if he has that type of a fear -- and he's a gentleman who has studied martial arts for twenty years, and I don't know if he could break a stack of bricks, but clearly he can defend himself on the street -- another jurist who doesn't have that type of training could be petrified. And these sorts of subtle perceptions which sometimes flow over into prejudices work themselves out on the bench.
LAMB: All right, who's Judge Veronica McBeth?
WASHINGTON: Municipal court judge in Los Angeles, California.
LAMB: You picked out a quote right under her name. You've got a quote for each one of these judges right under their names. "Everybody believes rich people get better treatment." And I ask you that, of course, in light of what's going on in Los Angeles right now.
WASHINGTON: Well, Mr. O.J. Simpson, I mean, everybody contends there's so much race impact on the case, and it is. But there's also a class issue there, and we really don't like to look at the class issue in America for some reason. O.J., I'm glad he's got it; I wish all the other prisoners did, but he gets access to this and that and these different things.
LAMB: What kind of a person is she? How old is she?
WASHINGTON: She's late 30s, early 40s.
LAMB: There is a quote -- and we don't have much time -- and I want to read it. It was the first time anybody in the country ever sentenced a slumlord to live in his own building.
WASHINGTON: Justice. And she said this mother with justice; this isn't law book justice.
LAMB: She did that?
WASHINGTON: Yes. There was an instance where a guy who lived in Beverly Hills, lived in a mansion, had some slum properties in South Central, refused for years to fix them up. The only thing that she felt that she could do to get this guy's attention was, not to sentence him to go to San Quentin, but to sentence him to live with the rats and roaches and vermin in the properties that he had. She said it wasn't a matter of money. The money that he got out of the properties, if he put some of it back in, it could have improved the living conditions. He just decided that he wasn't going to do it. She did that. And based on that particular ruling, a number of jurisdictions around the country changed their laws to put that in as a punishment for slumlords.
LAMB: Anybody refuse to talk to you?
WASHINGTON: No, everybody except for Judge Higginbotham. He was kind of busy when I went to talk to him. He was first guy I wanted to interview.
LAMB: He was first in your book.
WASHINGTON: Well, I was able to get him. He was the first person I went to for an interview. I couldn't get him. He was very helpful in terms of me getting interviews with other judges and bouncing ideas off of him. Then, at the tail end of the book, he was the last interview that I actually completed. But, given his stature, the things that he says, how he ties everything together in terms of the law, what it is to be a judge, and what judging means, I chose to open the book with that as the opening argument. I tried to make it, stylistically present it as you would do in court, opening argument, closing argument.
LAMB: Did you have a favorite, or did you have a favorite story that we haven't talked about?
WASHINGTON: No, I was just impressed with all of them. And, again, I went to talk to Judge Smith, the guy in Washington, because he was the first black to sit on the American Bar Association's Judicial Review Committee, the committee that reviews all federal judges for their competency. And I wanted to get that flavor. And when I started talking to him, I started hearing all these other things. And I had to sit there poker-faced because I'm supposed to know. And he starts talking about Jimmy Hoffa, and this and that. I didn't know anything of this.
LAMB: He's got a relationship to Bill Gray?
WASHINGTON: Yeah, he's the foster brother.
LAMB: "My foster father, Reverend Gray, the father of former congressman William H. Gray III, decided that I could go to medical school."
WASHINGTON: That knocked me off my seat, but I had to sit there poker-faced -- like, "Oh, yeah, I knew that." But he was saying former Congressman Gray's father was the president of Florida A&M University. And Judge Smith grew up in Florida, large family. So the senior Gray just took him under his wing and moved him back to Philadelphia with him, said, "You're going to be something. I want you to make something of your life." Back then, too, in terms of professions, they were very limited for African Americans. You could go in medicine or dentistry; you could go into law; you could go into teaching. So it was either -- medical school was the best, but Judge Smith said that he couldn't stand blood, so it had to be law.
LAMB: Linn Washington of Philadelphia, author of "Black Judges on Justice," we thank you for joining us.
WASHINGTON: Thank you very much.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1995. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.