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Veteran judge cracks Tiger joke at portrait presentation

The District’s federal court was packed Tuesday for the rather quirky judicial tradition of a judge unveiling and presenting his own portrait to his fellow jurists.

Those in attendance, including Attorney General Eric Holder, were honoring James Robertson, 71, who has served on District’s federal court for 15 years. The ceremony is part career wake and part roast -- an event that allows judges to honor a colleague with praise and a few "zingers," as U.S. District Judge Ellen S. Huvelle would say later.

Still, it was somewhat surprising when Robertson got the biggest laugh -- with a Tiger Woods joke, at that.

The scene: the ceremonial courtroom was jammed with judges, lawyers, clerks and Robertson’s family members Tuesday afternoon. They were here to see the unveiling of a portrait that Robertson commissioned of himself. Most judges, after they take senior status, have such a portrait made. The paintings are financed by donations.

In this case, Robertson’s portrait was financed by former law clerks, his former law partners and the court’s historical society. The portrait will be hung on the wall of the ceremonial courtroom next to those honoring a bunch of other judges.

Eleven of the court’s judges, including Robertson, walked into the room wearing their black robes and took a seat on the courtroom’s long bench.

Chief U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth kicked off the ceremony, extolling Robertson’s work ethic and intelligence. “His reputation for fairness and integrity is well known and well deserved,” Lamberth said.

He also praised Robertson for helping to bring a long-running legal dispute between Native Americans and the U.S. government to an end. A settlement in the case had been announced earlier that day.

Robertson (U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia).

Huvelle spoke next, telling the crowd that Robertson was one of the most collegial and helpful jurists in the courthouse. She also said he fit the part he played: the lanky Robertson, who has a head of thick white hair and dignified looks, seems straight from central casting, she said.

Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr. then praised Robertson’s work on lawsuits involving detainees at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Judge Paul L. Friedman noted Robertson’s service on the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and how Robertson quit his post in protest over the Bush Administration’s warrantless wire-tapping program.

Judge David S. Tatel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit spoke at length about Robertson’s dedication to civil rights law.

A former law clerk, Eric Citron, touched on Robertson’s sense of humor. During a sentencing of a defendant on Halloween, Robertson took the bench wearing an English judge’s wig, Citron said. Or how Robertson once turned to a clerk who had given him D.C. tap water to drink: “What are you trying to do, poison me?” Robertson asked the clerk.

For much of the ceremony, Robertson’s face was blushing bright red.

Then it was his turn to deliver what the official ceremony calls “the response.”

He described how fast the 15 years flew by and the debt he owed his colleagues. He said he was having his portrait commissioned “before aesthetic issues cannot be overlooked.” The joke got a few chuckles.

He then gave a nod to his children and grandchildren before singling out the dedication of his wife, Berit, who was born and raised in Sweden. The couple have been happily married for 50 years, he said.

The judge then looked across the crowd and paused before delivering his summation.

“I could have told Tiger,” Robertson said, “that you don’t mess around when your wife is Swedish.”

If such ceremonies can have a Perry Mason moment, that was it. The crowd erupted in applause and laughter. Two of his grandchildren then unveiled the portrait by artist Annette Polan.

-- Del Quentin Wilber

By Del Wilber  |  December 9, 2009; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Del Quentin Wilber , From the Courthouse  
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