Would you want to try a case to a jury before this federal trial judge?

The Washington Post has a detailed but generally flattering article on Senior U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer. The judge is presiding over the corruption trial of former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell and his wife, Maureen.

The piece in the post is entitled, McDonnell judge presides with humor and impatience. I urge you to read the article. Afterwards, let me know whether you would want to try a case to jury before Judge Spencer. I am interested in knowing whether trial judges who preside with an edge or a flair in jury cases scare trial lawyers.


13 responses

  1. The description reminds me of trying a case before Louis Stanton in SDNY. As long as the same sensiblities apply to both sides, this makes for a good trial for the most part, provided there is just enough latitude to get out what needs to be reached. Not perfect, but better than endless, soul-crushing, pointless droning that serves no purpose.

  2. He is an example of why experienced trial lawyers often make poor judges. After years of questioning witnesses, talking to juries, advocating for clients some ex trial lawyers cannot stop interjecting into the trial. If you want to be part of the trial and impress the spectators and jurors with your wit, decline the nomination and remain a trial lawyer.

    Jurors pick up on the judge’s comments and they can unfairly influence a case. We all have a role, if you don’t like your role, change jobs.

  3. Wouldn’t bother me a bit. Far better than a crabby trial judge. Wrong (on objections and the law) is the worst by far. But theatrical – doesn’t bother me. Keep the jury awake, so they can hear me.

  4. Yes, no problem with this judge.

    And, Vince, forgive me, but where do you get the idea that this fellow is an example of a “poor judge”? This trial lawyer prefers a judge who maintains control of the courtroom and takes on over-zealous lawyers who believe THEY should have control. But, that is a subject for another day. . . . . .

  5. Keeping the trial moving is one thing; feeling that sharing your personality with the jury is part of the trial too is another. It would seem that expressing sympathy to the jury for having to set through a trial and listen to testimony can be (perhaps is) interpreted as “the defendant is guilty and is wasting your time.”

    No; I would not wish to try a case in front of this judge.

  6. TO be clear, I am not dissing this Judge. The only litigation of which I have fond memories all occurred during my clerkship to a U.S. District Court Judge. All subsequent litigation was, well, not fun, even though rewarding.

  7. I would not want to try a case in front of this judge. I’ve had my fill of judges who think their role is to entertain the jury and tell the lawyers how to try their cases. What they wind up doing, sometimes not very subtly, is to tell the jury their own views of the facts of the case.

  8. I would certainly enjoy trying a case before Judge Spencer. I second chaired a case before a similarly witty, and non-time wasting judge in 1998–Leonard Wexler of the EDNY. In a government contracts jury case involving Brookhaven National Labs the parties each filed over 9 lengthy motions in limine. On the first day of trial, the Judge brought out a box and told the jury that the box was full of motions the lawyers filed in the 20 days leading up to trial. He would wait until somebody objected to something at trial that was mention in one of the motions before he ruled on them. This set the tone for the no nonsense trial. Nobody did make an objection related to the motions (as I believe he suspected would happen). Loved that judge. Though the senior partner who was first chair was in fact intimidated initially.

  9. Judge:
    I would agree to try a case in front of Judge Spencer, irrespective of his courtroom “edge” or “flair.” I say this because a trial lawyer who believes passionately in his client’s case also has to believe that such at thing will overcome any obstacle in his way, including a Judge’s courtroom demeanor.

  10. Judges like this are the worst. Judge McCarthy down in west palm beach is of the same ilk. They may not mean to, but their “wit” frustrates the quest for truth. If our system was meant to have a trial judge take on the role of deciding on his own, without prompt by opposing counsel, that certain questions or time spent were improper, our system would no longer be adversarial. The judge, as opposed to the lawyers and juror, would decide how to present and listen to a case — or bare the crucible of public humiliation if a lawyer dare challenge what the judge thinks is interesting or worse, funny.

  11. I wish more judges would intervene in repetitive or unnecessary evidence. But the quotes suggest this judge engages in commentary on the evidence. Yes, that is scary for trial lawyers.

  12. JFK,

    I used to have a “sticky note” stuck to the bench that, in my shaky and scrawled handwriting, said, “Rich, shut up.” Setting aside the fact that it should have read, “Rich STFU,” I violated the rule more times than I followed it. The “sticky” note finally unstuck and fell to the floor. I never put it back. But the caution still rings in my ears every time I try a jury case.

    All the best.


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