Lamberth is also known as a genial giant of a public servant, a trusted adviser, and a friend to an extensive network of lawyers, judges and clerks from all corners of the city’s legal community. He plays poker with conservatives on the Supreme Court, including Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., and he counts the District’s longtime federal public defender, A.J. Kramer, as a close friend.
And since his appointment to the bench by President Ronald Reagan in 1987, Lamberth has had a hand in a long list of cases of national significance. He oversaw the controversial Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and he has ruled on the treatment of Guantanamo Bay detainees and the funding of human embryonic stem cell research.
Lamberth, who turned 70 on Tuesday, was required to resign because of his age. After five years as chief, he passed the gavel to U.S. District Judge Richard W. Roberts, who told Lamberth that he had “left some Texas-sized shoes to fill.”
His “low tolerance for incompetence,” as his administrative assistant Sheldon Snook put it, comes in part from the importance he places on the role of government service.
Lamberth, the valedictorian at his San Antonio high school, came to Washington during college, where he worked summer nights as a Howard Johnson’s waiter and spent his days dropping in on congressional hearings. He served in Vietnam in the Judge Advocate General’s corps and led the civil division of the District’s U.S. attorney’s office for nine years.
On the bench, he quickly developed a reputation for sending strong messages.
In the 1990s, he jailed two city prison officials after finding that they had retaliated against a female guard who had complained about sexual harassment. The officials had acted “arrogantly” and “bullheadedly,” he said.
In the waning days of President Bill Clinton’s administration, Lamberth faulted the Environmental Protection Agency, then headed by Carol Browner, for “egregious” inattention when it disregarded his order to retain records on new environmental rules.
U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson made light of Lamberth’s use of his contempt powers when she belted out a parody of the tune “My Way” at his celebration.
In recent days, as his transition approached, Lamberth has made a point to defend the FISA court, which has been criticized because it rarely rejects the government’s private requests for electronic surveillance.
“These are the kinds of things we should be doing to protect our country,” he said. “We have to rely on electronic surveillance to find out what the enemy is up to.