When Virginia tried to ban New York City from sending garbage to the state on barges, U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer had strong words for the Virginia attorney general.
The state's position was a "crystal clear" violation of the U.S. Constitution, said Spencer, who added that Virginia's attempt to make New York an involuntary plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by waste haulers had "no basis in law."
JUDGE JAMES R. SPENCER
"In the back of my mind," Spencer said during a 1999 hearing, "there's an echo saying, 'Are there still some lawyers present over in the attorney general's office?' " The comment by the judge, appointed to the bench by Republican President Ronald Reagan, drew a sharp rebuke from then-Attorney General Mark L. Earley (R).
It was characteristic of Spencer, who lawyers of all stripes say puts the law ahead of politics and dispenses justice in an evenhanded, occasionally blunt manner.
Last week, Spencer marked another milestone in a career full of firsts. He became the first African American chief judge in the 215-year history of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. Based in Richmond, Spencer will oversee judges at courthouses in Alexandria, Richmond, Norfolk and Newport News.
Spencer, 55, achieved the seven-year post purely on the basis of seniority. It marked a fitting capstone to a judicial legacy that saw Spencer become Virginia's first black federal judge in 1986. That appointment made Spencer a historic figure: Virginia had been the only Southern state without an African American serving on the federal bench.
Through a court spokesman, Spencer declined to comment on his new appointment. In an interview with The Washington Post in 1986, after being named a federal judge, he said he recognized the significance of his selection to black lawyers "who are laboring in the vineyards." He added, "I look forward to the day, in fact, when it is of no importance" that a black person has been nominated to a federal judgeship.
In his nearly two decades on the bench, Spencer has overseen a variety of criminal and civil cases in a federal courthouse in Richmond that has seen a major rise in violent drug and gun prosecutions.
He is now handling a politically sensitive lawsuit filed by more than 30 former and current General Assembly Democrats in a long-running scandal over political eavesdropping by senior officials in the Virginia Republican Party. In a recent decision, Spencer rebuffed a request from the state Republican Party, which had asked the court to limit the damages the party would have to pay.
Spencer also handled criminal cases resulting from the scandal. In 2003, while sentencing Edmund A. Matricardi III, former Republican Party executive director, for his role in the eavesdropping, Spencer seemed to summarize a key element of his judicial philosophy.
The judge said young people in college who are getting involved in politics "need to know the minute you put party over principle, you step over the line."
"There is wrong and right, and what Mr. Matricardi did was wrong. It's that simple," Spencer said as he sentenced Matricardi to three years of probation and 180 hours of community service. He also jumped on a defense lawyer who tried to explain Matricardi's actions, saying: "If you get up here and start excusing what he did, you're going to tick me off. Please don't do that."
U.S. Attorney Paul J. McNulty said Spencer is highly regarded among prosecutors "for his thoughtful and even-tempered manner. Certainly, the government has seen him as someone who understands the importance of our responsibilities and who enforces the law, but he's a very fair judge for everyone."
One might expect a prosecutor to react favorably. Spencer is himself a former prosecutor. But Spencer also gets raves from defense lawyers.