D.C. Judge Steffen W. Graae Dies at 64

Superior Court Judge Steffen Graae, right, tapped David Gilmore, center, to remake the troubled D.C. housing agency.
Superior Court Judge Steffen Graae, right, tapped David Gilmore, center, to remake the troubled D.C. housing agency. (2000 Photo By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 18, 2005

Steffen W. Graae, 64, a senior D.C. Superior Court judge who ordered the District's public housing agency into receivership in the 1990s, died of heart disease Sept. 16 at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

Judge Graae, who took senior status just over a year ago, threw up his hands in despair in 1994 over years of neglect of the city's public housing, and in a blistering ruling, he ordered the city to surrender control. He found and appointed David Gilmore as the turnaround specialist and then met with him weekly to see that the job stayed on track.

Six years later, when Gilmore was ready to turn the healed agency back to the city, Judge Graae publicly wept for joy.

"He was a giant of our bench, with a very quick mind and an omnivorous intelligence," said Chief Judge Rufus G. King. "That was the single most successful receivership the city has ever had. It was an accomplishment that most of our judges have been unable to match. This was a home run."

A man of sure opinions, Judge Graae once ordered Edwin Meese III, then U.S. attorney general, to appear at a hearing to determine whether he should be held in contempt of court for ignoring a court order regarding prisoners sentenced to work-release programs who were being shipped to distant federal prisons.

"You don't do that lightly, and you think about that carefully," King noted. "But for Steffen, there was no question. The issue was what was the right thing to do under the law. That's what he was going to do."

Born in Copenhagen to a Danish father and American mother, he came to the United States in 1951 with his family. He graduated from Yale University, then received a master's degree in politics, philosophy and economics from Oxford University in 1964. He worked in a variety of jobs, from camp-tender in the high Sierras to air traffic forecaster for the Federal Aviation Administration to a post on the Africa desk of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

He and his wife, Cynthia Norris Graae, bought a townhouse on Capitol Hill that he renovated himself, taking down walls, building a chimney, putting in a kitchen and crafting a stairway newel post. He was a gourmet cook who smoked his own fish, created his own paella and was known for his bouillabaisse.

It was when he was working for the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence that he decided to become a lawyer. He graduated from Georgetown University Law Center in 1973, served as a clerk to then-D.C. Superior Court Judge John G. Penn and entered private practice in 1974. President Ronald Reagan appointed him to a 15-year term on the Superior Court in 1982.

"What made him to me so exceptional was how hard he worked and how much he cared about people who appeared before him," said Senior Superior Court Judge Richard Levie. "Tenants in public housing probably never heard of Steffen Graae, but they surely benefited from him."

Superior Court Judge Joan Zeldon, who succeeded Judge Graae as the head of the court's civil division, said that in addition to the takeover of the housing authority, he also reformed the landlord-tenant court.

His dry wit amused friends and colleagues. King recalled a workshop years ago that was intended to sensitize judges to the difficulties of those with disabilities. It's as if you were suddenly required to understand Danish, the seminar leader said. From the back of the room came a burst of Danish from the Copenhagen native.

"He was one of the least-reversed judges," said a longtime friend, U.S. District Judge Ricardo M. Urbina. "He wrote brilliantly, he decided brilliantly, and it was generally thought he was the brightest judge on the court." He did not tolerate ill-prepared lawyers and was known for bluntly calling their bluff, Urbina added.

He was an avid reader and a lover of classical music. He was on the board of the Capitol Hill Chorale and the Frederick B. Abramson Foundation.

Survivors include his wife of 39 years, of Washington and Cambridge, Md.; a daughter, Jessica Winkel Graae of Newark, Del.; his mother, Madge Wells of Katonah, N.Y.; and two brothers, Flemming Graae of South Salem, N.Y., and Christoffer Graae of Washington.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company