The Final Verdict

A Firm Grip on the Gavel

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By Timothy Dwyer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 17, 2006

The door from her chambers opened, and U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema made a beeline for her leather chair, perched high above Courtroom 700. It was 9:27 a.m. Tuesday. She was seated at the bench three minutes early for a hearing on the conduct of government lawyer Carla J. Martin.

Right off the bat, Brinkema made it clear to the defense and prosecution how things were going to proceed. "I think it is up to the court to question Miss Martin," she said softly but firmly. "If you want to start, you may. I'll let you start. I'll see if you cover what I want to cover. If not, I won't be shy about stepping in."

"I'm sure of that," responded defense attorney Edward B. MacMahon Jr.

Lawyers who have practiced in her courtroom were not surprised by her ruling Tuesday that, because of Martin's "egregious errors," she was barring key prosecution witnesses from testifying in the death penalty trial of Sept. 11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, a decision experts say will severely damage the government's case.

"She is a no-nonsense judge, and she doesn't abide by nonsense from the defense or the prosecutor," said Jonathan Shapiro, a Northern Virginia defense lawyer. "Being a former assistant U.S. attorney, she holds the government attorneys to a very high standard, which is as it should be. She is evidently very disturbed by the developments in this case, which is as it should be as well."

Brinkema's displeasure with Martin, who violated her court order by improperly sharing testimony with upcoming witnesses, was evident when the Transportation Security Administration attorney attempted to speak after taking the witness stand Tuesday.

"May I address the court?" Martin asked Brinkema.

"No!" Brinkema said. "You are a witness in this courtroom. You are here to answer questions."

Brinkema, 61, known to her friends as Dee Dee, was the first female judge named to the U.S. District Court in Alexandria. She was appointed by President Bill Clinton and has tightly controlled her courtroom from her first day on the bench. Friends say she has a wonderful sense of humor and is a superb soprano. She sings in a choir and has been known to break out in a line or two of song in her chambers.

Her commanding presence on the bench belies her diminutive appearance. She is maybe 5-foot-2. With eyeglasses perched halfway down her nose, and her long hair, graying around the temples, always, always pulled back in a tight bun, she looks like a schoolteacher or, more precisely, an old-fashioned librarian, which isn't too far-fetched given that she has a master's degree in library service from Rutgers University.

"She looks like a librarian, like this little lady," said Senior U.S. District Judge Albert V. Bryan, who said he agreed to talk to a reporter for the first time in his professional life because of his admiration for Brinkema. "But after a day or two, she always had the jury eating out her hand. She is sharp as a tack. She always came across as very honest and candid with the jury, and she was both."

Brinkema has paid close attention to the jury during the Moussaoui trial. She told jurors on the first day that she wanted them to choose seats in the jury box that would allow her to look into their eyes. "I like to be able to make eye contact with the members of the jury during the trial," she said.

A day or two into the trial, Brinkema got an odd request from the jurors: Could she arrange for them to use HOV lanes so they could get through gridlock quicker and to court on time? "I don't have control over the highways," Brinkema said, laughing. "The state of Virginia does." She promised to make inquiries and suggested that some of the jurors carpool so they could use the HOV lanes.

Brinkema, who is married with two children, has frequently scanned the faces of jurors while listening to witnesses, watching for boredom, sleepy eyes or confusion. Bailiffs ensure spectators adhere to decorum, keeping them in line by quickly shushing them when they talk or dressing down gum chewers. The underside of the seats in her courtroom are lined with hardened gum.

That is the way she has run her courtroom since day one, said Elizabeth Rader, who served as Brinkema's clerk during her first year on the bench and is now a lawyer in Silicon Valley.

"She had this bailiff watching people, and if someone was talking or making noise, she would get the bailiff to give him a dirty look," Rader said. "And if that didn't work, he'd chuck him. Because she was the first woman judge in that district, I think that she felt like she had to try extra hard because she didn't want to have anyone say, 'Oh, that's the girl's courtroom.' Those aren't her words; they're mine. But that's the feeling I got."

Jeremy Bash, who clerked for Brinkema from 1988 to 1999, said her humor would defuse tense moments in the courtroom. "She once told a litigant who was complaining about one of her rulings that he could invoke Rule 95 if he was so unhappy. The lawyer looked puzzled and asked her what Rule 95 was. She said, 'You can get in your car and drive down Interstate 95 to Richmond and appeal my decision to the Court of Appeals there.' "

And, Bash said, she is devoted to her clerks. She holds a reunion every year, attending in bluejeans and a sweat shirt and fussing over her former clerks and their children.

Lawyers who enter her courtroom do not see her as a sweet-voiced librarian. She has a reputation for zeroing in on any weakness in an argument and then chopping it up like a Japanese steakhouse chef.

"She gets right to the heart of an issue as she sees it," Shapiro said. "She doesn't like a lot of dancing around. I have often heard her say when I make an objection: 'Mr. Shapiro, you don't have to go there. That is not the issue here. Here is what the issue is.' "

Attorney John K. Zwerling, who represented one of the "Virginia jihad network" defendants in a case Brinkema presided over, praised the judge for seeing the humanity in the people who appear before her instead of just an endless flow of defendants.

"She has her faults, too," Zwerling said. "One of them is that if she is in a hurry, she can be curt and give you short shrift. If she wasn't in a hurry, she would give you a more thorough hearing. Once she has staked out a position, it is almost impossible to move her, and that's not a great quality. But she tries to be fair and correct in the position she stakes out initially, and so it is only on occasion that that becomes a problem."

Even some of her closest friends have never seen her with her hair down. Brinkema brings a sense of old Southern charm to her courtroom, said Johanna Fitzpatrick, chief judge of the Virginia Court of Appeals.

"There is a Virginia tradition of being gentlemanly," Fitzpatrick said. "Well, she is a lady, and she is very dignified, and that is how she runs her courtroom, in the same way of that Virginia tradition of being gentlemanly. That is very true to her personality and very true to herself. That is what she projects in public and private."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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