By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 17, 2007
In the world of law and justice, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in Alexandria occupies a prominent place.
Terror suspects are tried there, as are people accused of spying, being gang members and defrauding the Pentagon. Major corporate fraud cases are brought there, whizzing through what is known nationally as the "rocket docket." Prosecutors from the courthouse often go on to top jobs at the Justice Department in Washington.
"It really is a very special court," said lawyer Anthony J. Trenga, of Alexandria, who has practiced there for years.
Trenga is one of several lawyers seeking a plumb job: a judgeship at the federal courthouse, which is at the edge of Old Town. An opening was created when U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III took "senior status" -- a sort of semi-retirement -- last month. The vacancy prompted an intense competition among bar associations and other legal groups to lobby Virginia's two U.S. senators on behalf of their favorite candidates.
Earlier this month, Sens. John W. Warner (R) and James Webb (D) sent a list of seven finalists to the White House for President Bush's consideration as replacements for Ellis. The candidates are Trenga, Arlington Circuit Court Judge Joanne F. Alper, of Arlington, U.S. Civilian Board of Contract Appeals Judge Jeri K. Somers of Arlington; Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Jonathan C. Thacher of Fairfax Station and three candidates from elsewhere in the state.
Although the timetable is unclear, it is considered virtually certain that Bush will select someone from the list. Presidents traditionally follow the lead of the senators from the state in which there are vacancies. Bush also will choose a candidate for a federal judgeship in Richmond, created when Judge Robert E. Payne took senior status on May 7. Both nominees require Senate confirmation.
There also is a second opening at the Alexandria federal courthouse: U.S. District Judge Claude M. Hilton took senior status in December 2005. Bush has nominated U.S. Magistrate Judge Liam O'Grady of Alexandria to succeed Hilton. The Senate Judiciary Committee had its first hearing on O'Grady's candidacy this month.
Magistrate judges hear misdemeanor cases and some felony matters, and are considered junior to U.S. district judges, who handle all types of cases. Senior judges receive full pay and hear cases, but they can take a reduced workload and are not considered active-service members of the court. It is unclear how many cases Ellis will hear.
Ellis, 67, is respected for his thorough legal opinions and feared by some for his occasionally irascible demeanor. He has been known to keep lawyers waiting up to 45 minutes before starting hearings, then giving those same lawyers a tongue-lashing if he thinks they are unprepared.
"He has certainly made his presence known," said William B. Cummings, a former U.S. attorney and longtime Alexandria lawyer. "He has set a high standard for research and preparation. He will be remembered for that -- and for ordering lawyers at the last minute to go back and rebrief an issue at nine at night.''
A nominee of President Ronald Reagan in 1987, Ellis has handled numerous high-profile cases, including those of John Walker Lindh, the Californian who fought for Afghanistan's Taliban, and the ongoing prosecution of two former lobbyists for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. "He seems to relish having the big cases," Cummings said.
There has been no shortage of high-status cases at the Alexandria courthouse, which handles federal cases from throughout Northern Virginia. Some of the nation's biggest espionage cases have been brought there, including those of convicted spies Robert P. Hanssen, a former FBI agent, and Aldrich H. Ames, a former CIA operations officer.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Alexandria became the Bush administration's venue of choice for major terrorism cases, in part because the Northern Virginia jury pool is considered relatively conservative. The only person convicted in a U.S. courtroom in connection with those attacks, Zacarias Moussaoui, was prosecuted in Alexandria. A member of the Moussaoui prosecution team, Assistant U.S. Attorney David J. Novak, is among the candidates to succeed Ellis.
The U.S. attorney who oversaw the Moussaoui case, Paul J. McNulty, went on to become deputy attorney general, the Justice Department's No. 2 position. His successor as U.S. attorney in Alexandria, Chuck Rosenberg, recently completed a brief stint as interim chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales.
In seeking a replacement for Ellis, Webb and Warner worked smoothly together, even though they are from different parties and Webb is newly elected, Warner aides said.
"Senator Warner approached Senator Webb very early on and proposed that they work together, and Senator Webb agreed," said John Ullyot, a spokesman for Warner. "Everything about this process was done with Senator Webb."
The senators solicited recommendations from bar associations and others in the Virginia legal community, then began sifting through the names. Ullyot would not specify the number of applicants, but said, "It was an enormous pool of talent to draw from."
Warner and Webb jointly began interviewing candidates, including their final seven choices. The senators forwarded the list of finalists to Bush on May 2. "We are very pleased to strongly recommend for your consideration the names of seven outstanding Virginians with exemplary qualifications," the senators wrote in their letter to the president.
Thacher, 60, has been a Fairfax Circuit judge since 1998, and is a former special agent for the Army Criminal Investigation Division and a former civilian special agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.
In 2004, Thacher recused himself from overseeing the second trial of Washington area sniper John Allen Muhammad after being accused by prosecutors of conducting his own investigation into a claim by Muhammad's attorneys. Legal experts said that it was highly unusual for a judge to personally investigate a case and that Thacher had done the right thing by stepping down.
At the time, the judge defended his actions in a letter posted on the court's Web site but said he thought the focus needed to return to the merits of the case.
Thacher said last week that he was "deeply honored and humbled" to be considered for the federal judgeship and that his "background and experience are particularly suited to the types of cases that routinely come before the District Court in Alexandria.''
Trenga, 58, is a trial lawyer at the D.C. firm Miller & Chevalier. He handles complex civil litigation, including securities fraud and intellectual property cases, and he said he has appeared before Alexandria federal judges more than before any other court.
"I view being a judge as an opportunity for public service in a court that I grew up in professionally and for which I have enormous respect and personal regard," Trenga said in a brief interview. "It would be enormously challenging and gratifying work."
Alper, 56, has been an Arlington Circuit Court judge since 1998 and previously was a juvenile court judge in Arlington and a lawyer in private practice. Her prominent cases as a judge include a 2004 ruling that Arlington County's affordable housing program had exceeded its legal authority and a 1999 trial of an Arlington teenager who struck his mother on the head with a hammer at least 14 times and then, after partying more than a day with friends, set fire to her body.
Alper sentenced the 18-year-old to life in prison, calling the crime "horrendous."
Alper said in an interview that she has "thoroughly enjoyed" being a judge.
"I love the courtroom," she said. "I love trial work, and I would consider it the highest honor to be able to serve the people of the United States as a federal judge."
Somers, 46, is a judge for the U.S. Civilian Board of Contract Appeals, which handles civil cases involving disputes over federal contracts.
She has served in several other government posts, including as assistant U.S. attorney in Alexandria in the 1990s and as military lawyer. She was briefly in private practice.
"It's time for me to give public service back to the community that I live in," Somers said. "The most ideal way to do that is to be a judge on the court that I'm familiar with."
Novak, 45, has been a federal prosecutor in Richmond since 1994 but spent several years working in Alexandria on the Moussaoui case. He is known as a death penalty specialist and has handled numerous capital punishment cases in Richmond. Novak declined to comment on why he wants to be a federal judge.
The two other candidates are Mark S. Davis, 45, a circuit judge in Portsmouth, and Dennis W. Dohnal, 61, a U.S. magistrate judge based in Richmond.