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U.S. District Court Judge John Garrett Penn, 75

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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 12, 2007

John Garrett Penn, 75, a Washington jurist who helped inaugurate the D.C. Superior Court in 1970 and served as chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District from 1992 to 1997, died Sept. 9 at Georgetown University Hospital. He had cancer.

Judge Penn was a Justice Department tax division official when President Richard M. Nixon appointed him to the bench of the newly created D.C. Superior Court, a trial court of general jurisdiction. He spent nine years as an associate judge, where he distinguished himself on tax disputes.

In 1979, President Jimmy Carter appointed Judge Penn to the U.S. District Court for the District. He had been a senior judge, overseeing a reduced caseload, since 1998.

On the federal bench, Judge Penn presided over hundreds of criminal trials, including those of alleged drug conspirators and cases involving promotion-discrimination complaints about the city's police force.

Many of his cases involved prominent people. They included the 1980 bribery and conspiracy conviction of then-Rep. John W. Jenrette (D-S.C.) in the FBI's Abscam undercover operation.

He also oversaw the 1983 conviction of Mary Treadwell -- a former head of the Youth Pride job-training program and former wife of then-D.C. Mayor Marion Barry -- on charges of conspiracy to defraud the federal government.

According to published accounts, Judge Penn routinely attracted controversy for having among the greatest backlog of cases in the District's federal court. As of 1999, he had a dozen civil cases pending on his docket for more than three years, which The Washington Post reported was twice the average of his colleagues.

Judge Penn took more than three years to rule in favor of black ironworkers in 1985 who had filed a class-action lawsuit alleging racial discrimination against their union. The workers waited 15 more years before Judge Penn approved a financial settlement among the parties.

In 1999, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit blamed Judge Penn for the delay and rebuked him for causing "great hardship to the parties."

Judge Penn consistently declined to comment on the backlog, saying he never spoke about his cases. His supporters were anonymously quoted as saying his delay was indicative of his deliberation and calm judicial temperament.

Judge Penn was born March 19, 1932, in Pittsfield, Mass., where his father was a machinist. He said he came from one of about 500 black families in the city of 55,000.

He was a 1954 graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and a 1957 graduate of Boston University's law school. Initially a chemistry major, he told a publication of the D.C. Bar that he chose law because of the growing civil rights movement.

He said he was particularly influenced by the decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregated schools unlawful.

"In bringing the legal action they brought, they were fighting my battle," he said.

He served in the Army's Judge Advocate General's Corps before joining the Justice Department's tax division in 1961. He became assistant chief of the division's general litigation section and developed an expertise in trusts and estates.

He said he was about to leave for a high-paying private-sector job when the assistant deputy attorney general asked him to consider a judgeship in Washington. At the time, a massive reform and reorganization of the D.C. court system was underway that led to the creation of the current D.C. Superior Court. Previously, local criminal cases were tried in federal court, and the D.C. Court of General Sessions mostly handled minor offenses.

He agreed to serve as an associate judge on the Superior Court from 1970 to 1979, in part because of what he called the "challenge to build this new court system from the ground up." He worked closely with Chief Judge Harold H. Greene, a former Justice Department lawyer who had been a chief architect of civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s.

Besides his work duties, Judge Penn was active in mentoring activities. He was an honorary member of the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation's day-care program and received three awards for his volunteer service. He was also a member of Sigma Pi Phi, a black professional fraternity also known as the Boule, and DePriest Fifteen, a black men's social club.

Survivors include his wife of 41 years, Ann Rollison Penn of Silver Spring; three children, John G. Penn II of San Jose, Karen R. Penn of Arlington County and David B. Penn of Silver Spring; and two granddaughters.

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