By Spencer S. Hsu and Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 24, 2010; 9:15 PM
In barring the Obama administration from funding human embryonic stem cell research, U.S. District Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth this week added to a 23-year history of confounding presidents of both political parties from the bench of the politically sensitive court in the nation's capital.
Lamberth on Monday issued a preliminary injunction putting on hold President Obama's stem cell funding guidelines, ruling that experiments with such cells fall under an "unambiguous" 1996 law by Congress that prohibits federal funding of research that destroys human embryos. He acted after a three-judge appeals court overturned his move to dismiss the case, reversing his opinion that researchers who challenged the rules lacked legal standing to sue.
The derailment of the high-profile Obama initiative underscores the well-respected Lamberth's typical independence, as well as his willingness to rebuke the government and its lawyers when in his eyes they overstep - whatever the risk of reversal, both supporters and detractors said.
"He's a judge who can't be pigeonholed. . . . He can please and disappoint people on all sides of the spectrum," said one admirer, Kenneth Wainstein, a Bush administration counter-terrorism aide who served as U.S. attorney for the District from 2004 to 2006 and as acting U.S. attorney in 2001, and who argued many cases before Lamberth.
"There's a saying that everything's bigger in Texas, and this chief judge lives up to that adage," U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who also served as the District's U.S. attorney from 1993 to 1997, said when asked to introduce Lamberth at a May 2009 speech at the D.C. court. "Nothing associated with this judge is a rubber stamp. . . . Chief Lamberth is both a consummate lawyer and a consummate jurist."
Lamberth, 67, is no stranger to controversy. Tall, garrulous and proudly Texan, Lamberth commands his court with the presence and wit of a Sydney Greenstreet character cast as a heroic defender of the Alamo.
The San Antonio-born son of an Army pool mechanic, Lamberth served in Vietnam as part of the Judge Advocate General corps and headed the civil division of the U.S. Attorney's Office in the District before being appointed to the court in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan.
In the 1980s, he was one of several young government lawyers who sued then-Mayor Marion Barry and the District government over conditions at the D.C. jail. His court continues to monitor many city agencies, and friends say he bristles over the treatment of disabled and foster children and other vulnerable citizens.
He handled several high-profile cases under President Bill Clinton, to the consternation of many of his aides, one of whom called Lamberth a "loose cannon."
Larry Klayman, former chairman of Judicial Watch, a conservative activist and a Clinton antagonist who accused his administration of improperly accessing FBI files in a case that Lamberth finally dismissed after more than a decade, has called the judge "an iconoclast who has a healthy skepticism of government power, and . . . is sensitive to the needs of the common man, a trait sometimes lacking in conservatives."
Lamberth also proved nettlesome to President George W. Bush. As head of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court from 1995 to 2002, he signed a May 2002 opinion that stated that the government misled the court that approves spying on terrorism suspects in the United States more than 75 times.
Lamberth's most public misstep came in a landmark case brought by Native Americans over the Interior Department's century-long failure to account for hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties and rents owed to Indian landowners. He held two secretaries of the Interior - from the Clinton and Bush administration - in contempt of court and ordered sanctions against a half-dozen agency lawyers for improper conduct in the case.
"Our 'modern' Interior Department has time and again demonstrated that it is a dinosaur - the morally and culturally oblivious hand-me-down of a disgracefully racist and imperialist government that should have been buried a century ago," Lamberth wrote.
He was ultimately removed by an appeals court, however, which concluded that the public could question his objectivity. Still, some of his colleagues privately sided with his frustration with what he saw as government stonewalling and incompetence.
Thick-skinned and savvy, Lamberth can claim many friends in Washington, including Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and U.S Court of Appeals Chief Judge David Sentelle, his occasional poker buddies, and Federal Public Defender A.J. Kramer. While known for being pro-prosecution, "he's as fair a judge as you're going to get," said G. Allen Dale, a prominent D.C. defense lawyer.
"He demands a lot of the lawyers who appear before him," Wainstein said, "but no more than he demanded of himself throughout his career."