By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 8, 2010; B01
Michael Vick, currently enjoying a dazzling comeback season as quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles, has a perhaps unusual fan: The man who sentenced him to almost two years in federal prison for running a dog-fighting operation in Virginia.
"He's an example of how the system can work," said U.S. District Court Judge Henry E. Hudson, an aggressive former prosecutor who surprised no one who knew him when he sentenced Vick to a 23-month term in 2007.
"He's having a terrific season," Hudson said in an interview. "I'm very happy for him. I wish him the best of success."
The Vick case brought a level of publicity that Hudson, 63, had encountered on occasion over a long career as commonwealth attorney of Arlington County, a U.S. attorney for Virginia and director of the U.S. Marshals Service.
But in the long run, the Vick trial may pale in comparison to the case Hudson is now weighing. Sometime this month, he will rule in a case filed by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) challenging the constitutionality of the nation's sweeping health-care overhaul.
Two other federal judges have ruled that the law passes constitutional muster. No judge has ruled the law unconstitutional. Many observers think Hudson will be the first.
That prediction is built partly on Hudson's roots in Republican politics. He was elected Arlington's commonwealth attorney as a Republican, briefly ran against U.S. Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.) in 1991 and has received all of his appointments - as U.S. attorney, as a Fairfax County Circuit Court judge in 1998 and to the federal bench in 2002 - from Republicans.
Observers also noted Hudson's skeptical courtroom questioning of lawyers defending the law on behalf of President Obama this summer and fall and his written opinion in July rejecting a motion to dismiss the suit out of hand.
"I think he will do something quite similar to [his ruling on] the motion to dismiss," said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law who has been following the case and has hosted Hudson for lectures numerous times. "He'll tailor it and focus it more and refine it. But I doubt he will depart very significantly from his rulings there."
The Virginia suit is one of more than 15 that have been filed around the country challenging the law, including another suit filed jointly by 20 state attorneys general in Florida.
Advocates for the law are bracing for the possibility that Hudson or the Florida judge could strike down the law, noting that both are Republican appointees. After inevitable appeals, the law's constitutionality will ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Some have called on Hudson to recuse himself from the case because he owns stock in a campaign-consulting company that has done work for the Republican National Committee and other conservative groups. Cuccinelli also paid Campaign Solutions Inc. for $9,000 of work this year and last. When Hudson's investment became public, Cuccinelli canceled his account with the firm.
In an interview, Hudson said he and his wife invested in the firm before his appointment to the bench. They did so at the invitation of friend and neighbor Becki Donatelli, the company's founder and a major Republican fundraiser, he said.
Other than suggesting the firm to some charitable organizations, he's had no involvement since. As for the criticism, Hudson said it "rolls off" after so many years in public life. "I try my best to approach the law by identifying the issue and going to the cases and trying to determine not only what the majority opinion is, but what the right and logical approach is," he said.
Some Democratic allies warn against jumping to conclusions about Hudson's ruling based on his political pedigree.
"Maybe I'll agree with his ruling on this, and maybe I won't," said Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (Fairfax), who leads the Democratic majority in the state Senate and supported Hudson's appointment to the Fairfax judgeship. "But people make a big mistake trying to dump him into an ideological barrel. Just when you think you've got him figured out, he'll dump that barrel over on you."
"This is a decision where the judge - any judge - knows the entire 4th Circuit and the entire Supreme Court will review the decision critically," said Virginia Supreme Court Justice William C. Mims, who's known Hudson for 30 years. "There must be a great deal of pressure."
In court, Hudson has taken pains to demonstrate that he closely read the lengthy briefs filed in the case. He was exceedingly cordial to lawyers for both sides, complimenting them for their presentations and offering them virtually unlimited time to argue their cases.
"I think he knows he's under a spotlight and would want to come across a judge who had done his homework, who knew the cases as well as the lawyers did," said Richard Cullen, a former Virginia attorney general who succeeded Hudson as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. "I think he wants to come across as a learned jurist. And nothing else matters."
It is somewhat unusual for a federal judge to give an interview in the midst of a major case. But Hudson has always been known for his willingness to step into the public light.
In the 1980s, President Reagan appointed him chairman of the Meese Commission, a controversial group that investigated the effects of pornography.
He was a lead prosector in a massive 1988 investigation into fraud in the Pentagon procurement process. He was head of the U.S. Marshals Service in 1992, when the agency was involved in a violent confrontation with Randy Weaver at his Ruby Ridge compound in Idaho.
In the 1990s, Hudson had his own radio show and made regular appearances as a television legal analyst. He was a frequent guest of television host Greta Van Susteren, who as a young law school student worked for Hudson while he was a prosecutor.
All those incidents and more are recounted in his 2007 memoir, "Quest for Justice."
"I think the public has the right to know what's going on in courts," Hudson said. "I'm someone who's very, very reluctant to seal matters or close courtrooms. And I do try to express myself in a fashion that will allow the public to understand the rationale for what I'm doing."
In his comments, he was careful not to tip his hand about his upcoming ruling.
His friends say his no-nonsense prosecutor personality serves him well on the bench. Mims called him "by the book" and "disciplined." U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R), who has known him for three decades, called him a "straight arrow."
Jonathan Shapiro, a Fairfax defense attorney who first met Hudson when the two attended law school at American University, called him "gracious" and "professional," although he said he's always found Hudson to be a conservative thinker who tends to side with the government against criminal defendants.
In a 1983 Washington Post profile of Hudson, Shapiro recalled that he and Hudson were enrolled in a class called "Legal Problems of the Poor."
"I got the impression he thought it was supposed to be 'Giving Legal Problems to the Poor,' " Shapiro said then.
Shapiro remembers the quote now with a laugh. Hudson never seemed to hold the quip against him, he said.
Hudson said he's matured from his days as a young, brash prosecutor whom Arlington police officers affectionately dubbed "Hang 'Em High Henry."
"Life does that to you," he said. "That's something that comes with time and understanding. To know that you're not always right. That there are two sides to every story. And you've got to keep an open mind."