American Lawyer, touted around the nation as the flashiest and most daring insider publication in the legal profession, has done an unusual about-face and withdrawn its ranking of U.S. District Judge Charles R. Richey as the second-worst trial judge in Washington.
The reversal caused almost as big a rumble in the federal courthouse here as did the much-ballyhooed national survey last July, in which Richey was ranked just behind Judge June L. Green for the dubious distinction. Richey was "seriously flawed," the magazine said then, because he was "excessively image-conscious."
The magazine's back-of-the-book correction appears in a small box on page 32 of this monthhs issue. It follows a lengthy report about an "all-out war" against federal judges by the Church of Scientology. Richey, who presided over the conviction of nine church members on conspiracy charges, was one of the targets of that campaign. The article describes constant attacks on Richey by the church's lawyers, including the hiring of a private investigator to look into Richey's personal life and efforts to remove Richey from the trials.
American Lawyer says it has learned belatedly that one of the principal sources on which it based its low rating of Richey had a Scientology connection.
"The lawyer [Alexandria attorney Phil Hirschkop] who most vehemently denounced Richey was one of the Scientologists' defense counsels," the magazine said. Hirschkop also referred the author of the rating article (who has since left the magazine) to other lawyers who represented the church. Apparently, those lawyers also spoke badly of Richey.
"Without the lawyer's vehemently derogatory remarks and his referrals to other 'sources,' our reporter says he would not have named Richey in the survey," the magazine said.
"We were the unwitting channel of one of the Scientologist's attacks," Steve Brill, founder and editor of the two-year-old tabloid with a circulation of 25,000, acknowledged in an interview last week.
Stories listing the best and worst of anything draw readers. But surveys of federal judges, which are becoming increasingly popular and at least grudingly accepted by many judges, are a tricky business.
Some surveys, like that of Maryland judges published last week by The Washington Star, use massive questionaires, follow-up phone calls and computer analysis. The study was approved by the Maryland Bar Association. c
Smaller surveys like that of American Lawyer, which are done in large part on the basis of a few dozen interviews with anonymous lawyer sources, are much more prone to error and distortion.
Brill says his reporter, Kevin Fogarty [who recently left the magazine for a variety of reasons], was misled. Brill said that after the survey appeared, he talked with some Washington lawyers who mentioned in passing that Richey was "not that bad a judge." Still, American Lawyer stuck by the assesment -- until recently, when the reporter who wrote the current article on the church's tactics told Brill, "We are a part of this" campaign to discredit the judges. Brill said it was then that he ordered the backhanded correction, which he refused to call a retraction.
Whatever you call it -- and it sure sounds like a retraction -- Brill didn't have to do it. Other than the casual comments he says he received, there was no ongoing outcry to change the ranking. And with the passage of this much time, some editors might not have been inclined to admit a mistake. He also faced no legal pressusres.
Brill concedes the survey is "impressionistic," something like voting for the most valuable player in baseball. "We were shocked to find unanimity in most places," he said, making the choice fairly easy. It is, he added, a lot easier to pick a "best" and "worst" than it is to rank every judge.
"Our reporters are told to be very careful," he said, but there are always pitfalls.