On a steaming hot Sunday afternoon in September 1977, Judge James A. Washington Jr. of the D.C. Superior Court left his Silver Spring home and set out for the cavernous Pension Building on F Street NW. With him were his grandson, Mark, and his friend and colleague, Judge Leonard Braman.
At a side door to the huge, red brick building, they were met by a special police officer. Judge Washington, in a wheelchair was moved up a wooden ramp into the building, taken onto a elevator and then wheeled down long, silent corridors to his chambers.
Almost a year earlier, Judge Washington, then 61-year-old, fell down a staircase in his home and broke his neck. His spinal cord was damaged and swollen. He was unable to move his arms and legs. He was, in effect, a quadriplegic on the second floor.
After months of grueling hospital treatment and long, lonely hours of rigorous therapy, the judge wanted to come back to the court. So, in the privacy of the empty courthouse that sweltering Sunday afternoon, he prepared for his return.
"It was a very moving experience," Braman recalled. But, at the same time, he said, "I began to wonder if it was nothing more than a sentimental journey."
In fact, Braman said, "it was the beginning of a long road back" for Judge Washington.
The accident occurred on election night in November 1976. It was about 8 p.m.
"I went upstairs to the bedroom," Judge Washington remembered in a recent interview. "I went up there and kissed my grandaughter who was on the bed." Then he started back down the step, dimly lit staircase.
On one step was a small rubber ball.
"I had the sensation of slipping and falling on my head," Washington said.
"When I came to in the house, my wife was bending over me and I asked to get up. They told me to lie still."
In a tragic moment, Washington, a judge of the Superior Court for six years, former general counsel to the U.S. Department of Transportation, former chairman of the city's Public Service Commission and once dean of Howard Law School where he had taught for 19 years, was unable to move.
After immediate medical treatment, Washington showed slight movement in his arms and legs, according to his neurosurgeon, Dr. Bernard Stopak. Because of the nature of Washington's injury, Stopak said, there was hope from the start that the judge could regain mobility, particularly in his legs.
Washington spent the next two months in a "Stryker" frame that kept his head and neck immobile. The objective, with time, was to allow the injured bones in his neck to heal, Stopak said.
The frame "looked like an ironing board," Washington said. He was turned in the frame every two hours - to avoid bedsores. His time was spent staring at the ceiling or the floor. Eventually, a system of mirrors was erected around the judge's bed so he could read.
"I used to dread that," Washington said. "I was hollering all night long." He wanted to eat, he wanted to move, he wanted someone to rub his back. And he always wanted the two hours to be up.
"I wasn't trying to be aggravating," Washington said during a recent interview in his chambers, "but I'm sure I was."
Despite the months the judge spent in the frame, his neck did not heal on its own, neurosurgeon Stopak said. So, in January 1977, Washington underwent surgery at George Washington University Hospital, where he had been confined since the accident. Stopak molded a plastic splint around the bones in Washington's neck to give them support.
It was then that Washington's real struggle to regain some of his mobility began, Stopak said.
The rehabilitation process began at George Washington Hospital, but the judge's progress was slow. And as with any victim of a sudden, severe disability, there came a battle with the patient's emotions, Stopak said.
They are the "stages of tragedy," Stopak explained during an interview. First there is the denial, he said, "that this didn't happen to me." Then, he said, there is the anger and self pity when the patient asks "why should this happen to me?" Stopak said.
"Then, they become depressed," he said.
"If you can get them through those stages, then acceptance comes in and that's when the fight starts," Stopak said.
In March 1977, Judge Washington was transferred from GW Hospital to the Montebello Hospital Center in Baltimore, a state run rehabilitation center that specializes in spinal cord injuries. He lived there for seven months.
Eventually, Washington learned to sit and then to stand and take a few steps with assistance from others, but there was little additional improvement. The doctors said there was little hope that the judge would ever return to his seat on the Superior Court.
And as time dragged on, the judge's friends despaired at his condition.
"I believed in him. I had faith in him," said Washingon's friend Braman. But as the months passed even he "began to wonder if the doctors . . . were right," he said.
In the summer of 1977, Dr. Stopak, who unlike the others held out some hope for his patient's recovery, pleaded with the commission to give Washington the time he needed to come back. The commission agreed to wait three more months, Stopak said.
There were low moments when even Stopak's faith began to wane. In his office file is a letter - never mailed - in which he told the commission that perhaps the other doctors had been right.
Then, in September 1977, the judge made his decision.
"I announced I was going home," Washington said. "I was coming home and I was going back to work."
It was Washington's return ot the vitality of life at Superior Court that was the turning point in his recovery, Braman and others said.
"It's as corny as that," said Braman. "His being back at the court gave him the will to persevere, a motivation that was absolutely missing before."
It was not long after the Sunday afternoon visit to the Pension Building in September 1977 that Judge Washington slowly began to resume his judicial duties. At first he held court hearings in a conference room near his chambers, but by October he was back in his courtroom and by the end of the year, he conducted his first jury trial.
After monitoring Washington's return to the court, the D.C. Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure notified the judge that they had concluded their inquiry.
"The story of his almost single handed effort to return to the bench (is one of) courage and determination," said commission Chairman Henry A. Berliner Jr.
The judge employs a young man named Jay Searles - his "unofficial bailiff" - to take him back and forth from his home to the courthouse every day.
"I try to hit the bench around 10 o'clock," Judge Washington said during an interview in his chambers. He usually sits until 2 p.m. - without a break, he said.
A couple of afternoons a week, Washington said, he goes to the Howard University Hospital for therapy, building up the strength and mobility in his arms and legs.
Last April, the judge decided to abandon his wheelchair.
"One day we talked him into leaving it at home. He's been without it ever since," said Washington's law clerk, Bertin Emmons.
Now, the judge walks the short distance from his car, which is parked in an underground lot at the new District of Columbia Courthouse, to an elevatro and then to his chambers and into the courtroom, Emmons said.
When Emmons walks with the judge, he said he rests a hand on Washington's shoulder "like you would with a friend" to help his balance. "But I don't hold him up," Emmons said.
In the courtroom, Emmons sits at Washington's side during trials and turns the pages of jury instructions as the judge reads them aloud. On one recent morning, in Washington's courtroom, the judge told Emmons he was feeling a little stiff.So Emmons, with the gentle touch of a son to a father, helped the judge up from his chair so he could take a few steps and loosen up. The lawyers and clerks scattered throughout the room seemed unaware of the simple gesture as Washington resumed the court proceedings.
Four weeks ago, in the Howard University chapel, Judge Washington's daughter Diana was married. Her brother walked her down the aisle to make sure the procession went smoothly, Washington said.
But then the judge, with his son at his arm, walked down the aisle as well.