For the second time in less than a month, a federal appeals court has reversed U.S. District Court Judge Oren R. Lewis of Alexandria for "abuse of discretion."
Today's action by a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals adds to a growing number of appellate rebukes and reversals of Lewis. Most are attributed to peremptory actions on the bench by the 76-year-old senior judge, whose style has earned him the nickname "Roarin' Oren."
The bar's attitude toward Lewis' legendary rough treatment of lawyers in his courtroom was summed up recently by a prominent Northern Virginia lawyer. "When we're sitting around the office telling Oren Lewis stories," he said, "someone always ends up by saying, 'He's always funny except when it's happening to you.'"
The appellate panel reversed Lewis for refusing to delay a trial long enough to permit U.S. prosecutors to appeal his order suppressing a confession crucial to a firearms possession case.
Lewis threw out the confession, made to a federal officer, on grounds it was involuntary without requiring the defense to offer evidence that the statement was not freely given. After refusing to give the government time to appeal his ruling, Lewis dismissed the indictment when the prosecutors said they could not continue the case without the confession.
The appeals court judges said that Lewis' summary ruling violated an explicit, 11-year-old congressional directive requiring appellate courts to settle such legal issues before criminal trials are held. The directive was intended to prevent inconsistent decisions on an expanding area of constitutional controversy over the validity of confessions and police searches.
At four points in the 12-page opinion written by Judge H. Emory Widener, the appeals panel labeled Lewis' rulings an "abuse of discretion."
Last month, a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati bluntly rebuked Lewis for acting as a "surrogate prosecutor" during a 1977 firearms trial in Louisville. That panel said Lewis' 250 interruptions during a "routine" one-day trial "frustrated the defense at every turn and infringed upon" their right of cross examination.
The 6th Circuit Court overturned the convictions of the two defendants and ordered a new trial.
The 4th Circuit is currently weighing the appeal of another case in which Lewis' behavior on the bench was a factor. In that case, he astonished lawyers and spectators with repeated remarks critical of former CIA agent Frank Snepp. He ruled that Snepp violated his secrecy agreement with the CIA by the publication of a book.
The crusty judge's celebrated impatience with what he considers redundant testimony led seven years ago to a reversal by the 4th Circuit of a murder conviction in his court. In that case, the appeals court said Lewis erred by refusing to permit more than one character witness to testify for the defendant.
In 1968, a 4th Circuit opinion cited his comments about a Harvard University graduate in overturning his conviction in connection with a Vietnam war protest. "People who are as educated as he and do things like this ought to pay the bill," Lewis had said, as he handed down a 30-day sentence.
In today's ruling, the appellate court ordered Lewis to hold a new hearing on suppression of the statement by the defendant, Beecher Belve Robinson Jr., and then permit time for an appeal, if any, before forcing a trial on the charge of firearms possession.