Judge Fred B. Ugast, selected this week as chief judge of the D.C. Superior Court, has built a reputation during his 13 years on the bench as a skilled administrator with an uncanny ability to conciliate.
"He can develop consensus very quickly between very contentious people," said former judge Tim Murphy, who like Ugast once headed the court's criminal division. "I remember how a group of us would sit around a table and debate various proposals. I found he could argue for the good of the court and people would agree with him without being irritated."
"I always envied his ability to sell programs more effectively than I could. I was much more combative," said Murphy, who sought the chief judgeship in 1978 but was regarded as too feisty.
Ugast, a 62-year-old Washington native appointed to the bench by President Richard Nixon, was chosen Tuesday night on the second ballot by the D.C. Judicial Nomination Commission to fill the vacancy created by the death last month of H. Carl Moultrie I.
Commission members said Ugast's broad support among his colleagues and his reputation as an administrator were key factors in his selection.
In an interview after the announcement, Ugast laughed about how much life had changed since he ended his career as a government tax lawyer, criss-crossing the country prosecuting the likes of mobster "Trigger Mike" Coppola.
"You never quite get the trial lawyer out of you," said Ugast, who as an itinerant prosecutor had nicknames like the "big gun from Washington" and "mighty mite."
"You're sitting up there doing a lot of listening and not saying anything," he said of his hours on the bench. "You can't help but think how you would have done it -- and maybe done it better."
"He lets lawyers spin whatever web of tactical maneuvering they could without interfering," said prosecutor Mark Biros, who has appeared frequently before him. "You could see that he enjoyed it."
Ugast said chief among his plans are cutting down on court delays, exploring the possibility of Sunday court, setting up better programs for juvenile offenders and drug abusers, making sentences more uniform, and providing more halfway houses for people released from mental institutions.
Ugast said he also planned to contact school administrators about having judges talk to students about drug use, and said he would like to look at alternatives to incarceration such as home detention and intensive probation -- programs that have been used successfully in other jurisdictions.
"There are so many areas, we need help in so many places," he said.
The selection of the popular Ugast was met warmly at the courthouse. "If he was not everyone's first choice, he was certainly their second," said one judge.
The morning after his selection Ugast addressed the court's judges, telling them he was proud and honored. "We are all in this together," he said, asking the judges for their advice on how the court should be run.
The three other candidates for the position were Gladys Kessler, Ricardo Urbina and Paul R. Webber III. Commission members said each candidate received at least one vote during a preliminary tally, but Ugast emerged as the majority choice on the second ballot.
One source close to the commission said he believed Ugast became the consensus candidate after no one received a majority on the first ballot, with the commission viewing him as someone who would serve as a bridge between the older and younger judges.
A Harvard Law School graduate and a former Justice Department lawyer, Ugast, a moderate Republican, was appointed to the bench in 1973. He was born in the District, and attended Catholic schools here and boarding school in Baltimore before entering Catholic University, where he eventually earned a master's degree in philosophy. The father of six, he lives in Chevy Chase just across the District line.
In his years at the court he has taken an interest in mental health issues, and was instrumental in bringing about changes in pretrial examinations and in establishing a mental health ward at the D.C. Jail. The ward was named in his honor.
Ugast is known throughout the courthouse as a judge who brooks few delays. From time to time, Ugast has hopped off the bench and canvassed the hallway outside his courtroom -- in full judicial dress -- looking for a lawyer who failed to appear. At times the frustration erupted into displays of temper or humor.
One time, Ugast summoned a probation report writer to his courtroom to explain a statement he authored in a court file that said the defendant's "problems may stem from the fact that is short in stature."
Standing to his full 5 feet 4 inches, Ugast asked, to the amusement of courtroom spectators, "Are you sure you agree with that?"