In the federal courthouse in Washington, judges have a team of beefy deputy marshals protecting them from any possible run-ins with criminal defendants.

But on Chevy Chase Circle NW last weekend, U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton found himself forcefully stopping an assault -- and wrestling another man's attacker to the ground.

The judge said he came upon the fight in the fairly quiet traffic circle, pulled the attacker off his victim and then held the man on the pavement until D.C. police arrived on the scene. "He started toward me, " Walton, 56, recalled in an interview this week. "I had to take him down."

Walton's story began about 6 a.m. last Saturday, when he was driving his wife and daughter to the airport for a short trip to Aruba. When he drove into the circle, a taxi blocked a right lane and two men argued next to it, he said. Then he saw both bodies fall to the ground. A larger man was on top, striking a smaller, older man, who was yelling for help.

"Initially, I really paused. In these situations, you don't know if a gun or other weapon is involved," Walton said. "But I could hear the man frantically crying out: 'Help me. Please help me.' "

The judge, who was a football player in college, is physically fit. The man getting the best of the cabdriver was in his twenties and more than 6 feet tall, compared with the 5-foot-9 judge.

But the judge grew up in the gritty steel town of Donora, Pa., and as a teenager landed in court three times for fighting. He explained that he got out of control during a period when his father was working two jobs.

Walton credits one fight with scaring him to focus on school and, ultimately, become a judge. He and his buddies decided to seek out some other youths who they heard had been "messing with our girls." The fight escalated from punching to one of Walton's friends stabbing a member of the other group with an ice pick. Walton and a friend rushed him to the hospital, and Walton said his fighting days ended there.

Walton has been a judge for nearly a quarter-century. He became a D.C. Superior Court judge in 1981 and was appointed to the federal bench in 2001. Walton told the man last Saturday that he was a judge, wouldn't hurt him and would just turn him over to police.

The judge said he's not sure what happened after that. When police arrived, he said, he gave them his account, then hurried his family to the airport to make the flight. He never learned the names of the men. As of Thursday, he said, police had not called. A D.C. police spokesman said yesterday he could not locate a report of the incident or verify an arrest. Officers working in the 2nd District said their office no longer has computer capability to review 911 calls requesting help.

Walton doesn't recommend that everyone who sees an attack get involved. "Everybody's got to make their own decision," he said. "Some would say it wasn't very wise to do what I did. But then again, if you had a loved one in that situation, you would hope somebody would come to their aid."

Police spokesman Kenny Bryson said the cabdriver was lucky that the judge was passing through. Other cars whizzed by, the judge said, and one driver even honked his horn.

"God bless Judge Walton," Bryson said. "I surely wouldn't want to mess with him. He's really to be commended for jumping in."

Staff writer Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this report.