For years attorneys who have come before Federal District Court Judge Robert Maxwell have been struck by the domination he has over all that occurs in his Elkins,W. Va., courthouse. As chief judge of the state's Northern District, he has been able to tailor the way he administers judicial duties to fit his own needs and whims. From the hiring of the U.S. attorney to the makeup of the docket sheet, the 56-year-old judge is in command.
The federal Administrative Office of the United States Courts reported on Maxwell's tight hold in a confidential study reviewing his court last year. This report, which questioned whether Maxwell wasn't undermining those clerks, probation officers and magistrates who work in the court, pointed up how Maxwell goes his own way -- separate from the standards followed by all other chief judges in areas such as jury selection and court bank accounts.
But even those who have been Maxwell's consistent critics do not know that he has apparently violated the federal law which prohibits judges from sitting on cases in which they have a financial interest. Two years ago, Maxwell did so in the case of Consolidated Gas Supply Corp. v. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission when he ruled in favor of Consolidated Gas, a West Virginia company that leases acreage from the judge.
According to records on file in the Randolph County courthouse, Maxwell signed three 10-year leases with Consolidated in 1972. (In 1974, one of these leases was surrendered.) The current two leases stipulate payments of $145 a year in rent plus a one-eighth share of revenues from any oil and natural gas Consolidated might find on Maxwell's land. Although company records show that no holes have yet been drilled on the sites, the judge's conflict of interest is much greater than the small rental payments because the company has full discretion to try to enhance the judge's wealth by deciding in the future to drill on his land.
(If the sites are drilled, Maxwell will receive his percentage of the revenues plus free gas for use in his home.)
In 1978, Consolidated sought an injunction against an order of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The FERC order required Consolidated to show why it should not place limitations on the maximum quantities of gas it sells. Maxwell granted Consolidated's motion. Last year, however, the injunction was vacated. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the judge was without jurisdiction to interfere with the commission's preliminary proceedings under the Natural Gas Act through the issuance of an injunction, and it stated clearly that the case should have heard only by an appellate court. Maxwell declined comment on the conflict of interest.
Other county records indicate that this is not an isolated transgression. Beginning in 1972, Consolidated was a defendant in another case in Maxwell's court, Ann William Gaspard v. James Bush and Consolidated Gas Supply Corp. The case involved a dispute between former oil drilling partners Gaspard and Bush about profits from natural gas sales to Consolidated. In December 1972, while the case was still pending before Maxwell, the judge signed the leases with Consolidated. In 1975, he dismissed the case, finding that the plantiff had filed in the wrong jurisdiction. The case was refiled in Mississippi. Maxwell did not respond to repeated telephone calls and a telegram asking for comment on the conflict of interest.
Maxwell, a 1949 graduate of West Virginia University law school, came to the bench in 1965, when Lyndon Johnson appointed him federal district judge at the recommendation of Sen. Jennnings Randolph (D-W.Va.), a longtime friend.
Maxwell's friendship with Randolph has been the linchpin to the unusual power the judge wields from the bench. Normally the president selects the U.S. attorney, acting on the advice of a senator. But that's not the way it works in Maxwell's district. In 1976, with the U.S. attorney's position in the Northern District vacant and before President Carter had been sworn into office, Maxwell used his statutory power to name Stephen Jory U.S. attorney for the district. Usually such an appointment lasts until the senator (Randolph in this case because he, and not Robert Byrd, has traditionally named officers in that area of the state) recommends a U.S. attorney once the new president has taken office.
But Carter never received any name from Randolph; four years later, Jory remains a court-appointed U.S. attorney arguing before a judge who can replace him at any time. Although Maxwell says there is nothing "inordinately long" about Jory's tenure, the executive office of the U.S. attorney in Washington reports that Jory is currently the country's longest serving court-appointed attorney, 2 1/2 longer than the runner-up.
For attorneys who venture into Elkins federal court for the first time, the most demoralizing aspect of Maxwell's control is his scheduling, particularly of civil cases. The federal management study of the Administrative Office of the Courts reported on the slowness of his district. Taking into account the number of sitting judges, in this case Maxwell and Charles Haden, who hears cases on a half-time basis, the report found that Maxwell's district ranks 90th among 95 in the country for disposition of civil cases, although 55 percent of its pending cases are categorized as less complicated than the average federal case and only 4.4 percent are more complicated than average.
"What that really means," says one plantiff's lawyer, "is delay, delay and more delay." One class action suit, filed against Weirton Steel Co. on behalf of 94 women in 1971, languished in Maxwell's court for seven years. (During that time there were three protests in front of the court building by angry women demanding that the cases be speedily tried.) According to the plaintiffs' side, Maxwell allowed many defense motions to be entered and was slow to rule on them. Last year, Maxwell transferred the suit to Judge Haden, and the matter was resolved earlier this year when, shortly after the trial began, the women settled for $400,000.
Cases don't proceed much faster on the criminal docket. According to the federal management study, the district ranks 74th out of 95 in the country for disposition of criminal cases. In January, for example, the grand jury in Elkins handed up seven indictments, three of which led to gulty pleas. For the four defendants who demanded trials -- two on tax evasion charges and two on drug charges -- Maxwell and Haden split the load, with each judge taking a tax and a drug case. Haden disposed of both of his by June. Maxwell still has not started his drug case; the tax case was disposed of by a guilty plea at the end of October.
Maxwell is not without his supporters. According to the Randolph Enterprise Review, Maxwell has twice been asked to step up to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, but has chosen to stay in Elkins. Maxwell's friend John Brown, a director of the Davis Trust Co., says the judge has turned it down both times because "he can't improve on his situation here. He has the good life. He's the only federal judge. He wouldn't trade that to be one of the many on the circuit court level." Another attorney, who clerked for Maxwell, says: "People here have said yes to him for so long that nobody knows how to tell him no. He could tell people that the sky is red, not blue, and they would all nod their heads yes and say it's red."