Aubrey E. Robinson Jr. graduated from the Cornell University law school in 1947 with a high ambition--one that was "like pulling something from the sky," his mother remembers. Robinson wanted to be the first black U.S. senator from his home state of New Jersey. But the times had no place for a young black man with such a lofty goal.
New Jersey then required a one-year clerkship with a law firm before taking the bar examination. Robinson, the eldest child of a family of determined achievers, an Army veteran, an accomplished student who had turned down an offer from a Wall Street law firm because he wanted to work with people, could not find a job in his home state.
"There weren't any black law firms that could do it and there weren't any white law firms who were interested that I could find," Robinson recalled during a recent interview. So when he got a job offer from Washington lawyer and civil rights activist Belford V. Lawson Jr., Robinson said, "I just packed up and left."
Robinson, 60, today becomes the chief judge of the United States District Court in Washington -- one of the nation's most influential federal courts. If there was any disappointment about a lost political career -- and Robinson imagines there may have been -- there are now no regrets.
"You don't spend your time looking back. You make your decisions and you live by them. I made the decision and I never looked back," Robinson said.
Robinson, a federal trial judge for 16 years, takes the chief judgeship because of seniority over his colleagues and will hold the post -- which adds administrative chores to his trial court duties -- until he turns 70. He attributes his new job to age and happenstance, but the significance in the fact that he is the second black man to head up the federal trial court here, and the fact that the chief judges of all four federal and local courts are black, has not escaped him.
"Oh, yeah, I think about how ironic it is [compared with] how I found this place when I came here," said Robinson, who arrived in Washington when it was a segregated Southern city and stayed on, persevered, to become one of its most prominent officials.
Tough-minded is how Robinson's friends describe him, a man who sets a high standard for himself and demands the same of others.
"He is one straight arrow," said Washington lawyer Aaron Levine, who practiced law with Robinson in the early 1960s before Robinson was named first a juvenile court judge and then a federal judge.
"As far as devotion to the community and assumption of his obligations both as a lawyer and a judge, I don't think there's anyone better," Levine said. "The man, he's a rock."
In his courtroom, where no-nonsense and quality performance are the rule, Robinson has taken on presidents, big government and big business, city officials and criminals.
Robinson has grounded the nation's commercial fleet of DC10 jumbo jets, thrown out President Carter's 10-cents-a-gallon tax on gasoline, and told Northwest Airlines that it discriminated against its stewardesses. He has held former D.C. mayor Walter E. Washington and ex-human resources director Joseph P. Yeldell in contempt of court for failing to process welfare applications on time, and ordered St. Elizabeths Hospital for the mentally ill to find less restrictive community housing for 1,300 patients. He presided over one of the biggest narcotics trials ever conducted here and after six defendants were convicted released them all on bail pending appeal, a decision that brought him a raft of criticism.
"There are no games to be played. I have neither the time nor the temperament for it nor is this the place," Robinson said during a recent interview in his chambers on the fourth floor of the U.S. Courthouse. "This is not an arena. It's a place where people expect to get their legal problems resolved . . . and we're the ones to do it."
Robinson has had his share of reversals in the U.S. Court of Appeals, but he keeps no box score on his record there -- a sign of his confidence and independence. "Show me a person who has never made a mistake, and I'll show you a person who never did anything of significance," Robinson said.
The demand for high-quality work is a family trait, says Robinson's younger brother Charles, a veterinarian in Madison, N.J., where the Robinsons grew up. It was a virtue that he said was passed on by their mother, Mabel Robinson, who still lives in the family home on Walnut Street.
"I was very particular with my children. Very strict. I made them believe that life would be no better than what they put into it," said Mabel Robinson, now 83, who holds a teaching certificate and did graduate work at Columbia University. "If they went to school, got their education, faced the reality of life, worked hard to realize their ambitions, that's all that was necessary."
Aubrey, Charles and their younger brother Spencer, an aeorospace engineer who died in an auto accident in 1969, all graduated from Cornell University, where their father, Dr. Aubrey E. Robinson, also a veterinarian, had been a member of the class of 1920. All three young men were accomplished students and athletes -- Aubrey Robinson was on the varsity track team -- and all three worked their way through college. Their sister Gloria, the youngest member of the family, is a schoolteacher and guidance counselor in California.
Charles and Aubrey Robinson -- those who have known him longest call him "Robbie" -- waited on tables at a fraternity house to help pay for their education. By age (they are one year apart) and experience the two men were peers, but Charles Robinson said "He's still my big brother. I respected his seniority and by virtue of that, his judgment."
World War II interrupted Aubrey Robinson's legal education at Cornell, as it did to so many others. He was drafted into the Army and was dispatched mainly to southern camps, where the military's separation of blacks and whites was the most extreme.
After three years -- he attained the rank of first sergeant -- Robinson returned to Cornell and devoted himself to the law, with another career in mind: "Politics. I thought it would be great. Representing people."
"He thought that by being a politician and helping to make laws, he could change the way of life for black people, for depressed people. But he found out that was a hard thing to do," Mabel Robinson said.
The turning point for Robinson came after he heard lawyer Belford Lawson speak to the Cornell chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha, the black fraternity, which had been founded at Cornell in 1906. Lawson was the fraternity's general president and Robinson and his brothers were members, as their father had been.
After Robinson's efforts to establish himself in New Jersey failed, he took a job offer from Lawson, who was practicing law in Washington with his wife, Marjorie McKenzie Lawson. He lived in their home while he studied for the bar.
Robinson remained with the Lawsons until 1953, when he opened a law firm with Charles R. Duncan, who would later become D.C. Corporation Counsel and the dean of the Howard University Law School.
They were joined in 1954 by the late Frank D. Reeves, a community leader and civil rights activist who became an special assistant to President Kennedy.
In those years, when most black lawyers in segregated Washington made their professional names in criminal law because there were no other clients for them, Robinson, Duncan and Reeves "were looking for the better business," recalls Washington lawyer Clinton W. Chapman. They focused on the civil law: contracts, landlord and tenant disputes, domestic relations, wills and estates.
"These black lawyers were different. They set a higher tone for the practice of law for blacks," said Chapman, who is black.
Aubrey Robinson was the standard-bearer, Chapman said. It was the way he carried himself, "always straight, upright." It was the sound of his "beautiful voice" in the church choir, Chapman remembered, the way "he looked you dead in the eye . . . "
In 1965, President Johnson appointed Robinson to be one of the city's three juvenile court judges--taking a seat vacated by Marjorie McKenzie Lawson, who resigned to return to private law practice.
After Robinson had spent a year on that demanding court, Johnson nominated him to a seat on the U.S. District Court.
On the federal bench, Robinson seems an irascible taskmaster, bellowing down from the bench at the lawyers in front of him in a booming voice. It is his habit to turn his leather chair to one side and focus his thoughts on the courtroom ceiling. If a lawyer breaks the silence, the judge has been heard to bark "Don't interrupt me!"
Some lawyers describe him as crisp, smart, fair, a "very independent guy" with instincts that take him to the heart of the matter. Others say they find him arrogant and pompous. "I just don't like his demeanor . . . it's a little bit of showmanship," one lawyer said.
Off the bench, there is a distinctly different side to Aubrey Robinson. He is described as a modest but gregarious man with a sharp sense of humor, an approachable boss and a mentor to his law clerks who seek his advice long after they have left the federal courthouse. He lives with his wife, Doris, in Northwest Washington and has two daughters and a stepdaughter.
No fanfare comes with Robinson's ascension to the chief judgeship, a job he takes over from Judge John Lewis Smith Jr., who held the post for a year.
There is, however, one small tradition. Smith now passes to Robinson a small wooden plaque with gold lettering in mock Latin that reads "Illegitimi non Carborundum"--Don't Let the Bastards Grind You Down.
When Robinson was asked about his ambitions now, there was a long, silent pause.
"I don't know," he said finally. "I guess really to live long enough and work long enough to leave a mark on this court -- a credible mark. To maybe realize, in my own lifetime, that it made a difference to the community the court serves that I was here."