"There are three things to do to get ready for federal court in Alexandria," warns a lawyer who has been there often. "Prepare your case, prepare for your opponent, and prepare for Oren Lewis."
So goes the legend of Oren Ritter Lewis, who at age 80 ranks as the most colorful, cantankerous, blunt-spoken -- and some say worst -- U.S. District Court judge in Virginia, if not beyond. "He's larger than life," says William Cummings, a former U.S. attorney.
A great-grandfather who recently celebrated his 58th wedding anniversary, Lewis stepped down as an active judge in 1973 but his retirement was in name only. Since federal judges are appointed for life, Lewis has continued to sit as a senior judge in Alexandria, receiving The American Lawyer's designation two years ago as the worst judge in the five-state 4th U.S. Judicial Circuit.
For members of the Northern Virginia bar Lewis remains a force to be reckoned with although he now is assigned mostly pretrial motions and the less arduous one- or two-day trials. He is paid $73,100 a year, has a full staff and rarely misses a day's work.
There is only one way Lewis will ever leave Alexandria's red-brick federal courthouse, says one of his judicial brethren -- "horizontally."
He is held in esteem and affection by friends and some lawyers, including his former law clerks, and regarded as something of a wit. Asked in an interview last week if he has any vices, Lewis said, "No. The statute of limitations has run on all of them."
Recently, however, any fondness for Lewis' traditionally free-wheeling courtroom manner -- a style that has earned him the nickname "Roarin' Oren" -- has been in eclipse. A federal appeals court in Richmond, weighing a medical malpractice suit dismissed by Lewis, last week blasted his decision with unusual bluntness. The appeals panel cited "glaring" errors, "improper" and "disparaging" comments and progovernment bias by Lewis and ordered the case retried before a different judge.
In the clubby, gentlemanly world of the federal judiciary, the decision to take the case away from Lewis was, one judge says privately, "drastic."
"They're setting him up," says another lawyer, who believes the appeals action was meant as a signal to Lewis to consider spending more time on his beloved golf game.
As if to underscore the point, a second appeals court rocket arrived only two days later. This time the higher court erased the conviction of a District man for allegedly assaulting a federal officer at National Airport. Although the tone of the decision was milder, a three-judge appeals panel -- including former Chief Judge Clement F. Haynsworth Jr. -- singled out "manifestly erroneous" actions by Lewis and termed some of his courtroom rulings "necessarily confusing" to the defense lawyer in the case.
Lewis declined to discuss the rulings in public.
The judge, named to the bench by President Eisenhower in 1960, has had his share of high-profile cases -- forcing school integration in numerous Virginia jurisdictions in the early 1960s; upholding the construction of I-66; presiding over the tax trials of the Pomponio brothers who built much of Rosslyn; and freezing the publishing assets of author and former CIA agent Frank Snepp.
It was Lewis who sentenced Norman Mailer to 30 days in jail after a Pentagon demonstration. Two years ago he was the first judge in the nation to jail a striking air traffic controller.
Lawyers familiar with Lewis say he routinely takes over the questioning of witnesses, upholds his own objections, comments on the evidence before the jury and interrupts attorneys with distressing frequency. One lawyer, former Lewis law clerk Frank W. Dunham Jr., argued to the appeals court last summer that 2,470 interruptions, comments and interjections by Lewis had prevented former George Washington University professor Dr. Murdock Head from receiving a fair trial.
The appellate court disagreed, ruling that any damage caused by Lewis' behavior had fallen equally on both sides.
"There's no scholarly pretense. He just says 'I don't want to hear that,' " says Victor M. Glasberg, an Alexandria lawyer who specializes in civil rights cases. "But with the same speed he dispatches an inappropriate matter, he doesn't hear things that have to be heard.
"You're in big trouble if you've got something frivolous. But on serious issues that require a thoughtful weighing and balancing, his procedures are capricious. You can't proceed in confidence that your client is receiving a considered, judicial hearing."
"It's a zoo over there," says lawyer Philip Hirschkop, whose office is a few blocks from the courthouse in the city's historic Old Town section. "It's a straight flip-out in his courtroom. He absolutely should retire or try minor trials. The law's passed him by."
Not that the old emotional fire has gone out. Hirschkop tells of an encounter in the mid-1970s when he and New York attorney Leonard Boudin visited Lewis' chambers. Hirschkop says the two men suggested that Lewis remove himself from an upcoming trial because an issue involving one of Lewis' sons might be raised.
Lewis was so angry, according to Hirschkop, he offered to settle the affair with fists. Hirschkop says he and Boudin headed for the exit.
Lewis last week said he "wouldn't dignify that story by commenting on it." When pressed, Lewis said: "Yes, he came in here and insulted a member of my family, goddamnit, and that's all I'm going to say about it." The issue, described by another judge as without merit, never surfaced.
Another flare-up involved a run-in last fall with a Park Police officer on the George Washington Parkway. Lewis, ticketed for refusing to obey the officer's commands, threw federal court personnel into momentary disarray by demanding his day in court. Under pressure from his fellow judges, he finally paid the ticket.
Lewis last week dismissed the controversy as "much ado about nothing." A copy of the police report depicts the judge as something less than contrite.
"The operator presented his permit but refused to present his registration stating I had all I needed," Officer John Loveland wrote. "I again requested the registration and he grabbed back his permit, shook it at me and said that was his permit and registration . . . . He then took his registration out and gave it to me."
Loveland wrote that Lewis initially gave him an eight-digit number when the police officer requested his telephone number and only gave out his correct phone listing after repeated requests. "When asked for his work number he stated U.S. District Court and that I should know that number. I advised Mr. Lewis that I didn't know that number, he stated that I was incompetent . . . . Mr. Lewis then advised me that he was the U.S. District Court judge and that my captain and I would be in his office to answer all kinds of charges he was going to make.
"I then directed Mr. Lewis to return to his vehicle and that when traffic again started to move he could leave. Mr. Lewis became upset because I would not clear traffic for him so that he could respond return to his office."
Friends say they are saddened by the incident, which embarrassed some members of the federal court "family" in Alexandria. His supporters prefer instead to stress his career as a successful Arlington lawyer, an influential Northern Virginia Republican, and friend of long-time Northern Virginia GOP congressman Joel T. Broyhill.
Once the only federal judge in Northern Virginia, Lewis years ago made his Alexandria court a model of judicial economy. Delays became unheard of and Lewis still prides himself on developing his own speedy-trial doctrine "long before Congress got around to it." The Alexandria division today has no case backlog to speak of.
Lewis' current role is more that of grand old man. Three considerably younger district judges carry most of the burden today. Still, he rarely gives up a chance to put his speedy-trial principles to use. A nervous young woman from the Justice Department asked Lewis last summer for a postponement on behalf of her boss, because he was busy on another case. "Sacrificial lamb," whispered a courtroom spectator.
"You mean to tell me the government's running short of lawyers?" Lewis asked incredulously. "My, my, my, motion denied," he ruled, as the courtroom filled with laughter.
At his home in North Arlington, Lewis works in a large flower garden and grows vegetables. "I don't know that I make any money at it," he says. "I get my seed money back." He plays bridge with the boys--"and the girls"--and golfs at a nearby country club.
"I'm a bunter, not a slugger," he says of his golf game, which hovers in the low 90s or high 80s. "I'm a pretty good short game player. I never get in trouble, over in the weeds. I play what we call an old man's game."
"He's consistent. He'll beat the pants off you," says Northern Virginia businessman James J. Mathews, owner of the Mr. Gatti's pizza shops. Mathews describes Lewis as "an extremely decent fellow" who "talks during his backswing, it doesn't bother him."
What bothers some of Lewis' admirers, however, is that his appeals court reversals have been growing in number and force of language. "I love him like a father," said one of Lewis' former law clerks recently during lunch in a Northern Virginia restaurant. "I wish he'd quit."