He presided over the cases of a too-talkative spy, a wannabe presidential assassin and a Washington football team.
Now, after two decades as a federal judge and a career twice as long in law, U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee of the Eastern District of Virginia is planning to retire this fall.
Lee, 65, would like to be remembered as much for his work to diversify the legal profession and judicial bench as for the high-profile trials that have come before him.
Among those cases are that of an al-Qaeda member who planned to kill President George W. Bush, a military intelligence officer who tried to sell classified information to foreign countries and a former CIA officer who wrote a book about the “dysfunctional” agency without clearance.
Lee prepares to step down as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit considers his ruling siding with Native American activists who argue that the Washington Redskins name is disparaging.
The judge said he began to consider retirement last year after suffering two bouts of pneumonia, one of which put him in bed for a month.
“I decided I wanted to walk out of the courthouse,” Lee said. “It’s time now to give the same energy I’ve given to my profession to my wife, my children, my grandchildren.”
Lee likes to say that when he was growing up in a rough neighborhood in Southeast Washington, people assumed that young men like him were more likely to enter a courtroom as a defendant than a judge. He became the first in his family to go to college, despite a counselor telling him he was “not college material.”
He made connections at American University through Youth Pride, a nonprofit co-founded by Marion Barry before he became D.C. mayor. The group had given him a job as a street sweeper, and a chance to attend AU classes as a high school student. He went back to American for college and stayed for law school, with the encouragement and help of professors he had met. In 1998, he became the first African American to serve full time on the Alexandria federal court.
Attorney Jonathan Shapiro went to law school with Lee, and afterward both worked as what he called “rabble-rousing defense lawyers” in Alexandria. Outside his practice, Lee was deeply involved in local politics, helping L. Douglas Wilder, the former governor, become the first African American elected statewide in Virginia since Reconstruction.
When Shapiro defended would-be spy Brian Patrick Regan in the first capital espionage trial since the 1950s, Lee presided.
“He had a lot more insight into the problems that bring people before the court in a criminal case than many other judges,” Shapiro said. “He wasn’t afraid to call the government’s feet to the fire when it was called for.”
In one highly publicized case, Lee overturned a guilty verdict against former naval intelligence officer Jay Lentz, saying prosecutors put evidence before the jury that he had ruled inadmissible. Lentz was later convicted of murder at a second trial.
In the trial of Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, an American citizen who plotted Bush’s assassination, Lee presided over a hearing to investigate Ali’s claims of being tortured in a Saudi prison. After hearing testimony from Saudi Arabia, he concluded that the claims were improbable and ultimately sentenced Ali to 30 years in prison — a punishment increased to life after the Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled that it was too light.
Shortly after taking the bench, Lee voted to establish a public defender’s office in the Eastern District of Virginia. He has also put cases on hold until funds were approved for defense attorneys and stepped in to make sure a defendant had equal access to witnesses. He advocated before the U.S. Sentencing Commission for reductions in mandatory minimums for crack cocaine offenses.
“Some of them really are draconian,” he said, recalling a time he was forced to send a defendant to prison for life in a drug case. “Everyone in the courtroom knew it was disproportionate, wrong.”
Dana Boente, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, said Lee also has been tough on defendants who committed new offenses after being given a relatively lenient sentence.
“He was more than willing to give a defendant a chance, but if you did not accept the responsibility for that, justice could be a little harsh,” Boente said.
Lee has worked as hard outside the courtroom as in it. He proudly cites the many interns and clerks he’s sent on to high-profile legal positions. One former clerk, Justin Fairfax, is running for lieutenant governor of Virginia. Having interned for him in law school, Fairfax said he applied only to work for Lee.
“He’s really a giant of a man,” Fairfax said. “I knew that I wanted in some way to follow in his footsteps.”
Lee worked with a legal diversity group called Just the Beginning to start a program helping minority law students apply for federal clerkships. He has hired interns from the group each year and offers advice on writing, interviews and career paths.
“He was part of the heart and soul of this organization,” said Jocelyn Francoeur, Just the Beginning’s executive director. Former clerks and interns, she said, often write to say that Lee “completely changed their lives.”
One former clerk, Zuberi Williams, is now a district court judge in Maryland. One Lee lesson, he remembers, was “not to be obstinate, not to be overly critical — you never know where people are coming from, so you should try to listen to them.”
Fairfax and Williams say Lee stayed in touch and became a friend, counseling them and encouraging them both personally and professionally.
Once a year, Lee hosts black male youths from a summer program called Kamp Kappa for a mock trial.
“There’s going to be a lot lost when he retires,” said Hector Cooley, former chairman of Kamp Kappa. Cooley recalled one student whose mother was suffering from bone cancer while he was trying to apply to college. Lee made time to go through scholarship and college applications for the student, a process that took months.
“These kids come to court, and nothing bad happens,” Lee said. “They see people who look like them, in different roles.”
Lee was appointed to the federal judiciary by President Bill Clinton in 1998. Before that, he worked first as a trial lawyer and then as a judge on the Fairfax Circuit Court.
His retirement leaves President Trump yet another judicial vacancy to fill; there are more than a hundred other open seats across the country. Virginia’s two senators can block a nomination.
For his own future, Lee said he has had conversations with the McCammon Group, a Richmond-based mediation firm that hires many former judges. He also plans to do some teaching.
But first, Lee would like to take three or four months to “do nothing,” for the first time since he was 14 years old.
“For 25 years, I’ve sent people to jail on Fridays,” he said. “It’s time to do something more.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the McCammon Group as based in Fairfax and hiring only former judges. The firm is based in Richmond and also hires prominent attorneys.