News and events revolving around the ousting of CIA agent Valerie Plame.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Judge Comes From Rough-And-Tumble Roots - Yahoo! News

By PETE YOST, Associated Press Writer

U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton grew up on the rough streets of a Pennsylvania steel town, far from his courtroom in downtown Washington where the Bush administration may be called to account in the Valerie Plame affair.

Presiding over the biggest case of his 23-year career as a judge, Walton comes from a far different world than criminal defendant I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff.

Libby graduated from a New England boarding school, Yale University and Columbia University School of Law. Walton attended public schools and a state college, struggled with reading and held a part-time job while attending law school.

As a teenager, Walton occasionally packed a gun and a straight razor and was arrested three times, he recently told an audience of young men at a juvenile detention facility outside Washington.

"I would fight you in a second," the judge, 50, said of his teenage years in Donora, Pa. "Most of the kids I grew up with are either dead, junkies or drunks. They didn't do anything with their lives, but that doesn't have to be you."

In court, Walton is known for his tough sentencing. Outside court, Walton has reached out over the years to thousands of teenagers in trouble just as he was, exhorting them to change their lives.

Last week, some of the young men in Walton's audience at the Oak Hill Youth Center in Laurel, Md., were defiant.

"There's nothing out there," said one young man.

"There is something out there," the judge replied. "You can do something constructive with your life."

He explained one of the turning points in his own.

Walton was involved in a street fight in which one young man stabbed another in the back nine times with an ice pick.

"He didn't die," said Walton, who helped rush the stabbing victim to a hospital. "If he had died, my whole life would probably have been destroyed."

A star halfback on his high school football team, Walton got into West Virginia State College on an athletic scholarship, attracting the interest of the then-Baltimore Colts. A jarring tackle shattered the bones in one of his ankles, ending his pro prospects.

His football playing days over, Walton transformed himself into a serious student and managed to get into law school, despite reading deficiencies that had been so acute in high school that his classmates laughed at him.

He says he made it through American University's Washington College of Law by holding down part-time jobs and studying 12 to 13 hours a day, seven days a week. By his senior year, he was on the Dean's List.

By the time he was 30, he was chief of the career criminal unit in the U.S. attorney's office in Washington. At age 32, President Reagan appointed him to a judgeship on the District of Columbia Superior Court.

Prominent Washington defense attorney Bob Bennett — who knew of Walton's work in the U.S. attorney's office and as a judge — introduced Walton to Bennett's brother, Bill Bennett, who was then director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Walton soon became a top ONDCP official.

"Reggie is an outstanding judge and both Libby and the government will get a fair trial," said Bob Bennett, who has more than a passing interest in the case. He represented New York Times reporter Judith Miller during her 85 days in jail and her subsequent grand jury testimony in the investigation into the Bush administration's leak of Plame's CIA identity to the news media.

In the run-up to Libby's trial, Walton will be facing contentious First Amendment issues, deciding how much latitude to give Libby's defense team in questioning reporters who are key to determining whether Libby lied under oath. His lawyers are expected ask for extensive access to the reporters' notes and e-mails, moves that could trigger lengthy appeals by the news media before a trial begins and push the case back to well after next year's midterm elections.

Walton's role also may be crucial regarding the use of classified information and whether documents sought by Libby's lawyers are relevant. If Walton rules against opening classified files to the defense team, Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald's case would move to trial.

If Walton rules that Libby must be allowed to present certain evidence that is currently classified, all or portions of the case could be dismissed if the intelligence bureaucracy refuses to declassify the material for use in court.

Last week, the Libby case and the political problems it's causing the Bush administration never came up during Walton's appearance at the youth center in Laurel, Md. The case and its significance were explained to the young men when the judge was introduced. Then the subject changed.

"Some people don't have no mother, no father, no houses to go to," one youth said, issuing a challenge to Walton's message that people can turn their lives around.

"It's hard, I understand that," Walton responded. "I'm not saying it's going to be easy. All I'm saying is you can't give up on life. If somebody had told me — when I was your age, when I was caught up in the court system — that I was going to end up being a lawyer, I'd have said you've got to be out of your mind."