Credo of judge who undid AT&T: 'Is it right ... fair?'
Somewhere between the AT&T divestiture trial and the case of the airport cabdriver who charged $100 for a $20 ride, federal district Judge Harold Greene raised his walnut gavel on ''debategate.''Skip to next paragraph
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But recently the gavel came down against him as an appeals court reversed Judge Greene. It was one of the most dramatic cases on the docket for this jurist, who developed his passion for justice after fleeing Nazi Germany.
The case involves the US Justice Department and its attorney general, William French Smith. In its 8-to-0 decision, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that Attorney General Smith was not required to appoint an independent counsel to investigate how Carter White House briefing materials were obtained by the Reagan staff in the 1980 presidential campaign. The appeals court reversed Greene's May opinion, in which he gave the attorney general seven days to ask for a special prosecutor.
As a matter of judicial circumspection, Greene would not talk about the case before the appeals court reversed his decision. And he still won't talk about it afterwards. But he did sit down in his chambers over a glass of chocolate milk and talk judiciously about his job, giving a rare glimpse of the way a federal judge makes the big decisions.
His Honor's flowing black robe is stashed in a closet for this interview. There is no ''All rise!'' as is customary in the courtroom as the judge strides in here. In fact, he doesn't stride, he strolls in, looking cool and casual in a short-sleeve shirt.
He is unexpectedly merry looking for a man who passes judgment on some of the country's most somber cases. Harold Greene has a wide, upturned mouth with a crescent smile, a mouth that gives the impression he's smiling even when he isn't. His brown eyes twinkle behind horn-rimmed glasses; but it's a shrewd twinkle that suggests you'd better not misjudge his pleasant manner and be less than candid in his courtroom.
During this interview he sighs occasionally as he talks of what it's like to be a judge - more specifically, a judge with 165 cases pending.
''I guess my tendency is, in a sense, to be for the person who appears to be pushed around,'' Greene says. ''I try to find out in this particular situation who has done the fair thing, who has done the just thing. And it isn't always the little guy. More often than not, the little guy is getting pushed around. But not always. Sometimes he will be taking advantage of the situation, and claiming to be pushed around when actually he isn't.''
Greene has been described as an activist in the mold of the late US Chief Justice Earl Warren. ''Earl Warren was a great man, and I'm not on the same level, but I do identify with his credo,'' says Greene. ''He was famous for asking always, 'But is it right, is it fair?' '' Justice Warren always stressed what was right and fair under the particular circumstances, Greene adds. ''And that's not always easy to tell. It's not something you can put in a computer and get out at will. You have to be able to sense what is fair, and it's subtle in a way.''
To reach his chambers in the tan stone moderne building that houses the federal court, you walk through tall doors done in art-deco bronze and into a ''Frisk 'em'' security gate. One flight up, through ringing marble halls where all the doors are locked, are the judge's chambers, marked with a brass sign.
The chambers are screened by an ornate, open-work wooden wall allowing a view of the rooms beyond. His private office has teak walls, a rose-red Oriental rug, oatmeal couch with red pillows, and a massive desk with a black blotter, nearly clear of papers. Leather law books and a variety of paintings, including a courtroom scene and a drawing of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, line the room.