Judge Paul L. Friedman, US District Court for the District of Columbia | White & Case Alumni

Judge Paul L. Friedman, US District Court for the District of Columbia

Judge Paul L. Friedman, US District Court for the District of ColumbiaJudge Paul L. Friedman, a United States District Court Judge for the District of Columbia, has had a long and varied legal career. After graduating from The School of Law of the State University of New York at Buffalo, Judge Friedman clerked for two federal judges and then served as an Assistant US Attorney for the District of Columbia from 1970 to 1974, and as an Assistant to the Solicitor General of the United States from 1974 to 1976. He practiced law as an associate and partner with White & Case in its Washington, DC office from 1976 until 1994, when he was appointed to the US District Court. On December 5, 2009, Judge Friedman was the Judicial Honoree at the Bar Association of the District of Columbia's 138th Annual Banquet. Judge Friedman capped his legal career when he took Senior Judge status on January 1, 2010. Judge Friedman graciously took time recently to speak with White & Case about his storied legal career.

Q: Your first legal jobs were with the government. Can you tell us a little bit about them?

A: After graduating from law school, I clerked for Judge Aubrey E. Robinson, Jr. of the US District Court for the District of Columbia and then for Judge Roger Robb of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. I learned so much from both of them, although they were very different: Robinson was a moderate Democrat, while Robb was a conservative Republican.

I then went to the US Attorney's Office and served there for four years, trying scores of cases and arguing dozens of appeals. From 1974 to 1976 I worked as assistant to Robert Bork, who was Solicitor General of the United States at the time. I made five arguments to the Supreme Court during that period. Arguing before nine judges is quite different from arguing before one judge or even three.You make your arguments in a small and intimate room with the counsel's table very close to the bench and the justices. Justice William O. Douglas was still on the Court during my first couple of arguments and then I argued before Justice John Paul Stevens during his first year on the Court.

Q: You came to White & Case in 1976 and were with the Firm for 18 years—first as an associate and then as a partner. In what areas of law did you practice?

A: Hard as it may be to believe, when I arrived, the Washington, DC office was just two years old and had only 12 or 13 lawyers. I handled white collar crime matters, internal investigations, criminal antitrust and criminal tax cases, appellate work and a wide variety of civil litigation.

Q: How did you feel about leaving White & Case to become a federal district court judge? How did the transition go?

A: The hardest aspect was that I loved making appellate arguments, which I would no longer be able to do upon leaving the practice of law. Also, as a judge you have to realize that you're playing a very different role—you're essentially changing from a player to an umpire. Especially when you are presiding over a jury trial, you must hold your tongue and not show your frustration with the arguments being made.

Another big change is the lack of resources available to judges. At a large firm like White & Case you have all the resources and expertise in the world to draw upon, if the client is willing to pay.

Judge Paul L. Friedman receiving the Bar Association of the District of Columbia's Judicial Honoree award from his friend, former US Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick, at the Association's 138th Annual Banquet. Standing with them is James Flood, the Association's President.

Q: What's the most challenging aspect of being a judge?

A: It's realizing the extraordinary power one single person has and the challenge of exercising that power every day with restraint and, one hopes, with wisdom. Being a judge is a job involving actual disputes and real people's lives. Every judge I know hopes the citizens involved in those disputes leave the court believing they have gotten a fair shake, even if—or especially if—their side has lost.

Q: What are some of the biggest matters and issues you've ruled on in the last 15 years?

A: Probably the most significant is my approval of a landmark settlement for thousands of African-American farmers to redress years of discrimination by the Department of Agriculture in its denial of the farmers' applications for loans and other credit and benefit programs. So far, the government has paid out approximately US$1 billion to 15,000 African-American farmers. It is considered the largest class action civil rights settlement in the history of the country.

I also approved a settlement of a class action lawsuit against the District of Columbia's continuing failure to hold administrative due process hearings and provide appropriate services to special education students. The consent decree embodied a remedy for the District's failure to provide prompt hearings and placements and included the District's commitment to meet their legal obligations to these students, as well as mechanisms for enforcing those commitments through specific timetables.

In an interesting First Amendment case, I found that the federal Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2004 was unconstitutional. That law had provided that none of the appropriated funds for mass transit would be made available to any federal transit grantee involved in any activity that promoted the legalization or medical use of a controlled substance. This case involved advertisements for the legalization of marijuana on DC transit buses and subways.

And in a criminal matter of national interest, I approved the proposal of St. Elizabeth's Hospital that John W. Hinckley, Jr., who tried to assassinate President Reagan 21 years earlier and had been in treatment since then, be allowed to make a certain number of unsupervised visits with his parents in the District of Columbia. I subsequently approved an expansion of Hinckley's privileges so that he is allowed unsupervised visits of up to nine nights to his mother's home hundreds of miles from the District. I based my ruling on the fact that all the psychiatrists and psychologists who testified, including the government medical experts, agreed that Hinckley's psychotic disorders were in remission and that he presented a low risk of danger.

Q: You have been historically opposed to the disparity in sentencing for cocaine and crack cocaine offenses. How has this opposition been expressed in your judicial decisions?

A: In the past, mandatory sentencing guidelines created a "100-to-1" ratio—that is, five grams of crack cocaine resulted in the same sentence as 500 grams of powder cocaine. I believe this disparity often led to harsher punishments for blacks than whites and treated low-level dealers more harshly than major traffickers. In 2005, the US Supreme Court in United States v. Booker allowed judges sentencing discretion and I then began to apply a 20-to-1 ratio rather than the harsher ratio.

In 2009, a defendant that I had sentenced using this ratio came before me for a resentencing. At the resentencing, I adopted a new approach to sentencing in crack cocaine cases and announced that I would take this new approach not only in the defendant's case but also in all future crack cocaine sentencings. Under this new approach, I apply a 1-to-1 crack-to-powder ratio and then, in appropriate cases, vary upward to take account of any aggravating factors that may exist. I believe I am among the first judges in the United States to adopt this approach. In adopting this new approach I relied in part on a 2009 declaration by the US Supreme Court in Spears v. United States that district courts were authorized to vary from the crack sentencing guidelines based on policy disagreements with them, and "not simply based on an individualized determination that they yield an excessive sentence in a particular case" and recent statements by the US Department of Justice in favor of completely eliminating the disparity between crack and powder cocaine in sentencing.

Q: What message do you have to offer to young lawyers today?

A: Do something with your professional life other than just get to the office early, stay late in the evening and work every weekend. Bar association activities, pro bono legal work, service on committees of the court or other volunteer efforts can be psychologically, civically, socially and professionally rewarding. Not to mention focusing on your personal life and spending time with your family. Second, be a mentor, a teacher, a patron to younger lawyers, a person who recognizes qualities in others that they themselves may not have seen. One of the important things each of us can do as we advance in the legal profession is to encourage and promote subsequent generations of lawyers.

Q: Who were some of your mentors and what lifelong lessons did you learn from them?

A: First, of course, were Judge Robinson and Judge Robb. Judge Robinson opened a door by offering me a clerkship with him in Washington, and that first opportunity revealed a whole new world in the law and led ultimately to where I am today. From him I learned about fairness and decency and treating people with respect and dignity, no matter their station in life. Judge Robb, a great trial lawyer before he was an appellate judge, taught me that the finest lawyers should aspire to be meticulous, tough, fair, upright and ethical. I learned from him to trust the legal system and its ability to seek and find the truth through the time-tested adversary process. And there were many others along the way—a good many of my White & Case partners, both in New York and in Washington, DC, and the more senior lawyers I met through my ABA, DC Bar and public interest activities.

Q: You've entered a new phase of your legal career since you took on Senior Judge status on 1 January. What do you look forward to as a Senior Judge?

A: I'm looking forward to doing somewhat less of what I've been doing over the last 15 years and the luxury of not taking certain types of cases in which I have less interest than others—for example, employment discrimination, patent and FOIA cases. But I'm also looking forward to sitting on other courts that need outside assistance and, in particular, offering my services to courts of appeals based on my lifelong love of appellate work.