First Person

Forty years ago, I likely ended a judge’s career. Do I regret it?

January 12, 2018
Photo: Matt Borge/flickr.

The nagging question all reporters face, regardless of platform or subject, is this: If it’s news, and it’s true, should the source matter? What if the source is leaking information to serve his or her own agenda, or even to carry out a vendetta?  Should reporters consider the potential motivation of a source, or simply write it? Besides considerations for national security or safety, should potential consequences enter into the equation?

These questions haunt me as I look back on a story I wrote more than 40 years ago for The Washington Post that likely ended the judicial career of a controversial judge of whom I was personally fond: Charles W. Halleck, the former DC Superior Court judge. The story raised ethical issues that weren’t new then and are just as perplexing now. But I’ve found myself reflecting on these issues recently in the wake of Halleck’s death at the age of 88.

ICYMI: A media controversy comes to an explosive conclusion

This wasn’t Watergate or the WikiLeaks release of hacked Democratic National Committee emails. In the former, protecting a confidential source was paramount, and, arguably, in the nation’s best interest. In the latter, the source was outwardly WikiLeaks, but the source behind the source was murky, and reporters were arguably too incurious to dig deeper. The thinking probably was: A scoop’s a scoop, and the contents inside these emails damaging to Hillary Clinton were news. The backstory—about the Russian role in the release—would surface only much later.

I didn’t have to go to jail to protect a source, but I was prepared to. It was a long time ago, 1976 to be exact, when a confidential source handed me the story in question.

Charley Halleck, the Indiana-born son of Charles A. Halleck, the Republican House majority leader under Eisenhower, had been appointed to the D.C. bench in 1965. The younger Halleck quickly gained a reputation as a tough, conservative, and often intemperate judge. Then he got involved with a progressive probation officer, left his wife, married the other woman and morphed into a tough, liberal, and often intemperate judge.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

His seemingly anti-prosecutorial bent won him no friends in the US Attorney’s Office.

The local DC courts, known for disreputable assembly-line justice involving mostly low-level crimes, were then being upgraded. But the changes were largely cosmetic. The bench was still studded with colorful, controversial judges, Halleck among them.

It was a reporter’s playground. The courts were scattered in seven buildings, and in our tiny pressroom in Building B, I competed against Winston Groom, from the Evening Star, who would write the book on which the blockbuster Forrest Gump movie starring Tom Hanks was based. Lawyers representing mostly indigent defendants were known as Fifth Streeters, because that’s where many of their offices were, in dingy brownstone buildings. Some were as seedy as their clients and reaped huge legal fees under the publicly funded Criminal Justice Act.

In those days, the early 1970s, a reporter could walk unimpeded into a judge’s chambers and chat up his secretary and law clerk. I could even walk into a file room, grab a case file and make copies for free. For an eager young journalist, it couldn’t get much better.

That’s how I got to know Halleck on a personal level, aside from watching his courtroom antics. Tim Robinson, another Washington Post reporter, and I did a series of articles about his courtroom capers and his war with prosecutors. For the stories, I even visited his farm in then-rural Gaithersburg, Maryland. Somewhere in my archives, there is a picture of my oldest son on one of his horses.

But a job’s a job, and reporters must guard against becoming too close to sources, anonymous or otherwise—and I had a job to do. The court reforms included the creation of a DC judicial disabilities commission, whose tasks included rating judges who were up for reappointment. For a judge deemed well- or extremely-well qualified, reappointment was automatic. But a “qualified” ruling, which was applied to Halleck, meant the judge must be renominated by the President.

A job’s a job, and reporters must guard against becoming too close to sources.

The head of the commission was Henry A. Berliner, Jr., who, as a young prosecutor Halleck had berated. The commission’s job was also to evaluate complaints against judges. There were questions about secrecy and due process, but we soon learned that Halleck stood accused of more courtroom intemperance.

Still, Halleck seemed headed for reappointment, that is, until new cases came to light. At the 1976 Republican National Convention in Kansas City, I was assigned to cover the District of Columbia delegation. The chair of the delegations was Berliner, now deceased. In the midst of all the excitement over whether the nomination would go to Ford or Reagan, he told me—not for attribution–about the newest cases of Halleck’s alleged judicial misbehavior.

ICYMI: Blockbuster White House book claims its first victim

Upon returning to Washington, I published the damaging story that put Halleck’s reappointment permanently on hold. It disclosed three incidents in which the judge allegedly verbally abused a court employee and a hospital employee and made other untoward remarks during a sentencing. I do not recall any conversation with my editors about my source or his motives.

Pro-Halleck forces were already alleging a conspiracy between prosecutors and the press. The commission planned to hold hearings on the latest charges that I had disclosed, and Halleck sued to stop the proceedings. A lawyer representing the panel testified Halleck told him he planned to seek a contempt citation against a reporter if he refused to disclose sources. His attorney, John W. Karr, an otherwise ardent civil libertarian, subpoenaed me to testify. The table was set. Freedom of the press was on the menu.

I came to court prepared to testify only to what was in my story and no more. Someone in the courtroom jokingly asked me if I had brought a toothbrush, just in case. I did take the stand, but the Post lawyer raised objections and succeeded in having the motion to compel my testimony quashed. As I stepped down, the judge said softly, “I’m glad you don’t have to go to jail.”

That was it for me—and for Halleck. President Ford declined to press forward with his re-nomination. Halleck not only retired from the bench; he moved to California, where he took up photography, shooting pictures for the local newspaper. There is some irony in that, I suppose. I heard from his former law clerk that he was happier there than he had been on the bench.

Looking back on the Halleck affair, I ask myself: Was this my finest moment in journalism? Probably not. And the inevitable follow-up question: Do I regret it? Probably not.

ICYMI: A viral tweet by a prominent journalist slamming Fox News was completely wrong

Eugene L. Meyer is a former longtime Washington Post reporter and editor and an author. He is the editor of the quarterly B'nai B'rith Magazine. His most recent book is Five for Freedom: The African American Soldiers in John Brown's Army.