Senior U.S. District Judge John Garrett Penn, a Carter appointee who served as chief judge in the 1990s, died Sunday after a long illness, according to court officials. He was 75.
Penn took the bench at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in 1979. He served as chief judge from 1992 to 1997, taking senior status in 1998. He began his legal career with a tour in the U.S. Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps from 1958 to 1960. In 1961, during the first year of the Kennedy administration, Penn joined the Justice Department on a lark.
“I was so green that I just walked in the door and asked for the employment office,” Penn told the Bar Report in 1997. He was interviewed on the spot, and was eventually hired as an attorney in the tax division. In the late 1960s, he got a call from the assistant deputy attorney general, who told him of President Nixon’s plans for the creation of a D.C. Superior Court.
“I was told that they were looking for some good people from the Department of Justice to become judges. So after talking it over with my wife, I decided to stay put. Then when the new court was created [in 1970], I was nominated to sit on the Superior Court by President Nixon. That's how I became a judge,” Penn said.
Penn was born in Pittsfield, Mass., in 1932, one of about 500 African Americans in a city of 55,000. His father was carpenter and a draftsman by trade, but the depression forced him into work as a machinist in local factory. Penn enrolled at the University of Massachusetts in 1950. He had planned to graduate with a degree in chemistry, but balked at the four-year German language study requirement (the logic being, most of the preeminent chemistry scholars' research was printed in German). But Penn was also a student of the civil rights movement, closely tracking Thurgood Marshall and the lawyers from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
“In bringing the legal actions they brought, they were fighting my battle. I was excited by what they were doing, and the focus of my course work began to change. I started taking courses in sociology and government, and it was then that I started thinking that maybe I'd like to become a lawyer,” Penn said.
He was accepted to law school at Georgetown University and Boston University, but chose the latter -- he graduated in 1957 -- because of the segregation that still existed in the South.
He is survived by his wife and three grown children, whom he has called his "greatest accomplishment in life." Read more of the interview here on the D.C. Bar’s Web site.
In a statement, Chief Judge Thomas Hogan said, "Judge Penn was a beloved member of the court. We will dearly miss his wisdom and his companionship."