U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton reflected on his long career in the legal profession today, offering a group of federal judges in Washington D.C. his views on the commutation of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby’s sentence and repeating his calls for Congress to eliminate the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine.
Walton, of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, sat down with Judge Gerald Bruce Lee of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia to discuss Walton’s background, career path, and judicial philosophy, on day two of the biennial conference of the Just the Beginning Foundation, which works to increase racial diversity in the legal profession and on the bench.
As the judge who presided over Libby’s trial last year, Walton said he was warned from the outset “that [Libby] would never be made accountable for what he did if he were convicted.” But he said he was also advised, by a colleague who had handled a similar case, “that I had to do my job, and if the executive decided to [commute the sentence] then that was their prerogative. It’s a part of our system, so I have to respect it.”
Walton did express some concerns about the implications of the clemency decision. “If we want the American citizenry to respect our system of justice, people have to feel that regardless of who you are, that when you come into a courtroom you’re going to be treated equally,” he said. When you single people out “because of who they know or because of their connections [and] they get something different than what others receive, I think it causes the citizenry to think that our process is not fair.”
The glare of the public spotlight also exposed the judge “to how biased the media is,” he said. As one of President George W. Bush’s appointee to the District Court, he said many were expecting him to show favor to Libby, and “the liberal media were taking some shots at me.” After handing down the sentence, however, he found himself “the darling of that segment … and all of a sudden, the other side of the media, like The Wall Street Journal, wrote very negative editorials about me.”
When asked to name what he associated with the word “injustice,” Walton showed no hesitation: “Crack, powder.” He called the sentencing disparity “unconscionable … especially now that we know that we are really talking about the same chemical substance.” The judge, who has appeared before House and Senate committees to press for change, said he maintains hope “that the Congress will have the backbone at some point to step up to the plate and realize that they’ve got to fix this problem.”