U.S. District Judge Gerald Bruce Lee, who has mentored scores of interns and law clerks over a 24-year judicial career, has announced he will retire from the bench this fall.
Lee, known for longstanding efforts to promote diversity in the legal profession and to inspire young people to overcome challenging circumstances, said illness led him to reflect on how he wanted to spend the coming decades.
The second of two bouts of pneumonia last year forced the 65-year-old Lee from the bench for four weeks.
“After thinking and praying about it, I decided I wanted to walk out of the courthouse and not be carried out,” Lee said in an interview May 17. “I love this job, but I know I needed to take some time for myself,” he added.
Sept. 30 will be his official last day.
Lee emphasized, “I am not leaving because I am sick. I am leaving because I am well.”
Beginnings as trial lawyer
Graduating from American University’s law school in 1976, Lee practiced for 15 years in Northern Virginia, mostly in small firms, he said. Lee called himself a trial lawyer, as distinguished from a “litigator.” He said he was a regular at the courthouses for cases large and small.
He was named to the Fairfax County Circuit Court bench in 1992. Nominated as a federal judge by President Bill Clinton in 1998, he won the highest rating from each of 12 bar associations that evaluated him. He was the first African-American to serve as a full-time judge at the Alexandria federal court.
Lee said growing up in southeast Washington gave him empathy and insight about the criminal defendants he faced as a judge.
“I think my experience is an important part of a judge’s toolbox and resources,” he said. For those struggling with addiction, Lee said he sought to apply “a calibrated dose of punishment, treatment and hope.”
Lee was among judges who voted in 2001 to establish the federal public defender’s office for the Eastern District of Virginia.
“It was a major milestone for the court, because now we have a first rate public defender who is able to provide effective representation from traffic court to the Supreme Court of the United States,” Lee said.
Lee said he is most proud of the people he has trained as judicial interns and law clerks.
“I considered my chambers a training chambers,” he said. “My staff and I spent a lot of time training folks. So many of them are now doing exceedingly well,” he said.
Of 140 interns, at least 50 became judicial law clerks, Lee said.
Lee’s legacy includes his work with organizations dedicated to helping minorities and other challenged students achieve success. For 24 years, Lee has helped to host a student law program at “Kamp Kappa” where boys from 10 to 16 get a close look at the justice system.
“We bring these kids from different backgrounds to the courthouse and they get a chance to interact with police, lawyers and judges – and nothing bad happens,” Lee said.
Lee also has worked with a legal diversity program called “Just the Beginning” to help minority law students apply for federal clerkships.
Asked about memorable cases, Lee talked about the time he set up a split-screen television connection for a hearing that linked participants in Alexandria and Saudi Arabia.
The unique long-distance session allowed an alleged would-be presidential assassin to try to flesh out his claims of torture at the hands of Saudis.
“That was historic in the sense I was able to preserve his right to confrontation and take evidence overseas,” Lee said.
Lee also pointed to the 2003 case of Brian Patrick Regan, a former Air Force intelligence officer who tried to sell secrets to foreign nations. The government sought the death penalty. It was the first trial of a capital espionage case since that of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1953.
Regan avoided the death penalty and is serving a life sentence.
Lee also ruled against the Washington Redskins in a dispute over whether the team is entitled to federal trademark protection. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will review the decision.
Lee will not disappear from the legal community on retirement.
Lee said he is talking to both the McCammon Group about mediation work and American University about teaching options after he retires.
“I’m very positive I’m going to be involved in some aspect of the law.”