In memorium: Judge Dickinson Debevoise


For a great man like Judge Dickinson Debevoise, there is no such thing as “ripe old age.” Judge Debevoise was appointed to the federal bench by President Carter in 1979 and served for more than 35 years. He was hearing cases until shortly before his untimely death last week at the age of 91. Untimely? For this great man, any death was untimely.

I have learned the hard way, like every lawyer learns, that judges are not always wise or patient. Judicial decisions can be petty, biased, wrong-headed, or just dumb. Judges will sometimes not listen to reason. Some of them delight in lecturing people who appear before them. I have seen judges tell an accused defendant essentially that he is a vile human being, before sentencing him to 25 years in prison. The sentence alone would have been sufficient punishment without the added humiliation.

Judge Debevoise was the opposite. He treated everyone with respect and dignity: lawyers, criminals, victims, witnesses, court personnel. He was always nice. He was always gentle. He was one of the smartest judges I knew, but he never showed off. I guess he was regarded as a liberal because he was kind to people, but if he had any politics, I never saw them.

One of my patients – let’s call him Joe B. – was a lawyer who got involved on the wrong side of an international conspiracy. This was a long and complex story, one that the government never quite figured out. Joe was left holding the bag. Joe lost all his money in the scam. To make things worse, he was also charged with income tax fraud. Judge Debevoise had the job of sentencing him.

Judge Debevoise told Joe that he was giving him four months in a minimum security federal prison camp. He apologized to Joe for putting him away at all, but explained that under the law, he was required to impose a sentence of no less than four months. Then Judge Debevoise spoke to Joe from the bench, more like a brother than a mighty federal judge. He said words to this effect:

Mr. B, I have read all the documents you have submitted and documents that others have submitted on your behalf. I have no doubt that you are a wonderful man and you have been an outstanding lawyer. You have always practiced law to the highest ethical standards.

I deeply apologize for sending you to prison for any amount of time, but the law will permit me to do no less. No one has ever figured out how you fell victim to this conspiracy. The government doesn’t understand it and I don’t either.

I just want you to know that I respect you and admire you. I expect you to return to the practice of law and to continue to serve our community in the same exemplary way you have always served it. You have my genuine admiration.

Joe was able to go to prison with equanimity. He found that federal prison camp was not the country club the newspapers portray. Joe was not given hard labor, but he was worn down with unending menial tasks. Whenever he felt humiliated by the experience, he thought back to Judge Debevoise’s words and he felt proud again.

Now there is a jurist for the ages. I miss you, Judge Debevoise.


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