I’m afraid it’s time to add another to my recent string of blog posts honoring remarkable judges and justices who have left the bench. United States Circuit Judge for the District of Columbia Circuit David Sentelle has retired. That court will be a grayer place for his departure.
A recitation of Judge Sentelle’s professional career is enough to give heart palpitations to anyone with aspirations to the bench. Two years after graduating from UNC School of Law in 1968 and a stint in private practice, he was hired as an Assistant United States Attorney in the Western District of North Carolina, trying cases in Charlotte and Asheville. In 1974, he was appointed to the position of North Carolina District Judge for Mecklenburg County. After a couple of years on that bench, he returned to private practice until President Reagan appointed him to the United States District Court for the Western District of North Carolina in 1985. Two years later, he was appointed to the United States Circuit Court for the District of Columbia, where he finally settled in.
This brief bio gives little sense of Judge Sentelle as a person. Though whip-smart, he has a wicked sense of humor and has never taken himself all that seriously. When he joined the D.C. Circuit, he took the seat of Antonin Scalia, who had been appointed to the United States Supreme Court. That’s fitting—one could describe Judge Sentelle as Scalia with the brakes off. These are some random thoughts, observations, and stories from fans:
1. According to his friend, former North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr, Judge Sentelle’s first words after taking the oath of office as a United States District Judge were to quote a Willie Nelson song: “It’s been rough and rocky travelin’, But I’m finally standin’ upright on the ground. After taking several readings, I’m surprised to find my mind’s still fairly sound.” Apparently, no one enjoys Senate confirmation hearings.
2. Judge Sentelle can write. Whatever your feelings about the issues, any lawyer who reads, for instance, his dissent in National Ass’n. of Home Builders v. Babbitt, 130 F, 3d 1041, 1060 (1997), will recognize a master of both legal analysis and the rapier.
3. One of the more unusual cases over which he presided involved the Rainbow People, an anarchic but apparently likeable bunch of folks accompanied by an eclectic bunch of fauna from around the world. The People began gathering in a North Carolina forest without the required permit. Judge Sentelle brokered a consent judgment between the People and the State that he later described in his book, Judge Dave and the Rainbow People, which you ought to read. I attended a talk Judge Sentelle later gave about this episode and still remember that he uttered one of the funniest sentences (intentional or not) that I’ve ever heard a judge say: “You know how hard it can be to find someone to look after your elephant when you’re planning to be away for the weekend.”
4. Earlier in my career, I was “invited” to prosecute a case of voter fraud in Asheville when the U.S. Attorney’s office there was recused. Judge Sentelle presided over the week-long trial. Though opposing counsel was Bob Long, Judge Sentelle’s former law partner, I never experienced any home cooking. In fact, Judge Sentelle ran the most casual federal court I’ve ever been in. Getting to know him and work with him in that trial is a good memory to this day.
5. Judge Sentelle is deeply respected for his legal acumen. While on the D.C. Circuit, he has been on panels that considered Oliver North’s convictions for obstruction of Congress and other related offenses, that brought the Sherman Antitrust Act into the 21st Century (USA v. Microsoft, 253 F.3d 34 (2002)), and that addressed the validity of recess appointments made by the U.S. President (Noel Canning v. NLRB, 705 F.3d 490 (2013)). He authored this last as Chief Judge of the D.C. Circuit and was affirmed 9-0 by the United States Supreme Court.
After such a full and successful career, Judge Sentelle now heads into retirement, wearing his trademark cowboy boots. He’s earned it, but we will miss his familiar rumbling voice and sly humor from the bench. Happy trails, Judge Dave!