A MAN ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF GOD and JUSTICE IN RICHMOND
By Harold Bell
In the game called “Life” where every black face you see is not a Brother and every white face you see is not your Enemy—meet Brother Rev. James R. Spencer aka U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer of Richmond, Virginia. He is the sitting judge in the most political corrupt trial in the history of Virginia. Former Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen are facing charges that they took $165,000 from a Virginia businessman.
Judge Spencer is the first African-American to serve as a federal judge in Virginia. He recently stepped down from active status to become a senior judge on March 25, 2014. He is now in semi-retirement from the Richmond division of the federal court system’s Eastern District of Virginia. As a senior judge he is allowed to take a smaller caseload.
“The Smaller Caseload” suddenly became a Giant when he was assigned to hear the biggest corruption case in the history of Virginia politics.
Judge Spencer was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, then 37. The appointment made him one of the youngest federal judges in the country. His background includes some accomplishments shared by few, if any, federal judges: He has a black belt in karate, he is a avid tennis player and hold a degree in divinity.
In a sermon heard at Mt. Olive Baptist Church in Arlington, Virginia in the early 90s interview after he became a judge, Rev. Spencer gave credit to his parents, Hannah and Benjamin, and one teacher, Mattie Lou Perkins for his lifelong love of reading, his faith and his Southern civility.
He said, “In 1986 I felt my judgeship would be a source of pride for many older black lawyers who paved the way, such as Oliver W. Hill Sr. Being the first black to accomplish something like that did not mean that much to me. I have always … been the first black or the only black, he said at the time. That’s not a victory. I think it is too bad. I long for the day when it will be so insignificant that it will become irrelevant,”
The White House will solicit recommendations from his home-state senators, which carry great weight.
A spokesman for Sen. Mark R. Warner, D-Va., said his office has informally discussed with newly elected Sen. Timothy M. Kaine, D-Va., the process used by Warner and then-Sen. Jim Webb to fill an earlier vacancy.
The process includes asking bar associations for a diverse list of potential nominees, said Warner spokesman Kevin Hall. “We will jointly vet those potential nominees and then schedule face-to-face interviews involving both senators.”
Rev. Spencer was raised in Florence, S.C. He is a 1971 graduate of Clark College in Atlanta and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1974.
Reagan nominated Spencer for the district court seat in September 1986. He was unanimously confirmed by the Senate and was commissioned in October 1986, filling the seat of the late D. Dortch Warriner.
Rev. Spencer was the chief judge of the 11-judge district, which includes divisions in Alexandria and Hampton Roads, from 2004 to 2011.
Federal judges who reach the age of 65 with 15 years of service — or one less year of service for each additional year of age — are eligible to semi-retire at full salary.
“It’s important he’s announcing his intent early to give plenty of time for a new appointment so there will be no long vacancy,” said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law.
“This gives the President and Senate time to select a successor and get the benefit of another senior, experienced judge,” Tobias said. The division’s two other judges are Henry E. Hudson and John A. Gibney Jr.
Robert E. Payne is the other senior judge. Tobias said he believes Judge Spencer, like Payne, “will continue to be very active and continue to carry a substantial load.”
“They can stay as busy as they want, but a half load is typical,” Tobias said of a senior judge. In more than a quarter century as a judge, Judge Spencer has handled thousands of criminal and civil cases, Tobias said.
Perhaps the highest-profile case was the patent-infringement suit by a Virginia company against Research In Motion, the manufacturer of the Black-Berry. A jury ruled that RIM had infringed on the Virginia firm’s patents.
A federal appeals court sent the case back to Spencer, however, prompting negotiations that Judge Spencer steered to a $612.5 million settlement in 2006 amid long-running, national media coverage, Tobias said.
President Barack Obama will nominate a candidate to replace Judge Spencer. He will be hard to replace—he is definitely a tough act to follow. The courthouses and judges around this country lack the characteristics of a Judge James Spencer. There seems to be no sense of fair play, integrity and honesty.
My wife Hattie introduced me to the Rev. Spencer in the early 90s at Mount Olive Baptist Church in Arlington, Virginia where he was the guest speaker.
His sermon “Role Models & Heroes” was the best I have ever heard as it relates to the demise of the Black Community. Two decades later his sermon is still the most inspiring I have ever heard from the pulpit. Looking at the state of Black America today, he has become a prophet.
Rev. Spencer laid the blame directly at the feet of black politicians, preachers, hero athletes, entertainers, drug dealers, thugs running loose in the streets, shooting and killing our children and raping and robbing residents of our community.
Unlike other ministers and pastors in today’s black churches, he kicked ass and called names. He belted out familiar names like, Marion Barry, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Ben Hooks, Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan, Pete Rose, Len Bias, etc. During his sermon anonymity was not an option.
His heroes were my heroes, his parents, Hannah and Benjamin and one outstanding teacher, Mattie Lou Perkins. He hit close to home, for me it was my mother Mattie, grandmother Amy Tyler Bell and my high school Coach Dave Brown. The entire church stood on their feet and gave him a standing ovation that seem like it lasted forever at the conclusion of his sermon.
Since that sermon Congressman Charles Rangle, Prince George’s County Executive Jack Johnson, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, DC City Councilmen, Kwame Brown, Michael Brown, and Harry Thomas all have run afoul of the law.
“The Mayor for Life” now City Councilman Marion Barry continues to have encounters with law enforcement in DC. He was involved in a recent minor automobile accident while driving on the wrong side of the street. He was driving a car that was not registered and without insurance. It was later discovered he had accumulated almost $3,000 in unpaid traffic tickets. All this followed the arrest of his son Christopher in July. He was pulled over because of a faulty signal light and was arrested when drugs were found in his car.
When I spoke with Judge Spencer after the sermon he mentioned he worked as an assistant in the office of the U.S. attorney in Washington, DC and had received his Master of Divinity degree from Howard University in 1985. I told him DC Superior Judge Luke C. Moore was my “Big Brother and Mentor” he lit up like a Christmas Tree.
Spencer gave me his contact numbers in Richmond and said to make sure the next time Hattie and I were in town to call him. The next time I would be in Richmond would be 1993. This marked the last year the CIAA Tournament (The Central Inter-Collegian Athletic Association) would play in the city.” I called him and we met for a game of tennis and lunch.
During the tennis match I discovered his competitive nature. He played the game of tennis like he played The Game Called Life—he played to win. I beat him in a close match. And during lunch he kept asking me, “When are you going to be in town again.” He wanted revenge. What really impressed me with Judge Spencer was how he played the game of tennis. All close calls that were in doubt he gave to me. Honesty and integrity is something you cannot teach, especially, in this win at all cost world today.
You can bet the McDonnells will get a fair trial. The only payroll Judge Spencer is on—–is God’s.
The day we spend together I knew I had been in the company of a Super Star in the Game Called Life. He had not forgotten who he was and where he came from. I know our friend the late DC Superior Court Judge Luke C. Moore is looking down and smiling on him for a job well done.
With the CIAA Basketball Tournament leaving Richmond and with his busy schedule there was no re-match but the final score was Love-Love-Love.
Harold Bell is the Godfather of Sports Talk radio and television in Washington, DC. Throughout the mid-sixties, seventies and eighties, Harold embarked upon a relatively new medium–sports talk radio with classic interviews with athletes and sports celebrities. The show and format became wildly popular. Harold has been an active force fighting for the rights of children for over 40 years with the help of his wife through their charity Kids In Trouble, Inc. To learn more about Harold Bell visit his official web site The Original Inside Sports.com.