This is more or less the text of a speech I gave to a gathering of a few hundred friends of Judge Williams in 2002, and the judge liked it at the time, and now he cannot hold me in contempt of court for republishing it:
I was going to speak as a former law clerk at a ceremony for Judge Williams some years ago, but I couldn’t make it, so Randy Lowe spoke instead. Later, I asked Mona which stories he told, and she said he told the one about Judge Williams and the old woman with the outhouse in St. Charles. There are no outhouses in any of my stories.
Just before my clerkship started, I met a woman newspaper owner from here in Abingdon and told her I was going to work for Glen Williams, She said, “I love Judge Williams. He always hugs me and kisses me whenever we meet. None of the other judges do that.” That was in 1989, and ever since, I’ve often seen the judge give a hug to the women who come to see him. I understand that now Judge Williams is saying that since his eyesight is poor, he has to get up really close to people to see who they are. If it turns out to be a woman, since he’s already there, he might as well give her a hug.
There has never been a day when I have been with Judge Williams and he did not laugh, usually at himself. I worked for him during the last big coal miners’ strike, which got a lot of publicity, and during that time, the judge read to us a letter from an old acquaintance who had seen him on one of the TV reports, and the letter went something like this: Dear Glen, she wrote. It has been some years since last we met. I saw you on the news the other night. You looked terrible, and your voice is all wrong for television, and those clothes are so out of fashion. But oh how I loved watching you – to have those words of wisdom come out of that face, in that voice.
Maybe the best part about being a law clerk is that even after your clerkship is over, you still can talk to Judge Williams from time to time for help in understanding the real world.
There was a period of time in which I helped defend lawsuits against three governing boards. One board included the judge’s brother Don, another had his brother Lowell, and the third had Judge Williams himself. One day I told the judge about all this, and that I could only conclude that if there’s a board and one of the Williams boys is on it, there is going to be trouble. The judge said “Steve, anyone in Lee County could have told you that.”
On another trip back to the judge’s office, the judge introduced me to his latest law clerks, and he told them I did good work for him, and I had to correct him, explaining that no, I was surely the worst law clerk you ever had, because two of the opinions I wrote were reversed. The judge said “I wish you hadn’t said that, I had these boys thinking I’d never been reversed.” (That’s boys, pronounced like baw-eez with two syllables.) The judge was curious and asked what the cases were, and when I started telling him that one was a bankruptcy case, the judge cut me off, and said, “oh, bankruptcy, why, you might as well flip a coin.”
Judge Williams told me once that he took comfort in the fact that on those few occasions when one of his cases went all the way to the United States Supreme Court and they decided the case the other way, the vote was always 9-0. That way he knew for sure he was well and truly wrong, he said, and that a little more work on his opinion would not have made any difference.
I’m not sure, however, that the judge is always entirely in agreement with the appeals courts. I worked on a land use case involving property in downtown Jonesville. Judge Williams was opposed to the project, but Judge Quillen ruled that it could proceed, and the town appealed. After the Virginia Supreme Court affirmed Judge Quillen’s ruling, I mentioned this to Judge Williams, who replied, “well, Steve, they got it wrong of course, but I’m sure they tried their best.”
The hardest thing about being a former law clerk is when the judge, my own judge, my favorite judge - rules against me.
At one hearing, Judge Williams started calling me “John,” not once but over and over. The lawyer on the other side of the case, a high-powered guy from a big firm in Richmond, got in on the act and started calling me “Mr. Thornton.” Finally I said, “Judge, you all can call me any name you like, so long as you grant my motion.”
In another case, the other lawyer and I were arguing in chambers and I told the judge the plaintiff was going for punitive damages. The judge asked if this was true. The other lawyer said yes it was. I guess Judge Williams was trying to help me out when he replied, “why, no, Mr. Minor’s clients weren’t malicious, they were just dumb.”
Once I explained to Judge Williams that nothing is more painful for me as a former clerk than when he rules against me – it was like being rejected by my grandfather. The judge considered this and said “no wonder I rule against you, you haven’t got any tact. I’m not old enough to be your grandfather.” I guess Judge Williams must know that my grandmother over in Jonesville, is at least 83 years old, and so in his opinion that makes her much, much older than anyone born after 1919.
Maybe “grandfather” was the wrong word. In one of those lawyer books by Scott Turow, there’s a character who explains the relationship between a judge and his law clerks, and she says that just like a race horse is always known by its sire and dam, the law clerk throughout his legal career is always known by the judge for whom he clerked. So like the character in that book, let me say, that it is my proudest heritage as a lawyer to be known always as a Judge Williams’ clerk. Thank you, Judge Williams, and congratulations on 25 years.
P.S., make that 34 years.