The Criminal Sympathizer Label
Federal judges and many convicts have one thing in common: they are where they are for life.
Thus you might say that Ginger Berrigan belongs to two lifers' associations.
She is not only a U.S. district judge but also, by her own account, an honorary member of the Angola club reserved for inmates who ain't going nowhere.
Displayed in Berrigan's chambers is an outsized gavel made by her admirers in the penitentiary. It was presented last December, several months after her appointment, at what is somewhat grandly styled the annual lifers' banquet.
It is just as well for Berrigan that she doesn't have to run for re-election, for she might be in a spot of trouble right now. Your standard-issue tough-on-crime candidate would have a field day denouncing the criminal-coddling judge.
TV commercials would no doubt feature close-ups of the prison magazine, the Angolite, wherein Berrigan is pictured at the prison and quoted regretting that her "old friends" are still locked up and noting that some of them deserve a break.
The hard-time and death-penalty lobby notes that Berrigan has always been a criminal sympathizer, and nobody will dispute that she is an unreconstructed liberal.
Berrigan's views were no secret when the Senate confirmed her appointment. She was a criminal defense attorney, president of the Louisiana ACLU, vocal opponent of capital punishment and a believer in the power of redemption in a draconian, dittohead age.
Not all her admirers are doing time. They include her fellow judges, yea even Republican appointees, who give her credit for hard work and smarts, and your correspondent.
Her style is not typical of federal judges. The door to her chambers is always open, with a welcome mat to boot, and she has been known to organize parties for courthouse employees.
The strongly-held views of a lifetime do not change on appointment to the bench, and, if compassion for the most wretched of convicts be a vice, then Berrigan is incorrigible.
But then all judges have opinions and beliefs they need to suppress in the course of their duties, and Berrigan's ability to do so need not be doubted.
Still, it is likely that many citizens are somewhat ticked off to find a judge speaking so cordially of criminals and will wonder whatever happened to the principle of magisterial impartiality.
It may be true that Berrigan has nothing to do with paroling state prisoners, and she would naturally recuse herself from any case involving former clients.
But a federal judge is not traditionally supposed to take part in, far less precipitate, controversy over the administration of justice.
Berrigan says the offending remarks were not made in her formal speech, but picked up from a private conservation at a dinner table.
Inmate Wilbert Rideau, who wrote the Angolite story, confirms that and says he relied on memory for the quotes, quite an admission given that his name is seldom mentioned without the qualifier "nationally acclaimed journalist."
Perhaps, by the strictest standards of judicial objectivity, Berrigan should have quit attending the annual lifers' banquet on her appointment to the federal bench.
Still, it would never have become an issue without the incendiary quotes in the Angolite. Forgoing the trip, moreover, would have been a hard thing to do, given that she has been breaking bread with these convicts, in many cases for decades, and that some of them really do deserve a break.
Copyright 1995, The Times-Picayune
From: James Gill, "The Criminal Sympathizer Label," The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, April 14, 1995, METRO, page B7. Reprinted in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C.