A Remarkable Judge: 88 and Going Strong

A great judge marks a milestone today. U.S. District Judge William J. Nealon, sitting in the Middle District of Pennsylvania, has become the longest-serving jurist in the history of the 3rd Circuit. As David Singleton reports in the Scranton Times-Tribune, Judge Nealon has been on the federal bench now for 48 years, seven months and one day. He is 88 years old and has no plans to retire.

Judge Nealon holds a special place in my heart. He is a longtime family friend. And he once locked me into his courthouse jail. His life story is a story of devoted public service, year after year, case after case. Singleton has a nice question-and-answer session with the judge in his piece, and I found the following exchange particularly revealing. Singleton asked about the judge's interesting cases. And Judge Nealon replied:

I had so many, but there was one. It was a defendant who had pled guilty to an income tax violation. He was from York. He pled guilty and then several weeks later I was to impose sentence. The courtroom was filled with followers - the district attorney of York County on one side, the mayor (of York) on the other. The district attorney spoke first: "We're here in full support of" - I remember his name - "Mr. Eppley." Mr. Eppley, he said, was a member of the military. He was wounded by the Japanese. He was captured by the Japanese. He spent three horrible years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp and still carries the scars and a limp in his leg. I remember he said, "So he did all this for his government and we're asking you now to do something for him."

Now here I have a presentence report that shows this guy - and they had city tributes to him, among other things - but he was a liar. He had never been in a prisoner of war camp. He had never been overseas. He was injured in a vehicle accident at Fort Benning (in Georgia). But he came back to the town pronouncing himself as a Japanese prisoner of war, and the town rose up in support of him.

I thought what do you do. Do you humiliate him? Or do you let him get away it? I decided I had to hit him. I'll never forget, as I was saying it, the district attorney looked at me and then almost froze staring at the defendant. But it was a complete fraud. He had faked it through town and become a citizen of great reputation for all he had done, and here he had never left the country.

That, I submit, is what being a trial judge is all about. Good for Judge Nealon. I wish him many more years on the bench.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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