The Antidote to Trump: Humility, Character, and Integrity, a.k.a., Judge Edward R. Becker


When the first draft of the Constitution was released and on its way to Congress, James Madison feared that there would not be enough virtuous men to fill the seats of Congress. The Framers had endured excessive heat to debate and compromise this new governing document, and in those close environs, their view of human nature was dark: They assumed that all those with power would abuse it. The checks and balances they devised are intended to deter the tyranny that comes from unbounded power. Thus, they labored to create a system that would force wayward men to be accountable to a higher good—and not only to themselves.

Never before has a president illustrated the need for such checks as our current one. He has increased the visibility of self-serving behavior to a resolution so fine even his supporters and those who benefit from his behavior can’t ignore it. Indeed, it is virtually impossible to ignore him at all. His ego expands night and day to fill the available air waves whether it be via Twitter, cable and network news, the Internet, or radio.

With all of this bravado and braggadocio added on to the power of the presidency, I think it is easy to be stunned by the sheer size of his presence. He wants to intimidate us into blind acquiescence to his new-found power, to manipulate from behind closed doors with deflection and attack, and to get in our heads. While this is a daily source of concern, it also makes me think of the people I have known whose characters exhibit integrity, intelligence, and goodness. We need to be reminded of the good ones to neutralize the current spinning and posturing that Madison rightly feared would overtake those in public office.

The Trump Antidote: Judge Edward R. Becker

Just so we have a point of comparison, I would like to pay a tribute to the late Judge Edward R. Becker of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, for whom I was honored to clerk. Judge Becker was a product of the Frankford section of Philadelphia and lived from the day he was born to the day he died in the same modest house. It is not that he could not have afforded something grander, but rather he wanted to stay in the neighborhood, even when it was declining. It would be difficult to find a more stark contrast to Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago.

Throughout his entire life, he was humble and self-effacing. Despite the fact that he attended two Ivy League schools—the University of Pennsylvania for his undergraduate degree and then Yale Law School—he was as friendly and thoughtful to the store clerk as he was to his fellow judges, senators, and presidents. He had no airs about how he landed on the federal bench and was fond of saying that he “got appointed the old-fashioned way.” In other words, he worked for the Republican Party in Philadelphia, and the appointment was political. In fact, federal judgeships are always political, so he hardly needed to make the point. Regardless, he took his judicial job as a mission to be the best judge possible, as he worked day and night to learn what he needed to know and to craft painstaking and important (and often really long) opinions.

His daily life was a testament to his character. While he was a highly regarded trial and then appellate federal judge, he rode Philadelphia’s Market-Frankford Line to the federal courthouse. In the courtroom, where he would sit on the raised dais that is typical of the federal courtroom, he would put the lawyers arguing in front of him at ease, with phrases like, “You’re a short guy like me—just crank the lectern down. Just raise the mike.” To his fellow judges’ frequent frustration, he also never enforced the court’s time limits on oral argument, instead saying, “Your red light’s on, but you’re on our time now.” Why no limit? He wanted to understand every possible facet of the case. Time limits were artificial barriers in the way of a good opinion. But, he also did on occasion note that a particularly lengthy argument (resulting from his elimination of the time limits) was “like a long day’s journey into night.”

He had the deep intelligence to know what he didn’t know, and the beginning of the clerkship for each of us started with a talk in his office that began with, “Zero deference!” We were not allowed to defer to his judgment on any case but rather had to arm ourselves with our best possible arguments and be ready for a debate. There was absolutely no kissing up allowed. We often heard him say: “If you want to go lie at the feet of the master, don’t clerk for me.” And when those around him puffed themselves up, he would smile slightly, look askance, and invoke the frequently stated: “the world will little note nor long remember” [fill in the blank].

In chambers, Judge Becker was demanding and everyone worked very hard, but that was our job, and it was a pleasure to work for such a good and smart man. When a case would bedevil us and the in-chamber debate would take us down one path and then another, he always said, “This case is like nailing jelly to the wall.” That meant it was an interesting case–he delighted in the intricacies of the law. And after a day of oral arguments by the litigants that followed in-depth preparation through our research and memos and debate followed by debate, he would routinely say, “Once again, you guys got me through this sitting.” It was never just about him.

He did not waste one minute in his service to the people. At his bidding and as he was running out of the chambers door, he’d yell, “Yo!” to one of us and we would accompany him on the elevator and down the street on his way to sit in the Bistro to read briefs, all the while peppering us with questions about a case or a news story or life itself. Then, after reading briefs while eating one half of a dry turkey sandwich, he’d appear back in chambers, looking into our side, saying, “Yo, guys. Could you come in here for a minute?” We’d get peppered with fast questions, and then he would turn to stand at his lectern where he worked due to a bad back. The lectern had a magnificent view of the Delaware River from the 19th floor of the Philadelphia federal courthouse; the setting itself would have made a less humble person feel pretty darn important, but as often as not, he’d be talking to us and say, “Why should anyone care what I say?” While he was fond of saying that he didn’t “hire anyone who isn’t ten times as smart as me,” we were often stumped by his observation about a detail of a case we hadn’t even noticed. Off we would go to hunt for some case that would answer the really difficult question he just posed.

I’m not saying he didn’t have some idiosyncratic practices, e.g., having a small corner of a piece of paper in his front pocket on which he scribbled reminders to himself. I still don’t know how he could read one word by the end of the day. He spoke at a very rapid pace, and every single time he walked by the secretary’s desk, which separated his office from the clerks, he’d ask if there were any “calls, mail, or anything on the [answering] machine.” Trish Kowalski, his first-rate secretary for 30 years at times would just roll her eyes and keep doing what she was doing, and that was just fine with him, because she was in charge of her domain, and he did not take himself that seriously. He also “set the tone” of the office by often washing the dishes in chambers himself.

I will no longer belabor the point, though there is much more I could say about the extraordinary man that Judge Becker was, but I think I have made my point: never confuse power with integrity or goodness. Were all our public servants Ed Beckers, Madison’s fears would have gone unrealized. God bless Judge Becker and may he rest in peace.