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My Interview With Judge Lee Rosenthal

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This week in Dallas, the largest Muslim charity in the country goes to trial with the United States government over accusations that donated funds are suspected of supporting and financing terrorism. Federal judges have the responsibility of upholding and interpreting the law in complicated, multi-layered situations. Lee Rosenthal is a Federal judge in Houston, Texas. Chief Justice Roberts just appointed her to chair the Standing Committee on the Rules of Practice and Procedure. Married and the mother of four children, Lee says that one of the tricks of balancing your life is not to "judge" how you get it all done!

Ellen Susman: Lee, I have to ask you. Is it easier to manage the court or the kids?

Lee Rosenthal: Oh, by far, the court! Because in court my authority is unquestioned. That is NOT true at home.

ES: And what about scheduling? How do you manage with four kids and the court docket?

LR: Some days are easier to arrange than others. But the scheduling depends on a lot of very helpful people that support and make it all happen. It really takes, if not a village, a large number of people who dedicate their lives to helping all of that happen. But I suspect that it happens by, more than anything else, putting in a lot of hours--even if many of those hours occur at unconventional times.

ES: For example?

LR: Working very late, even if I'm working at home, or getting up quite early or working many weekends in exchange for having the ability to take in a soccer game, to be there if your children have something at school that is very important for them for you to see, to make adjustments like that.

ES: When you began your career, you were a trial attorney. Then you were appointed a judge. Did you have any helpful mentors along the way?

LR: There were a lot of people who made me believe that I could do it---and in that sense were enormously helpful but I can't say that I had any "one" person who I would look back on and say that they were my sole role model or mentor. There were certainly many people--men and women--who made me, believe that this was something I could do and should try to do.

ES: Do you find that in your role as a judge you're in the position to mentor young lawyers and what do you try to teach them?

LR: Yes, in answer to your question, I found quickly that by being a judge I was both a field trip and a role model and both of those, in different ways, are enormously fulfilling. I do enjoy being a mentor to a whole variety of people, most especially law clerks, with whom you develop very close relationships. I stay in touch with them and am just thrilled when they call me, as many of them do, to ask questions about their own professional development and career choices and marriage and children and all the other things that are a pleasure to share.

ES: You have four daughters, which is daunting--including a set of twins. And your first daughter is a special needs child. How has that challenged you and how has it changed you?

LR: When Rebecca was diagnosed, which was about six months after she was born, that was truly the first and in many ways the only really bad thing that happened to me. In that respect, it probably is no different than the tragedies that everybody gets sometime or another in their lives. Except that this was a bad thing that had many wonderful aspects and was always going to be part of my life. We're very lucky. We found a place very near our home where Rebecca went to school and lived with us all the way through high school. She now lives in a "special needs" facility called the Brookwood Community, which is 40 miles from Houston and is a wonderful place. We feel very fortunate that we had the ability to give her a safe and structured place and yet keep her very safe and close to us. But yes, it changed my life.

ES: The challenges of having to deal with her diagnosis as you were really in the early stages of your career had to be daunting. How do you teach children to deal with it? Because they know that something is slightly different.

LR: They do, although that's a daunting realization because Rebecca was first, and she was always just Rebecca. But the other three girls have grown to be wonderful, compassionate, caring people in ways that probably wouldn't have happened if they hadn't had Rebecca. And yes, Rebecca changed the way I view my profession, changed the way I structured my commitment to it, although it didn't lessen my commitment to it. In fact, I was very grateful for the fact that I had this career, this profession that I really liked and that was deeply absorbing. Because I could go to work and really immerse myself in the challenges first of practicing law and then of being a judge--it was THE best distraction from the set of concerns that Rebecca presented and will always present in some ways. And it was the best way to not be absorbed in that but to be engaged in something that was wholly absorbing.

ES: Do you think being a wife and mother makes you a better judge?

LR: In some ways, I think it has. It has taught me to listen better, it has taught me the importance of being a firm and calming steady presence. And it has certainly taught me the ability to tolerate large amounts of noise and get past the noise to what is really being communicated. Being a parent helps you with all of those things. At the same time, being in court has helped me, in some way to understand the things I would like my children to learn about and to internalize

ES: Like what?

LR: The importance of discipline in their own lives. The importance of making good choices. The importance of avoiding certain kinds of traps that I see landing people in my court. And it's the parade of people and the parade of circumstances that, as a judge, I am in some ways privileged and in other ways required to see.

Our democracy is built on law set down in the Constitution and Bill of Rights. It's more important than ever now to have judges who reflect the best interests of we, the people. Judges, whether elected or appointed, determine the course of law that we live by. Make your choices wisely!

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