Roanoke Times Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: THURSDAY, July 6, 1995 TAG: 9507060067 SECTION: VIRGINIA PAGE: C-1 EDITION: METRO SOURCE: RICHARD FOSTER STAFF WRITER DATELINE: BEDFORD LENGTH: Long
It's hard to imagine Jim Updike shying away from the limelight. After all, as Bedford County commonwealth's attorney, he was possibly the best-known local prosecutor in Virginia.
He earned fame in front of thousands of spectators who tuned in to one of the state's first televised murder trials. Later, he campaigned unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for state attorney general.
But as Bedford General District Court judge, the man who was known for his fiery and flamboyant courtroom style is a trifle more understated.
During his first day on the bench Wednesday, a news photographer asked to take a picture of Updike wearing his black judicial robe. Updike graciously refused. He didn't want to do anything that could bring controversy to his new office.
Clearly, this is a new Jim Updike.
"As far as my prosecutorial style, that's gone," he said during a recess in his busy court schedule. "If I had wanted to continue with that kind of role in the courtroom, I would have sought re-election as commonwealth's attorney."
As he plowed through a morning court docket crowded with traffic offenses, Updike rested his head on his fist and stroked his chin thoughtfully. He smiled occasionally. But he rarely spoke.
"As an attorney, you argue. As a judge, you listen and decide. It's entirely different," Updike said. "The thing about General District Court is you have to be fair and give everyone his opportunity in court while also contending with the volume of cases. There's a real balance there.
"Nothing's happening this morning that I haven't seen happen in this courtroom time and time again; but before, I was watching things as an attorney. From the perspective of a judge, even just simple things are different."
Take paperwork, for example. Judges have to fill out a lot of it as each case goes through. And in the midst of a busy court, checking the proper boxes on the correct forms isn't as easy as it might sound.
"Just this morning, I have a greater appreciation of how [Judge James Farmer] did this job," Updike said, referring to his recently retired predecessor, who was on the bench 15 years. "He did it so long and so well, it's a very challenging endeavor" to follow him.
Reached at home in Lynchburg, Farmer said Updike has "always been successful at most everything he does, so I'm sure he'll be a successful judge. He's very able and works very hard. He'll learn fast."
The most obvious change between the two judges is in dress. Updike wears the traditional black judicial robe; Farmer preferred a blue pinstripe cotton suit in the summer or a gray suit or blazer in winter.
"It's a matter of individual preference for a judge," Updike said. "I just felt it may add to the decorum of the courtroom. But whether a judge wears a robe or not, what is important is how a judge conducts his courtroom."
Farmer had some advice for his successor. "The thing about the robe is you've got to go up and down the hall so many times, it gets in the way. [And] the few times I wore it, it got pretty warm."
Ricky Gardner, an investigator with the Bedford County Sheriff's Office, was one of several law enforcement officers who observed Updike's first day on the job. "Judge Updike, Judge Updike, Judge Updike," he recited in the court hallway, to remind himself of the change. "It's going to take some getting used to."
Updike was the youngest commonwealth's attorney in the state when he was elected in 1979 at age 26. He had been the county's chief prosecutor for six years when he and Gardner flew to London to charge UVa honor students Elizabeth Haysom and Jens Soering in connection with the 1985 murder of Haysom's parents, Derek and Nancy Haysom, in their Bedford County home.
Updike successfully prosecuted Haysom and Soering as TV cameras brought the trial to thousands of homes during one of the state's first experiments with cameras in the courtroom.
"He's got such an incredible memory," Gardner said, recalling how Updike could memorize long passages of law and often gave his arguments in the Haysom trials without referring to notes. "He'll definitely remember your case when you come up before him again. That's going to be a real asset for him as judge."
To be a judge, Updike attended several weeks of classes across the state, intensely studying various aspects of Virginia law. He compares it to studying for the state bar exam.
"The state does a pretty good job of teaching you," Farmer said, "but each person's got to be his or her own self" on the bench.
Updike may have found his judicial personality by the end of the day. Even though he said the "old" Jim Updike was gone for good, hints of his past showed through as he listened to two feuding groups of county residents who had sworn multiple warrants out against each other.
"I don't know if y'all like this, coming up here constantly," he said. "The state pays me to be here. ... There's a simple lesson to be learned: If y'all can't get along, stay away from each other, OK?''
Patricia Wagoner, clerk of the General District Court, said, "I knew he was going to be a good judge, but I'm even more impressed now that I've seen him on the bench. He had a very heavy load to start his first day but he seems to be handling it well."
At the end of his first court session, Updike said: "The first day on any job is always new and unusual. But I've gotten this far, so I'll come back tomorrow."