THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1997, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Tuesday, January 28, 1997 TAG: 9701280205 SECTION: FRONT PAGE: A1 EDITION: FINAL SOURCE: BY MARC DAVIS, STAFF WRITER LENGTH: 169 lines
The judge was falling asleep.
It wasn't the case, it was the lunch: a package of Nabs, a Coke and a cold pill. Any pharmacist could have predicted it. Empty stomachs and strong medicine always produce the same result.
The complaint - a judge nodding off in court - arrived at the desk of Reno S. Harp III, professional investigator. Do something, the complaint demanded. So Harp did. He investigated the judge and worked out a solution.
``That was a simple thing,'' Harp said. ``Just eat lunch.''
For 25 years, Reno Harp listened to complaints about judges across Virginia, from Norton to Norfolk. That was his job. For 25 years, Harp was chief counsel to the state Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission.
Harp's job was to listen to complaints all day, every day, Monday to Friday. They came by mail and by phone, in angry voices and in frustrated scribbles.
Some complaints were easy: the judge who didn't understand what was going on in court, for example. He wasn't befuddled. He just needed a hearing aid.
Some complaints were hard: the judge who threw 200 indigent defendants in jail for not paying small fines. That violated state and federal law. He was censured by the state Supreme Court.
Some complaints were just wrong: bitter dads who lost custody battles, or inmates convicted of hard crimes who blamed the judge.
For 25 years, judges across Virginia knew and feared Harp. With one call, he could wreck a judge's career. One day a judge might abruptly announce his retirement, citing vague personal reasons. Later, lawyers would whisper that Harp had been to the courthouse for a chat.
In other calls and visits, Harp could be a judge's best friend. He might get an overworked judge an extra secretary, or ensure that an alcoholic judge got treatment, not the boot. Usually no one found out.
The public seldom heard his name. Harp was rarely in the newspapers, never on television.
Indeed, the commission is so secretive that, until 1993, it was literally a crime for anyone involved to even talk about its business.
Now, Reno Harp has stopped taking complaints.
On Jan. 1, the lawyer with the constant bow tie, the chubby red cheeks and the slicked-back gray hair retired. He is 65, but far from tired.
The man who knows every judge in every corner of Virginia still talks incessantly. He still drops names of the powerful and famous friends (and enemies) he has known - Baliles and Coleman and Dalton and Carrico and more.
He still draws out visitors to gossip about the frenzied folk across the street, in the state Capitol, who are picking new judges and writing new laws to change his old job.
He still shows up for interviews in white shirt and tie, even though he is two weeks into retirement and has fishing on his mind.
Reno Harp has left the building, which is the Supreme Court of Virginia, sixth floor. Call with complaints, if you will, but someone else will pick up the phone.
``I expect to be around,'' Harp says. ``But I won't be around here.''
Charles Poston remembers the surprise.
It was 1990. Poston was a Norfolk juvenile court judge. He was also a new member of Harp's judicial commission.
He remembers his first national convention of judicial commissions. As Poston chatted with colleagues from other states, he heard tales of bad judges brought down.
``I heard people brag about how many judges they'd bagged,'' recalls Poston, now a Norfolk Circuit Court judge. ``I was surprised.''
No wonder. In all its 25 years, Virginia's judicial commission has never had a reputation for ``bagging'' judges.
Harp says that is its strength. Critics say that is its failing.
For those keeping score, the numbers seem puny. In 25 years, Harp's judicial commission has recommended public punishment against six judges. That's about one every four years.
There are two ways to look at that.
Critics say the small number of public punishments shows how toothless and unaggressive Virginia's judicial commission is. They say they have no numbers and few stories to prove this because the system is entirely closed and secret.
Or maybe - as Harp asserts - Virginia really does have one of the cleanest judiciaries in America.
And Harp is the only man who has seen every complaint against every judge in 25 years.
Misconduct in Virginia? ``It's not happening,'' Harp says. ``It's that simple.''
Harp says he hears talk from other states. He reads accounts of bad judges elsewhere, like New York state's chief justice, Sol Wachtler, who was jailed in 1993 for threatening to kidnap the daughter of his ex-lover.
You don't see stories like that in Virginia, Harp says, because it's not happening here.
``We have excellent judges in Virginia. I will stack them up against any other state in the country,'' Harp says. ``Our judges are far superior.'' He attributes that, in part, to the fact that Virginia judges aren't elected and don't have to raise campaign money.
Then, too, Harp and his supporters say Virginia ``bags'' few judges because the commission is not in the ``judge-bagging'' business. Its approach is more subtle, more cooperative, Harp and others say.
``The commission is committed to trying to improve the administration of justice, rather than trying to hang the judge,'' Harp says.
Says Poston: ``The general tenor of the commission was to solve problems rather than scalp-hunt. . . . I think Reno was responsible for that approach.''
Where Harp found problems, he says, he quietly corrected them.
A judge yelling at lawyers? Harp would ``counsel'' him.
A judge routinely late with rulings? Another counseling session, maybe a new secretary.
A judge too sick to stay on the bench? Harp and others might visit him privately, and soon you might hear that the judge had retired.
In those cases, Harp's contacts proved invaluable.
``Reno knew people from all over the state,'' Poston says. ``He would know that in Staunton, for example - if that's where the problem was - this judge is friends with Joe and Susie, and they can go with us to approach the judge.''
``His biggest strength is his knowledge of the Virginia scene,'' says James H. Flippen Jr., a Norfolk juvenile court judge who replaced Poston on the commission in 1994. ``I don't think there's anyone else I've heard of who knows more people throughout the state, Bristol to Southside.
``He can kibbitz with you on and on. You bring up the name of any one of the 300, 400 Virginia judges and he knows every one of them. You can't mention anybody he doesn't know or has some story about.''
One thing Harp will not discuss, however, are individual cases he has handled. Even in retirement, Harp is a stickler on that point. The state Constitution is plain: All commission proceedings are confidential. Even years later.
``The commission and I are bound by the Constitution and the statute,'' Harp says firmly.
End of discussion.
In defeat, Harp shut up.
That was 1977. Harp seemed at the peak of his career. He was 46, deputy attorney general, head of the criminal division. He had served 21 years under seven attorneys general and could schmooze with the best.
In came a new attorney general: J. Marshall Coleman, the first Republican A.G. in modern times.
Coleman sacked Harp and made headlines. The press went wild. Nothing personal, Coleman said; he just wanted someone ``with whom I could work and feel comfortable.''
Harp seethed but kept quiet. ``You don't have to eat what you don't say,'' he explained years later.
The cloud had a silver lining. By losing his job, Harp was free to sign up full time with the judicial commission, a job he had been doing part time until then.
Friends joke about Harp's dumb luck.
``When Marshall Coleman terminated Reno's tenure,'' Richmond lawyer Anthony F. Troy told Virginia Lawyers Weekly, a legal newspaper, ``only hindsight has shown us that it resulted in Reno continuing in state service with greater pay, half the responsibilities, and it would be misdemeanor for him to tell you how busy he is.''
Now the commission has a new chief counsel: Donald H. Kent, formerly a Circuit Court judge in Alexandria for 23 years.
``The whole personality of the commission is going to change,'' Poston predicted. ``He's quiet. He's diplomatic. You never could accuse Reno of being diplomatic. . .
``In the eyes of most of the judiciary, Reno Harp was the JIRC. . . For the judges, Reno was the policeman. He was the chief of police and everything else. He was either hated or loved.''
Harp shrugs at the suggestion that he was all-powerful.
``I don't sit in judgment. The commission sits in judgment,'' Harp says. ``The counsel to the commission doesn't do anything independently. The commission runs things.
``It's very important to remember, it ain't me. I'm the messenger boy.'' ILLUSTRATION: [Color Photo]
As chief counsel to the state Judicial Inquiry and Review
Commission, reno Harp III investigated complaints about Virginia