Legal mind isn't one to let thoughts be benched

Richard Kopf

'DECENTLY PROFANE'

LINCOLN — The federal judge from Nebraska who emerged as the talk of the legal community before retiring his controversial blog last year is sounding off on social media once again.

Senior U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf has recently been contributing to a blog titled "Fault Lines," which defines its mission as "monitoring the cracks in America's criminal justice system." Kopf said he will reflect on general legal topics and stay away from the day-to-day workings of the courtroom, which some court staff members thought unsuitable for public dissemination.

Scott Greenfield, a New York defense attorney and popular legal blogger, encouraged Kopf to give up his brief writing hiatus. Greenfield said Kopf's willingness to let lawyers and laypeople get a glimpse of judges beyond their written opinions or scholarly contributions helps encourage a better understanding of the legal system.

"Losing Judge Kopf's writing would be a huge loss for the law," Greenfield said.

Kopf also has launched an Internet column, in which he shares personal vignettes about his life as a husband and father and days spent practicing law. He calls the blog "Wednesdays with the Decently Profane."

"Since I had been previously indecently profane, I thought the play on words would be fun," Kopf said in an interview.

He was referring to his blog, which he maintained from February 2013 until July 2015. The blog was called "Hercules and the Umpire." In it, Kopf described his job as a federal trial judge and in the process he traded the judicial code of silence for what amounted to a digital bullhorn.

There was the time he suggested that Congress "go to hell" over a budget stalemate that threated to shut down the government. Or the posting in which he described himself as a dirty old man for leering at a young female attorney and then telling her to tone down her fashion choices or risk being called "an ignorant slut behind your back."

Kopf also wrote that it was time for the Supreme Court to "stfu," an acronym for "shut the (expletive) up."

But the one that got him in hot water involved his view that Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz — based on Cruz's statements about the judiciary — wasn't fit to hold the office. A George Washington University law professor called out Kopf, saying the judge had violated a conduct rule that prohibits judges from opposing or endorsing political candidates.

"It crossed the line and I owned up to it," Kopf said, referring to an apology he published on the blog. But by July, he announced "Hercules" was done, a decision prompted by general agreement among court staff members that the blog was an "embarrassment."

While the blog is dead and "won't be resurrected," Kopf said, he never vowed to quit writing. In September, he started contributing to "Fault Lines," where he's one of several contributors.

So far, his posts have addressed confusion in federal sentencing guidelines, defended federal prosecutors as generally ethical and forcefully denounced the danger of angry political rhetoric being directed at Muslim-Americans. His postings tend to involve more technically legal discussions, but they are still marked by his colorful opinions, humorous asides and penchant for profanity.

He launched his personal blog in October. Among the posts on Decently Profane are one in which he describes losing his son in a dust devil and another where he tells about the Christmas morning he disappointed his young daughter by failing to properly construct her toy pony the night before.

Greenfield, the New York attorney, said that while a few other judges will write posts that more closely resemble law review articles, Kopf is the only guy with a gavel willing to really put himself out there.

Having a judge expose his human frailties and strengths makes some people feel awkward, Greenfield said. But it's also what allows people to see that judges aren't just cogs in a machine, but human beings who try to do their best to be fair.

"Some people get stuck on the frailties, that judges were supposed to maintain that degree of circumspection that would keep them aloof from the rest of humanity," he said. "Others, myself included, see Judge Kopf as doing an enormous service to the law and the judiciary by removing the cloak of secrecy."

That's a view with which Kopf, 69, agrees. When he started blogging, he wanted to practice his love of writing while bringing some transparency to the judicial branch. He quoted federal Judge Richard Posner, who said the public knows more about the CIA than they do about the federal judiciary.

"We literally have a monopoly on the third branch of government," Kopf said. "Think about that. In a democracy, that's not a particularly good thing. Thus, in my view, the more transparent judges can be, the better we all are."

Contact the writer: 402-473-9587, joe.duggan@owh.com

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