By Paul Goldman
Editor's note: Paul Goldman is a guest columnist for DecisionVirginia.com. The views expressed below are his own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of NBC12.
Judge James Randolph Spencer took charge yesterday. He is known as a guy who "doesn't suffer fools gladly" as the saying goes. A Harvard Law graduate, he served as an Army lawyer before doing stints in the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia and the Eastern District of Virginia. He soon thereafter got nominated to the federal bench by Republican President Ronald Reagan. It is difficult in today's highly polarized world to get fair reviews from all sides of the spectrum, but Judge Spencer is highly respected for his "judicial demeanor" by almost everyone who is anyone. Indeed the federal judges at the U.S. Courthouse on Broad Street are one of the top contingent in the country from my perspective.
This is likely to be the highest profile case in Judge Spencer's career, coming near the end of his service to his country. I am a big fan of his colleague Judge Henry Hudson. Let me tell my GOP friends on the other side of the aisle a secret: I always thought he would be a sure winner if ever nominated as the Republican candidate for Virginia Attorney General. As a former Democratic Party chairman, I confess to being happy the Virginia GOP never realized Hudson's unique appeal in my view. Early in his career, he wanted to run for political office, but not now, so I can reveal the secret.
As for Judge Spencer, I don't know his political leanings, but I do know this much: they will not matter in his courtroom. The public can feel confident of that. Judge Spencer is not going to let this trial turn in to a political or legal spectacle.
That's the story from Day 1: Spencer wanted a jury to be seated and he made everyone work well past the normal quitting time to make it happen. Another juudge might have waited another day to seat the 12 jurors and four alternates, but Spencer, as the saying goes, "makes the trains" run on time.
I think this is precisely the right approach to such an epic trial of the first Virginia governor, not to mention First Lady, to be indicted on 14 combined counts, no less. He is going to let both sides make their cases, but he will exercise a guiding hand to make sure everyone keeps their eye on the task at hand.
Let's remember: for months now, former governor McDonnell and his wife have been in effect tried in the media. As I have previously written, in my view the McDonnell defense team failed to properly push back against the media spin if you will.
Finally, we get to hear both sides back-to-back; the advocacy system at work. The indictment has holes. Will the prosecution fill them quickly or wait for direct testimony from witnesses? At the same time, we at last get to hear the basic outlines to both McDonnells' defense which may not always overlap. There is a good chance the defense will not reveal their hole card. The government carries the burden of proof: the defense’s job is to make that job as hard as possible. .
Until now, we all had to speculate on what each side would do once in the courtroom. No longer: it is “game on” as they say in the sporting world.
So, my best advice for you: keep as open a mind, try to be like a juror, only not one sitting in the courtroom. The newspaper, TV and radio accounts, along with those on the blogs and social media, will be incomplete accounts of the evidence presented. By and large these news sources will provide the key evidence.
But only the jury gets to see the witnesses' demeanor. This can have a big impact on the saliency of their testimony. The McDonnells are entitled to the benefit of the doubt at all times. Of course, the government’s case is going to seem persuasive. If not, then the prosecution would be in a world of legal trouble, not to mention political trouble all the way to Washington.
What is left of the McDonnells' reputation is not likely to survive the government’s direct case, but all of us must withhold judgment until they get their day in court.