HOLMBERG: Historic trial of former Governor McDonnell will have historic judge

Posted at 12:03 AM, Jan 25, 2014
and last updated 2014-01-26 13:38:21-05

RICHMOND, Va (WTVR)-Make no mistake, the trial of former Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, will be one a historic trial, one of the biggest in state history. It appears he’s the first person to face federal charges for his actions as governor.

And the judge presiding over the case has his own significant place in Virginia history.

Judge James Robert Spencer is Virginia’s first African-American federal judge, appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986.

He grew up in Florence, South Carolina, proud of his Southern heritage, in a very religious family. He has a masters degree in divinity to go along with his Harvard law degree.

His parents, he said in a interview long ago, “convinced him that an educated man is a free man."

Here’s a 65-year-old guy who worked his way through law school driving taxis and teaching karate, according to previous interviews. Back in ’86, he was believed to be the first federal judge with a black belt.

Back then, he said he looked forward to the day “when it is of no importance” that a black person has been nominated to a federal judgeship.

Spencer is widely respected, and has been known to be blunt. When forced to hand out a life sentence to a crack dealer because of federal sentencing guidelines, he famously said: “A life sentence for what you have done in this case is ridiculous; it is a travesty . . . I don’t agree with it, either. And I want the world and the record to be clear on that.”

But if the jury finds the McDonnells guilty, don’t expect a light sentence from Judge Spencer.

Now you may have heard that he’s married to Richmond Circuit Court Judge Margaret Spencer, who handled the embezzlement case against the McDonnell’s executive chef,  Todd Schneider. Revelations in that case was the start of a long trail that led to the now-famous federal indictments of the McDonnells for  allegedly receiving illegal gifts and loans.

But don’t expect anyone to argue conflict of interest because of the marriage link between the chef’s case and the resulting historical drama coming this summer. It won’t fly.

Since what is now the McDonnell case began almost three years ago with food stolen from the mansion, bursts of priveleged information about the investigations has been leaked to the media.

Just this week a  potential plea deal in this pending federal case was leaked – highly unusual and illegal.

During the McDonnell’s bond hearing Friday, Magistrate Judge David J. Novak put both the prosecution and defense on blast for leaks and trying the case in the media.

It’s likely Judge Spencer will also have little patience with media leaks, particulary if they appear to be politically motivated.

Another quote from the Judge Spencer’s past may have relevance for his current docket:

Those considering a life in politics “need to know the minute you put party over principle, you step over the line."