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He said he has always tried to reduce apprehension while applying the law based on evidence.
JOEL HAWKSLEY | The Roanoke Times
Judge Jonathan Apgar reminisces Wednesday about his career in his chambers at the Roanoke Circuit Court. His retirement officially starts Sunday, but state officials have still not decided how or whether to replace him.
STEPHANIE KLEIN-DAVIS | The Roanoke Times
Judge Jonathan Apgar and deputy courtroom clerk Barbara Lewis settle in for the judge’s last day on the bench. Apgar is retiring after 16 years in the circuit court.
REBECCA BARNETT | The Roanoke Times
Judge Jonathan Apgar sings with the Jimmy Jazz Combo at Montano’s in Roanoke on many Saturday nights.
Thursday, March 28, 2013
There's long been a particular tone to Judge Jonathan Apgar's courtroom, and he sets it before he even takes his seat at the bench.
Most courthouse hearings begin with a bailiff's call that announces the arrival of the judge: "All rise!"
But Apgar, who on Sunday officially ends his 16-year stint as a full-time Roanoke Circuit Court judge, has almost always opted to start a bit more casually.
"Remain seated and come to order," is how deputies customarily open his hearings. Sometimes people stand up anyway when the tall, broad-chested man in the black robe makes his entrance.
"There obviously has to be decorum and dignity and proper procedure," Apgar, 61, recently explained. "But I like having things in a little lower key, and speaking a little more quietly or informally.
"If there's a way to make people feel less apprehensive, then maybe they'll have a better feeling about it."
As he spoke of his past decade-and-a-half as a judge, the subject of empathy for both plaintiffs and defendants was a recurring topic.
"One of the things you have to cope with is that the people who do come before you are heavily invested in the case," he said, acknowledging that his verdicts have determined the fates of children at the center of custody battles, have made monetary awards to one party at another's expense, have sent men to prison for the rest of their lives.
"Judges are impartial, objective arbiters who regard the law and the facts of every case ... so it's always tough when you're making that call based solely on the evidence," he said in a voice that is soft but uniformly clear.
"He has always done the right thing for the right reasons," Roanoke Commonwealth's Attorney Donald Caldwell said of Apgar last week. The two met in the early 1970s, when both were students, and soccer teammates, at the University of Richmond. When Caldwell later became Roanoke's prosecutor in 1979, he recruited Apgar, by then a public defender, as his first assistant chief.
"Jon is not afraid to make an unpopular decision," Caldwell said. "But it's in his nature to treat people benevolently.
"Even if he is delivering bad news, he treats people graciously and kindly."
Some time back, a man who was unhappy with a verdict told a friend of Apgar's, "I'm not wishing him dead, but if he choked on a chicken bone, I'd like to be there to watch."
The acquaintance was shocked, but in recounting the incident, Apgar said he took the man's curse in stride.
"I actually thought it was a colorful turn of phrase," he recalled with a shrug and a slight smile of approval.
'It's your turn'
Apgar had already spent more than 20 years practicing law as a prosecutor, public defender and defense attorney when he took the bench in 1997, at age 45, replacing Judge G.O. Clemens, who retired abruptly after serving the 23rd Judicial Circuit for nearly two decades. Although he began serving as a substitute judge in General District Court in 1990, he said he hadn't seriously considered vying for a judgeship.
"Nobody had been jockeying for it, because Judge Clemens retired so precipitously," he recalled. But the jab that prodded him toward the bench came from powerhouse Roanoke attorney Richard Lawrence.
"It's your turn. You'd better run," Lawrence told him at the time, he said.
Backed by the Salem-Roanoke County Bar Association, Apgar was approved 84-0 by the House of Delegates.
During the times the job got tough, he said, Lawrence was also quick to remind him: "You ran for this job."
Within just a few months of his appointment, Apgar found himself presiding over the city's first contested obscenity case since 1977, involving nude dancing at a Roanoke nightclub. Soon after that, the new judge also appeared on Fox News on an early version of Bill O'Reilly's talk show, interpreting a new city law that penalized offenders defined as habitual drunkards, but also firmly declining to editorialize his personal position on it.
Since the appointment of Judge William Broadhurst in 2002, the same six judges have presided over the 23rd Judicial Circuit, which serves Roanoke, Roanoke County and Salem. The retirement of Apgar and, last month, of Judge Robert "Pat" Doherty, will end that unprecedented continuity.
Although state funding to appoint replacements for Apgar and Doherty has been up in the air for the past year, earlier this week Gov. Bob McDonnell submitted budget amendments to fill one of the empty circuit court benches. The proposal, and others, will go to a vote before the General Assembly on Wednesday.
"It's kind of hard to think that you could spend full time working, leave, and then somebody else could take over that job and their job also. It just can't be done," Doherty said in February.
Apgar recalled that at a judicial training workshop he attended when he was appointed, he was cautioned: "Don't take yourself too seriously. Twenty-four hours after you're gone, they'll name a replacement."
Now it's unclear whether either of those vacancies will be filled.
"It's kind of ironic," Apgar reflected last week. "A strange twist of irony."
But Caldwell was quick to point out: "We're not writing a eulogy. He'll still be called as a substitute. He'll still be able to be a force on the bench that's capable of being used."
May take night job
In addition to that work, Apgar said he's considering mediation and trying his hand at teaching.
He also plans to continue his weekend gig - he sings jazz standards on Saturday nights, usually at Montano's restaurant in Roanoke.
Accompanied by his friend, guitarist Bill Hoffman, and bands including the Bill Hoffman Quintet, the Jimmy Jazz Combo and The Source, Apgar rolls out tunes such as "The Way You Look Tonight" and "Almost Like Being in Love" for no fee, simply because he enjoys it.
"I knew he was a judge. I didn't know he could sing," said Hoffman, who has performed with Apgar for the past five years. Hoffman used to play with Lexington's Rhythm Makers in the 1960s, backing bands such as The Drifters and The Coasters during their heyday.
"I was thinking maybe he was just kind of a karaoke guy. But when I heard him, I realized, 'Whoa, this guy can sing for real,' " Hoffman said. "He has a wide range. He can go from a baritone to a tenor. And not only that, he can hold a note and stay on pitch while he's holding it."
Ginny Brobeck, a former probation supervisor with the Roanoke Department of Juvenile Justice, has known Apgar since he and his wife, Bonnie, came to the city from Richmond in 1976. She called him a Renaissance man "who can quote Shakespeare and can quote Bo Diddley."
"He can give advice without being patronizing or condescending. He's a good friend, a good jurist, a good father and a good husband," Brobeck said, and she praised what she said was encyclopedic knowledge of cinema classics.
Last year, when Apgar was recognized for his role in producing an award-winning 27-minute film that promoted awareness of Virginia's drug courts, Roanoke Circuit Court Judge Charlie Dorsey jokingly referred to him as "Federico," a reference to legendary Italian director Federico Fellini.
"I'm constantly trying to make points by alluding to some movie," Apgar acknowledged. "A lot of the movies I refer to, nobody under 30 understands."
That doesn't stop him from frequently quoting his favorites, mostly '70s staples such as "Rocky" and "The Godfather," subtly morphing into character as he speaks.
A film buff with decades of courtroom experience, he cites a possibly surprising title as an apt depiction of the legal process - the slapstick comedy "My Cousin Vinny," from 1993, starring Joe Pesci as a touchy New York shyster who's forced to try a case in rural Alabama.
"Pesci's cross-examination of witnesses is actually a good instructional on how to cross-examine witnesses," he said.
Another legal movie stands out for him, too: the 1979 Al Pacino film " ... And Justice for All."
Discussing it last week in his office, Apgar did his best Pacino impersonation, reciting a key line in which a young maverick lawyer responds to a jaded colleague's accusation that he takes on "nickel-and-dime" clients:
"They're people ... you know? They're just people," he said, quoting Pacino's character.
"In the courtroom, you have to be aware of that at all times. They're people," Apgar said. "Not statistics. Not pre-sentence reports. They're people."
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