Judge-ment day: Downer tells all about sitting on the bench

Retiring Judge Bob Downer advises people appearing in court to have all their documentation—and don’t talk too much, because it’s easy to “dig the hole” that will convict them.
Tristan williams Retiring Judge Bob Downer advises people appearing in court to have all their documentation—and don’t talk too much, because it’s easy to “dig the hole” that will convict them. Tristan williams

Judge Bob Downer knows something about what it’s like to appear before a judge as a defendant. He’s been there. And it’s a story he’s told in court.

As a UVA graduate in 1970, Downer and some frat brothers, clearly under the influence of that era’s Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, decided to swipe a “University of Virginia, second right,” sign off U.S. 29 and replace it with a cardboard one that said “Land of Oz,” adorned with a peace symbol.

He and his buddies didn’t get caught as they lay on the bank beside the highway to enjoy the reaction of passing drivers. It was putting the huge sign on the lintel over the door in the room of a fraternity brother that busted them, and he credits former Albemarle prosecutor Downing Smith’s handling of the case “with creative discretion” as a “life lesson” in his own career as a jurist.

“Downing Smith really didn’t want to see us convicted of something [like larceny] that would really affect us the rest of our lives, because he realized it was a prank, not a theft,” says Downer. The prosecutor found a code section for removing a legally posted highway sign, and charged the perpetrators $50.

Nearly 50 years later, on May 13, Downer, 70, received the Charlottesville-Albemarle Public Defender Office’s Gideon Award for his role in “ensuring equal justice.” Testimony from fellow judges and lawyers who’ve worked with him confirmed how respected Downer is in the legal community.

Charlottesville Circuit Court Judge Rick Moore considers him “an old friend and mentor.” Former public defender and current Albemarle commonwealth’s attorney candidate Jim Hingeley noted Downer’s “quality of humility” about the stories he tells about himself in court, as well as his “instinct for fairness.”

And attorney Matt Quatrara, who will succeed Downer on the general district court bench, recounted trying his first criminal case in front of Downer, who said one word: “Welcome.”

With an eye on retirement May 31, Downer—Bobby to his old friends—sits down with a reporter in his office, which has a needlepoint pillow that says, “Give a man an inch and he thinks he’s a ruler,” and talks about his 18 years as Charlottesville General District Court judge.

Since he took the bench in 2001, “It’s absolutely not the same,” he says. Downer remembers national tragedy 9/11 as the “busiest day I ever had,” with 350 cases on the docket in the morning, and 400 that afternoon. When his wife called to tell him a plane had struck the Pentagon, near where their son worked, Downer could only say, “I hope he’s safe,” and get back to work.

“Dockets have dramatically decreased,” he says, attributing that in part to the local evidence-based decision-making team, which includes representatives from police, probation, prosecution, and “everyone involved in the criminal justice system.”

The group has mapped what happens to a person from when a police officer is called to an incident, to the charging and booking, to serving a sentence. “We looked at all of those pieces and how we might improve them using evidence-based practices.”

He learned: Don’t mix high-risk people with low-risk people. Don’t overprogram people. And don’t interfere with family life and work. The program has been effective in reducing recidivism, he says. “We’ve reduced the jail population by one-third.”

Downer also stresses his pride in the therapeutic court docket, which works with cases involving the mentally ill. Those who complete the requirements of the program could have their sentences dismissed or suspended, and he’s got four people graduating May 28.

“I don’t judge people,” says Downer. “I just help people work through their problems.”

He’s heard many of the area’s high-profile cases, like UVA student George Huguely’s for the death of Yeardley Love, or the ones stemming from August 12. All of those he describes as “sad.” Says Downer, “The big thing for me is having compassion.”

However, some of the cases have been fun. He recalls the 17 UVA students who occupied then-president John Casteen’s office in 2006 in support of a living wage. When they appeared before him charged with trespassing, UVA Police Chief Mike Gibson testified he warned the students they had five minutes to leave or they’d be arrested. Downer took a recess to watch video of the arrests and timed the warning period at four minutes and 30 seconds.

“When you say they have five minutes to leave, you’ve got to give them five minutes to leave,” he said, and dismissed the charges.

“We’ve had a lot of protests,” says Downer, and if warranted, he will find protesters guilty. “Your civil disobedience would be meaningless if there weren’t consequences,” he observes.

Statistics say a general district court judge hears between 20,000 to 25,000 cases a year, although Downer points out that many of those are pleas. He’s had “a lot of close friends” who’ve appeared before him, and, ahem, this reporter—twice—and he says they don’t hold it against him.

“If you treat people with respect and they feel you’ve heard them and responded,” he says, “people are very forgiving.”

Downer admits his ambivalence about retiring. “I’ve loved doing this.” We suspect he’ll be back.