Nebraska Senior District Court Judge Richard G. Kopf tried something that no one else had tried before him. He tried to be real. He tried to be transparent. He tried to show us that the omnipotent people in robes sitting atop the bench were regular people, with foibles and ideas, doing the best they could. They had thoughts, feelings, aches, pains and happiness.
And I fear, this time he’s gone for good. Watching the judge’s blog, he’s been through the highs and lows of the blawgosphere. One little “STFU” to the Supreme Court and he had a bevy of lawprofs jumping down his throat. But then, haven’t we all wanted to tell that to the Supremes at one time or another?
Then there was a misunderstood joke, a symbol of generational differences that many couldn’t, refused to get past. What it showed was the inflexibility of so many on the internets. Judge Kopf took it all in good humor. If he showed nothing else, it was the humility of the power he wielded, never ramming the fact the he was a federal judge and you weren’t down your throat.
He ended every comment with the words, “all the best.” It wasn’t that he had to, but he wished that to his fans and detractors alike. Rich was a good guy.
It wasn’t that we agreed about everything. Judge Kopf was pretty law and order, hated drug dealers and admitted to his bias in favor of law enforcement. But that’s the point. He never denied who or what he was. He explained it, but never sugar coated it. And when I shot my arrows at him, he never held it against me for being disagreeable.
But there was one theme, an ongoing theme in the life of a United States District Court Judge, the only one ever to really let the rest of us in on his world: some things are more important than others. To Judge Kopf, it was his family and the people he cared about.
And that’s why he made the decision to stop.
I am pulling the plug because I learned a couple of hours ago about a discussion held at a retreat for our employees. The retreat had to do with honesty in the workplace, especially when dealing with uncomfortable subjects. Chief Judge Smith Camp attended the meeting and was asked a question.
The question was this: Did the Chief Judge feel that Hercules and the umpire had become an embarrassment to our Court. She responded that she thought 95 percent of the posts were insightful, entertaining, well-written, and enlightening. Then she asked for a show of hands, inquiring how many of the employees felt the blog had become an embarrassment to our Court. The great majority raised their hands. The Chief then told them that she appreciated their candor, and that she would share with me their sentiments.
Chief Judge Smith Camp was as a good as her word. She shared the sentiments expressed at the retreat with me. She did this both by e-mail and by telephone. She did not ask me to stop blogging. On the contrary, she praised my efforts. I was the one who expressed the need to call an end to the blog. There is nothing more important to me than the United States District Court for the District of Nebraska. If I have lost the confidence of our employees through publishing the blog, then I have harmed the Court. I cannot tolerate that thought, and I have therefore decided to pull the plug. My decision is irrevocable.
He couldn’t bear the thought that his actions embarrassed the people he worked with every day. Causing people he cared about embarrassment is the sort of thing a person of good conscience finds intolerable. That the people Judge Kopf worked with at the Nebraska federal courthouse were embarrassed by his blog, on the other hand, is the reaction of small, no, puny, people.
I have a theory about this. A good person vested with enormous power exercises it with humility, recognizing that he is only human and prone to err. But the people who bask in the reflection of that power, who are insignificant in themselves, rely on the false sense of dignity that comes from the trappings of power to make themselves feel more important than they are.
Why should Judge Kopf’s blog embarrass anyone? Other than Judge Kopf, of course, as the words and thoughts were his alone, and he took the punches whenever someone decided he shouldn’t have uttered them. Because Judge Kopf pulled back the curtain on himself, and by doing so, exposed the staff behind him as humans as well.
They were not embarrassed by Judge Kopf so much as embarrassed at being themselves. Just people who worked for a living, and whose jobs were in a federal courthouse. Just people like anyone else. They were no longer special, powerful, because they were surrounded by marble and had access to powerful people.
Judge Kopf quit once before, but came back. He will not come back again, at least not if his blog embarrasses the people with whom he works. They need to wrap themselves in the fake dignity that makes them feel more important than they are, and feel as if his transparency has taken away their aura. It would take a real epiphany for them to realize how small, how trivial, they are to be embarrassed. And they have taken from the rest of us an insight that we may never see again:
A great many people have lost faith, lost hope, that our fundamentally flawed system can be salvaged. Judge Kopf, for all he may do “wrong,” has given them hope that there are some real, thinking, caring human beings in robes who maybe, just maybe, can be persuaded to care a little more about what the law does to real people and little less in decorum.
Is it perfect? No, but nothing is. Are we all better for having Judge Kopf expressing his thoughts, even if they occasionally come out in a cringeworthy, awkward way. You bet your ass we are.
I will miss Rich Kopf’s writing very much. I am proud to call him my friend, and I was enriched by his time in the blawgosphere. If there is any chance that the staff at the Nebraska federal courthouse will look at themselves, be ashamed of their small-mindedness, and ask Judge Kopf to take up arms again, I ask them to do so. We are poorer without Hercules and the umpire.
But he is always welcome here.