Close’s Corner: Donning the judicial robes

As he took the oath of office, his children holding a family Bible, I could not but be struck by the ceremony and tradition that played out in the historic Culpeper Circuit Courtroom Nov. 21.

It is a rite of passage repeated in courtrooms across the Old Dominion — a ceremony that in some form or another reaches back to the very beginnings of law and lawyering in Virginia.

David Barredo stood in the well of the courtroom, as so many others before him have done, and surrounded by a gathering of family, members of the bar, law enforcement, judges and friends from near and far. He faced the bench, raised his hand, repeated the simple words mandated by law, and became Judge Barredo of the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court of the 16th District Court of Virginia. With that he symbolically and literally moved into a world separate from that which you and I inhabit.

As Judge-elect, he will assume his new duties on Dec. 1 presiding over eight counties including Culpeper, Orange, Madison, Greene, Louisa, Goochland, Fluvanna and Albermarle as well as the City of Charlottesville.

At one point during the ceremony he faced the courtroom audience and talked about how he got to where he was that afternoon. It was a story of many immigrants who come to America, one filled with faith and family and sacrifice–and gratitude to those who helped him to the place he now stood. His voiced cracked. The words of such import for him, he read,rather than spoke extemporaneously. Many seemed to find a reason to rub their eyes. And, Barredo again demonstrated what so many who know him already understood– that he is a humble and faith-filled man, guided by a keen intellect and a strong work ethic.

His father, an attorney in the Philippines himself who now lives in the United States, looked on beaming.

Culpeper Bar President Gil Berger presented Barredo with his first robe. Barredoâ??s wife helped him into the garment– and adjusted it to fit.

And then, it was over.

Barredo left with the other robed judges who attended the ceremony, while we all stood in respect. He now belonged to a different realm.

It was a wonderful thing to see the legal profession in ceremony that afternoon. There is something majestic in the simple traditions and weighty words repeated through the years that confer so much power on frail humans. Attorneys are aware of the position they hold in a civil society like ours — if for no other reason than for the ceremonies, like the one played out in our Circuit Court last week, which the profession holds onto so tightly.

As one attorney from Orange County once told me, the courtroom is often a theater, but it is a deadly serious theater, with a purpose. One purpose is to remind us of the raw power attorneys and judges, through their actions, exercise over our lives and our institutions.

The black judicial robe Barredoâ??s wife placed on his shoulders is an example of that symbolism. It sets the wearer apart. It confers a sense of authority. As Circuit Court Judge Susan Whitlock told Barredo before she administered the oath to him, the ceremony and the robe are outward manifestations of the power and the trust the General Assembly has transferred to him.

And the robe sets him, and all judges, apart in another way. It is a lonely place they hold in the legal world of Virginia. In other states judges are elected, but in Virginia they are appointed, and expected to remain aloof from politics and the other interests of regular society. The robe is a visible reminder of that restriction.

But judges are first lawyers, and lawyers are by nature a gregarious lot, socializing, among each other in the courtroom and out. Most judges that I know have spoken of the isolation that falls upon them when taking to the judgeâ??s chambers. Gone is the friendly competition in the courtroom, the camaraderie of fellow combatants after a well-joined battle, the friendly roasting at a lunch table or in the hallways outside of court. Instead, and tradition mandates it, theirs is a reflective and lonely existence, punctuated by the pressure of deciding the fates of those who come before the bench.
After the ceremony in the courtroom, we all marched down the hill to Culpeper Baptist Church for a reception. Ed Gentry, an attorney himself, catered the event. Judges mingled with attorneys. Friends and family shared stories. Like the Culpeper Bar itself, the reception was warm and collegial.

Yet, from across the room, I watched my former assistant, David Barredo, as he spoke with those around him. The smile was still there. The humbleness was still evident in his demeanor. But, there was something else as well. A certain reserve also manifested itself as he talked with well-wishers. It seemed to me the weight of tradition had already called him to remember his new role in the world: a role that required impartiality and neutrality in all his interactions.

Even, it seemed, at his own reception.

As I drove home and reflected upon the experience I knew the Commonwealth had gained another admirable jurist, but I also knew it came at a price that Judge Barredo, perhaps, was only then beginning to experience — as so many others have before him.

Gary L. Close is a freelance contributor for the Culpeper Times. He is also a former Culpeper Commonwealth’s attorney. You may reach him at