The Honorable Lawrence Stengel has been named as the Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Lots of other people are more qualified than I to comment on Judge Stengel’s work, his judgment and his interaction with thousands of people that have appeared before him. But I have one story about Judge Stengel that demonstrates his quality on the bench.
Now attorneys don’t always tell the best stories. There is often a lot of detail that we cannot put into our stories because of confidentiality. Unfortunately, this is one of those times so some details are omitted to “protect the innocent” as they say.
I was a new lawyer, maybe one or two years out of law school. I inherited a zoning enforcement case from one of the senior partners. It was one of those cases that literally went on for decades. The land owner would violate zoning and the municipality would get an order to enforce its zoning ordinance. The owner would refuse, and one of the Judges in the Court of Common Pleas would issue an order to the land owner. The land owner would still refuse to comply, and the Court would issue a citation for contempt of court. The citation for contempt would keep the land owner on the straight and narrow for a little while. But after a few years, the whole process would repeat itself.
On one of those go-rounds, I was the attorney asking Judge Stengel to find the land owner in contempt for ignoring the Court’s latest order. And after years of being ignored and costing the municipality lots of time and money, Judge Stengel ordered the landowner to prison until his property was cleaned up.
I was a young municipal attorney, and I was not expecting to take part in someone getting taken away in handcuffs. To say that I was shaken up was an understatement. I needed to be able to tell the senior attorneys at the firm (and possibly the press) what happened, but I wasn’t quite sure myself. Fortunately, Judge Stengel took a moment to look me in the eyes and said “Aaron, this is OK.” He went on to say this was a long time coming and I should not feel bad about it. Now, as a more experienced attorney, I appreciate that Judge Stengel’s ruling was not as abrupt as I thought at the time. In fact, it was a rational, well-reasoned and thoughtful approach to a matter that had been considered by the Court far too many times before. Today, the property looks to be in good shape, which can be traced back to that day in Judge Stengel’s courtroom.
I will never forget my time in Judge Stengel’s courtroom that day. He didn’t have to spend time reassuring and encouraging a young lawyer. But I will always be grateful for that moment, and I try to pay it forward to the young attorneys that I work with now.