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Toledo Legal News - News Laconic judge waxes poetic on Churchill and General Sherman


photo of Judge Richard SpeerIn Toledo, the Bankruptcy court is housed in the old, historic Court and Custom House building on Spielbusch Avenue. It sits on the landscape, dominate. It is squat and long, its beige and brown bricks rise up royally from the ground. It’s a quietly beautiful old building, in a style of architecture now only seen in Hollywood period pieces. While in the winter, when the building is capped with snow and the cold pavement walkway leading to the front door is flanked by hard, brittle frosted grass, the Custom House can seem almost Dickensian; in the summertime it’s homey tan coloring contrasts nicely with the greenery that blooms and blossoms around it. On a warm June day the Custom House could almost be an old school building or one of those glitzy, ritzy historic New York hotels scaled down and made appropriate for Toledo. It’s a reassuring thought that a building so lovingly crafted and beautifully built can have stood the test of time.

The interior of the building has a different feel from the exterior but is no less elegant. The rich, lustrous ambience, marble walls and heavy wooden doors, is marred only by the presence of a metal detector, an X-ray machine and a cheap, particle board table upon which visitors are inspected to place their personal belongings for inspection.

Judge Richard Speer’s office is no less refined. Thick green carpet muffles footfalls, the surface of the large, imposing desk is shined to mirror-like polish and the music of an oboe solo plays softly in the background.

“‘The great war, through which we have passed, differed from all ancient wars in the immense power of the combatants and their fearful agencies of destruction. And from all modern wars in the utter ruthlessness with which it was fought. All the horrors of all the ages were brought together. And not only armies but whole populations were thrust into the midst of them’…” The words are Winston Churchill’s, but the voice speaking them aloud belongs to Judge Richard Speer, a bankruptcy judge for the Northern District of Ohio. He is reading this passage aloud in hopes of making clear just how good written English can be. “…’Every outrage against humanity or international law was repaid by reprisals often on a greater scale and of longer duration. No truce or parley mitigated a strike for the armies. The wounded died between the lines. The dead moldered into the soil’…” When the Judge finishes the selection, he closes the book gently, placing a bookmark in it to keep his place. He holds the book with both hands close to his chest. It seems like he is about to say something soft and reverential. Instead he bursts out, exclaims, “Who writes like that today? Who? That’s my point, that’s why I like Churchill.”

Nestled in his office, which is big enough to have its own hallway, Judge Speer spent over an hour talking about law, history and literature. Well schooled in all three areas, the former English teacher seemed most to enjoy himself most when raving about Churchill’s The World in Crisis or considering some of the more shocking revelations found in the latest Benjamin Franklin biography.

As a person, the Judge is a product of the 1950’s. He has the principled personal reservation that typically stereotypes men of that age. In his professional role as a judge, Speer refuses to discuss politics or the laws he administers except to say, “My particular moral philosophies on the world are nice for me but they are irrelavent to the cases. So the question is then asked, ‘do I agree with every opinion I write?’ Well of course not. But I have to follow the law and sometimes the law doesn’t allow me go where I think the law should go but nobody has elected me to the legislature. You want to change the law? You go down to the legislature, that’s where it’s at. I am not an activist judge.”

An extension of his reticence is a refreshing modesty that runs deep. Judge Speers brushes off questions about awards won or commendations given.

As taciturn as the Judge can be, he can also in many ways be disarmingly honest. He describes himself in high school: “I went to school and went home. I was what, I guess, you would call a nerd. That’s fine. I sang in the choir, was on the debate team… I was on the chess club until I figured out I really didn’t know that much about it,” one gets the sense that Judge Speer is completely unaware of how hip it currently is to own one’s geekiness.

He is also forthright about his family. “My family came here as immigrants. And they came on the bottom of the boat, not the top. My father worked for Ford, my father-in-law worked for Ford. I worked for Ford for two summers during college. They would employee me for 89 days at a time because if I worked for them for 90 days they would have to hire me full time. So they would only hire me as a summer thing and then on the 89th day they would say ‘thank you for your time and good luck’. I think everyone should work in something like that. It’s an honest way to make a living.”

After college the Judge went to law school and eventually ended up working for the Attorney General’s office in Columbus for two years. There, he worked for a man he compares favorably to General Sherman. “In the A.G.’s office, I worked for Bill Saxbe, who was an old army boy and would become the American Attorney General in 1973. As a boss, if you got into trouble with a judge for some reason, Bill would come by your side and protect you. Now, the ride home would not be a pleasant experience. But everyone in the office knew that Saxby would back you up. Loyalty goes down as well as up. And Bill Saxbe was willing to lead from the front. Like General Sherman. Have you read his autobiography? He’s a fine writer, just wonderful. And you know, Sherman’s been really mischaracterized in my opinion. But Saxbe, like Sherman was willing to mess and sleep with the troops. They were both always up in front, never 20 miles back giving orders.”

After leaving the A.G.’s office, Judge Speer formed a law firm in Oak Harbor, Ohio. He practiced there until he became a judge.

While Judge Speer’s principles preclude him from talking at length about the practice, the nuts and bolts of his job, he is not shy about his love for the job. “I really like being a bankruptcy judge. This job covers a lot of different aspects of the law. We do all kinds of things, negligence, commercial, medical malpractice cases. I had Bell & Beckwith which of course turned into a 14 year thing, which was fine, that was fascinating. I have an opportunity to do so many areas of the law. When I became a judge the firm gave me keys to the front door and said, ‘come back whenever you want’. Well, I still have the keys but they’ve changed the locks six times over.”

Michael Davisson, Toledo Legal News Staff Writer

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