Dayton Comment

 Dayton Comment

Walter Rice is the people’s judge.

By Jim Bucher

What comes to mind when you think of a judge? 

A person of stately manner, no nonsense, wearing an intimidating, long robe, sitting high atop a throne-like platform sentencing people to the big house? You know, right out of central casting. 

But as far as one local man goes you can’t “judge’” a book by its cover or robe either.

I’m referring to U.S. Federal Judge Walter Rice. 

“I was born in Pittsburgh, Pa., with two wonderful parents. As a child, I fell in love with the study and reading of history. It occurred to me that many of the people who accomplished great things for this country had legal training. That was enough to set me on my path to a legal career,” Rice says.

And the rest as they say … well, you know. 

Today the “people’s judge” is in his 37th year on the federal bench. You can imagine the cases he’s proceeded over—with mine as an exception, of course, that’s for another column. He’s most proud of one in particular. 

“It occurred in the late 1980s, when county jails in the eight counties served by our court were chronically overcrowded, unconstitutionally so. All were under consent decrees. By dint of working with the parties this condition was either alleviated by a change in policies or the construction of new county jails,” Rice says.

It’s more than a 9-to-5 job. 

“I truly feel that a judge’s responsibility does not end when the courthouse closes for the day. I feel we have a continuing responsibility to those we have sentenced, to work and to ensure that they are able to come home and meaningfully integrate into the community.”  

Rice is active in the Montgomery County Ex-Offender Re-entry initiative, is chairman of the nonprofit American Veterans Heritage Center and is a board member of Dayton Urban Young Life, a group which helps young people achieve their maximum potential by overcoming the barriers that many youngsters living in economically deprived neighborhoods face every day.

“He means the world to me,” says Montgomery County Commissioner Debbie Lieberman. “He has inspired so many people and I’m one of them. I will never forget the many times he has truly made me sit back and think about something in a way I had never considered.”

Phil Parker, president/CEO, Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce, says, “He is far from the typical federal judge. Without a doubt he is a superbly intelligent jurist, but he is an incredible servant leader and has the strongest and purest sense for the important social justice issues that we face in our community.”

His mission outside the courtroom is far from complete, but the Energizer Bunny of judges won’t rest until it is.  

“I would like to see a vast improvement in race relations and in relationships between different ethnicities and religions,” Rice says. “I would very much like to see the community become more accepting of persons who have come through the criminal justice system, the vast majority of whom are not bad people, but rather they are good people who have done, for one reason or another, some very bad and unthinking things.”

Rice has four grown children and is still married to his wife, Bonnie, an attorney whom he met while she was in law school. He was teaching a class in trial advocacy. It was love legalese at first sight. 

And don’t get me started on his office. Upon entering you know this isn’t a mere mortal judge. 

So, what does a federal judge do for fun? Does he have any time with his curricular and extracurricular activities? 

“Hobbies I have very few, other than reading on historical topics and watching sporting events. I am an avid, albeit frustrated, fan of any team, pro or amateur, which has the name Pittsburgh in front of it.”

And with my next question look who showed up in his list of role models.

“Next to Jim Bucher, all role models fade into insignificance. However, Lee Falke, former Montgomery County prosecuting attorney, and the late Carl D. Kessler, judge of the Common Pleas Court, are a distant second.”  

Now in his eighth decade, the judge may hold me in contempt mentioning that, but any talk of the ‘R’ word? 

“I have thought of retirement, then taken two aspirin, laid down and exorcised the thought from my mind. I don’t believe I will ever retire, as long as my health holds. If I were to slow down or retire, if physically able, I would continue to try to be active in the community,” Rice says. 

“I have been legally dead for the last dozen years or more. However, given the fact that my legal opinions were never that well thought out or reasoned no one has yet noticed this,” Rice says.

Did I mention he has a wicked sense of humor? Phil Parker agrees. 

“He has the driest yet wittiest sense of humor of anyone we know, not very typical of a man at his professional level. Should he ever step aside from his role as our area’s federal judge I believe his next calling should be stand-up comedy.”

Like most judges, we’ll let him have the final word. 

“Other than being a ‘Jim Bucher groupie,’ I would like to be remembered as someone who did his best to leave the community and the justice system just a tad better than it was when I came on the scene some 54 years ago.” 

No one will “object” to that.

Cheers and see ‘ya around town judge, preferably not in your courtroom.

– Buch

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