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Donora native named to head federal court on surveillance

| Monday, March 11, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Judge Reggie B. Walton
Judge Reggie B. Walton

U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton, a native of Donora, has been appointed by U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts to head the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, replacing Judge John D. Bates, whose term is expiring.

The appointment, which becomes effective Feb. 22, appears appropriate for Walton, who traces his days on the federal court to the dawn of the post-9-11 era.

Originally nominated for the federal court in May 2001, Walton's confirmation hearings occurred in August 2001. He was approved to serve on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in late September 2001. and was sworn into office one month later.

Although the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court is playing a role in the government's ongoing war on terrorism, it draws its roots to the post-Watergate era, Walton noted.

“The court was created following the revelations of Watergate and inappropriate surveillance,” Walton said.

Enacted Oct. 25, 1978, by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, the special court oversees requests for surveillance warrants against suspected foreign intelligence agents inside the United States by federal law enforcement agencies, primarily the FBI.

According to the Federal Judicial Center website: “The legislation was a response to a report of the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (the ‘Church Committee'), which detailed allegations of executive branch abuses of its authority to conduct domestic electronic surveillance in the interest of national security.

“Warrant applications under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act are drafted by attorneys in the General Counsel's Office at the National Security Agency at the request of an officer of one of the federal intelligence agencies. Each application must contain the Attorney General's certification that the target of the proposed surveillance is either a “foreign power” or “the agent of a foreign power” and, in the case of a U.S. citizen or resident alien, that the target may be involved in the commission of a crime.”

According to the Federal Judicial Center website, judges of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court travel to Washington, D.C., to hear warrant applications on a rotating basis. To ensure that the court can convene on short notice, at least one of the judges is required to be a member of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

The court meets in secret at the federal courthouse in Washington to hear classified evidence from government attorneys. No defense attorneys are present. At least one of its 11 judges is on call to issue warrants.

Walton has served on the surveillance court since 2007. He also has presided over a number of high-profile federal court cases, including Roger Clemens perjury trial.

Walton said the surveillance court remains busy, noting that “everything we do is classified.”

“It is a responsible position because we have to maintain the delicate balance between the needs of government and protecting the liberties of the public,” Walton said.

Walton served as an associate judge of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia from 1981 to 1989 and from 1991 to 2001. He was appointed to that position by President Ronald Reagan, in 1981, and by George H. W. Bush, in 1991.

As a Superior Court jurist, Walton was the presiding judge of the family division, presiding judge of the domestic violence unit and deputy presiding judge of the criminal division.

From 1989 to 1991, Walton served as President George H. W. Bush's associate director of the office of national drug control policy in the Executive Office of the President and as former President Bush's senior white house advisor for crime.

Walton served as the executive assistant U.S. attorney in the Office of the U.S. Attorney in Washington, D.C., from June 1980 to July 1981, and as an assistant U.S. attorney in that office from March 1976 to June 1980.

From June 1979 to June 1980, Walton served as chief of the Career Criminal Unit in the U.S. Attorney's Office. Walton was a staff attorney for the Defender Association of Philadelphia from August 1974 to February 1976.

Walton said he is proud of his Donora roots.

“I grew up in a wholesome environment,” Walton said. “I had outstanding parents who emphasized the importance of education.”

Walton said he did not take advantage of education until he was in college.

“My first love was football,” Walton said. “Education was not important to me. I didn't see anyone who looked like me taking advantage of education.

“I never had an African-American teacher in high school. I didn't perceive that education was going to be my future.”

Walton lettered three times in football at West Virginia State and was slated to be a starter as a senior.

But after an ankle injury required multiple surgeries, he started to have a different outlook on the role of education in his future.

At the same time, Walton was invited by the Council on Legal Education Opportunities program to attend a summer law program at Howard University. Already accepted by both the University of Pittsburgh and Duquesne University law schools, he earned a scholarship to American University based on how he fared at the summer program.

Since earning his law degree, Walton has taught on various levels, including currently serving as a faculty member of the National Judicial College, in Reno, Nev. since 1999, and as an adjunct faculty member at Harvard University Law School, trial advocacy workshop, since 1994.

Recently, retired federal judge Paul Simmons of Monongahela was featured in an oral history to be presented by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. Walton expressed disappointment that he was unable to attend due to duties of his position.

Simmons was the first black man to serve as judge of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.

Walton said he met Paul Simmons at an NAACP awards ceremony at which Walton was receiving an award.

“I heard a lot about him from my parents,” Walton said. “We had a very friendly conversation.”

Chris Buckley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-684-2642 or

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