GREENSBORO, N.C. — There are just 66 seats in the federal courtroom where former high-flyer John Edwards is on trial for campaign violations that could send him to prison for 30 years, and the all-day, up-close proximity to so much human wreckage can be
It’s hard to see the two-time presidential candidate’s kind-eyed daddy in the front row, supporting his son just as he’s always done. And it feels wrong to watch his newly wed daughter, Cate, spending her first year of marriage consumed with worry about whether he’s going away for the rest of his life.
But a welcome human counterpoint to the ongoing man-made disaster is the brisk and sometimes sassy 53-year-old female judge in the case, Catherine Diane Caldwell Eagles. The drawling Tennessee native with a prim bun and unprim hoop earrings is new to the federal bench; Senate Republicans found her so uncontroversial they confirmed the Obama nominee in 2010.
Though Eagles is not indulgent with either the prosecution or defense, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a judge more attentive to the needs of the jury, and at the end of voir dire she assured them it was an honor to be in the company of Americans willing to serve their country in this important way:
“Y’all are here,’’ she told the survivors of a week of jury winnowing. “It has been a pleasure these last several days. I know I have a warped sense of what pleasure is, but you have been patient, candid, honest and willing to serve your nation.’’
During a break in the action, she counseled jurors to “think about the weekend, or summer vacation, maybe.”
And near the end of the afternoon on Tuesday, she inquired whether they felt able to continue, and when answered with polite blankness, quickly called it a day: “I read your minds!”
Eagles has not been nearly as solicitous of the prosecution’s sketchy star witness, former Edwards aide Andrew Young, repeatedly telling him to slow down or speak up and showing some annoyance when he twice asked for a drink of water.
Misinformed by courthouse personnel that someone had tried to sneak in wearing a wire — it was ABC’s Bob Woodruff, who had just forgotten to take off his earpiece after doing his stand-up — she made him explain himself in open court, and declared, “The courtroom is not a circus!”
To defense attorney Abbe Lowell’s argument about a motion on which Eagles had already ruled, the judge showed that yes, actually, you can drawl and snap at the same time: “Did I not already rule in your favor?”
She’s repeatedly made clear that the defendant is not on trial for disappointing his supporters or his family, but for allegedly breaking the law by using illegal campaign contributions to keep his mistress quiet and his 2008 presidential chances alive.
Speaking to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2010, she assured Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.) that she’d have no problem following federal criminal sentencing guidelines. “I’m used to working with guidelines,” she said. “It gives framework for sentencing that is extremely helpful and useful.’’
And in a case involving such unprincipled principals, it’s helpful and useful to feel that the proceedings are in capable hands.
Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and anchors the paper’s ‘She the People’ blog. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.