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‘Sunday Sit-Down’ TODAY’S GUEST: John Preston Bailey U.S. District Judge, Northern District of West Virginia

U.S. District Judge John Preston Bailey works in his office at the Federal Building in Wheeling. Bailey, a 12-year judge in the federal court system, discusses the drug crisis, the 14th Amendment and more with the Sunday News-Register.

Editor’s note: It’s not often that a federal judge opens up about his work, but U.S. District Judge John Preston Bailey agreed to do so, tackling current issues from drugs to sentencing guidelines. Bailey also touched on research he did into former Congressman John Bingham, author of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1868 who hailed from Cadiz, Ohio.

– How would you describe John Bailey?

BAILEY: Well, it’s funny. … Older judges sometimes have trouble letting go of (being a judge), and I think one of the reasons for that — other than it’s a great job — but it starts to define you, it starts to affect who you are, hopefully in a good way. You don’t want to get what they call ‘black robe disease,’ where you forget what it was like to practice law and have deadlines in six different courts, and hearings all over. Hopefully I haven’t forgot that.

I’m a lawyer who got lucky; I’m a lawyer who was at the right place at the right time, and got this great job.

– What’s your favorite aspect of being a federal judge?

BAILEY: The favorite thing about the job is really that unlike when you’re in the practice of law, I control my schedule. Very little of what I (do) is immovable. There are certain things — for example, the 4th Circuit has judges’ meetings and you better have a really good excuse if you’re not going to be there. I know one judge who had his 50th wedding anniversary and had a trip planned and got excused, but typically you better be there. Other than that, we really control our own schedules, which is great.

– What’s your least favorite?

BAILEY: The hardest thing I do is sentencing. You get a report of about 35 to 50 pages on all aspects of a defendant’s life. You have the guidelines, which are now advisory that says in a run-of-the-mill case of this type this is what the sentence ought to be. But then you look at the individual and you think — you try to look for the redeeming characteristics. Is there something that says to you this person maybe deserves a break, which could be all the way up to drug court, or this guy is really a hardened, bad person in which case you need to protect the public from that person. I always read — I don’t have my law clerks read the pre-sentence reports, I read them myself. Years ago I was a law clerk to Judge Haden and he taught me that. It is such a personal, individualized thing that you have to read it yourself and hope you’re doing the right thing.

– You mentioned sentencing guidelines — Do you believe, as a judge, that you can better run your courtroom with sentencing guidelines that give you options?

BAILEY: Yes, even when we have mandatory minimums, which still exist, occasionally you run into somebody and you say, you know what — Years ago I had a couple who got in trouble for selling some drugs, they had some problems, they had some sort of tragedy that happened in their life and somebody suggested all this will make you feel better, and they were looking at a mandatory minimum. These people were in their late 40s, early 50s, and they had never had a parking ticket in their life. The government did make a recommendation … to go below the guidelines but there was no way I wanted to give that person a guideline sentence, or a mandatory minimum sentence.

Judge John

Bailey On …

– sentencing those who come before him: “The hardest thing I do is sentencing. You get a report of about 35 to 50 pages on all aspects of a defendant’s life. You have the guidelines, which are now advisory that says in a run-of-the-mill case of this type this is what the sentence ought to be. But then you look at the individual and you think — you try to look for the redeeming characteristics. Is there something that says to you this person maybe deserves a break, which could be all the way up to drug court, or this guy is really a hardened, bad person in which case you need to protect the public from that person. I always read — I don’t have my law clerks read the pre-sentence reports, I read them myself.”

– having flexibility in sentencing individuals who may have simply taken a wrong turn in life: “Years ago I had a couple who got in trouble for selling some drugs, they had some problems, they had some sort of tragedy that happened in their life and somebody suggested all this will make you feel better, and they were looking at a mandatory minimum. These people were in their late 40s, early 50s, and they had never had a parking ticket in their life. The government did make a recommendation … to go below the guidelines but there was no way I wanted to give that person a guideline sentence, or a mandatory minimum sentence.”

– former Congressman John Bingham of Cadiz, author of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1868: “Everything he did was aimed at making sure that there was equality in this country, that was the purpose of the 14th Amendment. I’m not sure that the courts realized what a powerful sentence that is in the 14th Amendment until much later. He made such a difference in the law, ultimately. I think he was frustrated because he didn’t live to see those changes take place, but he was just a tremendous person and a great orator. He also prosecuted the Lincoln assassins, he was one of the prosecutors in the Johnson impeachment trial. He was recognized for his abilities but never got rich from them, when he died he barely had enough money to get buried.”

– whether the federal court system’s approach to the drug crisis is appropriate: “Yes, (but) we can always use more resources.

The drug court — while in a sense it’s not cheap, we spend a lot of money on treatment, we spend a lot of money on counseling — but the federal probation office had a study done that compared what it cost to keep people in prison (with the minimum sentencing guidelines), and we save a lot of money.

… The problem is getting the government to move money from prisons to treatment, and I think we’re making progress in that area.”

– staying and raising his family in Wheeling: “Family, I suppose, primarily kept me in Wheeling, along with the fact I love West Virginia. Also, Oglebay is so wonderful, and I probably don’t use it as much as I should, I probably don’t go up as often as I should but just knowing it’s there — it is such a jewel in the crown of Wheeling. We have such history here, we have Oglebay, a great public school system, great private schools … it’s just a great place to raise a family. And all of my children have moved away.”

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