I Say Again
By J. William Ditter Jr.
Red Barn Press. 228 pp. $19.95
By Peter Vaira
This is a book written by a lawyer-judge, but not a book about the law or the legal profession. J. William Ditter Jr., 96, a federal district court judge for 48 years, still practicing and living in western Montgomery County, writes of the country that was America from the 1930s to the present. This is not a book of nostalgia or a history book, but commentary in various forms: in poems to his wife, sermons to his church, memos to members of the bar, and a few of his legal opinions. Included also are his Christmas letters to friends and family.
This book should be read a few pages at a time, after nightfall, with a glass of port or sherry. It is somewhat in the style of Charles Krauthammer’s best seller Things That Matter. In his introduction to his poems to his wife of 60 years, he describes bringing her home to die after the doctors could do no more, to a house she designed and created. Here is an excerpt from “When,” written after her death:
When the shadows lengthen and darkness closes about me,
My last conscious thought will be of you,
And how I was blessed,
Blessed with you, my wife,
And how I missed you.
He took a leave of absence of several years from the bench to care for her in her illness. After she died, his colleagues on the federal bench urged him to return, which he did. He still sits on the federal bench, with an active caseload.
Some members of the bar may describe Judge Ditter as a country judge. He did not come to the bench from a giant law firm, but rather served as an assistant district attorney for several years and as a Common Pleas Court judge in Montgomery County for six years before being appointed to the federal bench. As a federal prosecutor, I once appeared before him to seek permission to install a wiretap on a suspect’s phone. I told him I would report back to him every five days to let him know whether we should continue. He directed me to report to him every day. We need more country judges.
Also here is an opinion he issued as a county court judge, involving a child custody dispute between a divorced couple. The father did not have the money to provide the children the lifestyle his well-to-do ex-wife could give them. In Judge Ditter’s words, “All the father could provide was his continued interest, his devotion, his companionship, and his sense of spiritual values.” He followed the children’s request that they remain with their father.
His annual Christmas letters are reason alone to buy the book. Judge Ditter comments on old customs, new customs, and the changing face of America. He quotes a fictional cousin named Mitzy, whose personal patois recalls the first Mayor Daley of Chicago or Yogi Berra of the New York Yankees. Mitzy is totally disorganized, often arrives a day late for holiday celebrations, and makes remarks such as, “That’s painting the barn after the horse is stolen” or, “Like it says in the Bible, love your neighbor by yourself.” Of her oldest son, she writes, “He spends money like fish out of water.”
One of his church sermons includes this passage: “What will I say when Jesus arrives, probably at the wrong time, and asks me, ‘Why have you not used the gifts I gave you? Why have you neglected me?’ ” Ditter responds, “I hope I have an answer” and asks the congregation, “What about you?” He often concluded his part in public functions with “God bless America.”
And as one of his former law clerks says, this book “overflows with creativity and humor.” Judge Ditter describes being asked to speak to a group of third-graders. Several days later, he received a handmade card from each student, complete with drawings of, say, a gavel, a black robe, a judge’s bench. One third-grader wrote: “Dear Judge, thank you for coming to our class. I couldn’t draw a picture of you so I drawed Bugs Bunny instead.” Judge Ditter comments: “And it was pretty good picture, too.”
The America described in this book changed over the years, with good changes, and some not so good. As long as we have people such as Judge Ditter willing to serve in public life, we need not worry. As cousin Mitzy says in the judge’s 2000 Christmas letter, “A word to the wise is not needed.”
Peter Vaira is an attorney practicing in Philadelphia and a former United States attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.