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Justice served, with respect
Retired Circuit Judge William H. Ledbetter Jr. reflects on law and his career

 Revered for his legal knowledge and demeanor, Judge William H. Ledbetter Jr. retired from Virginia's Circuit Court bench last month. 'I don't think I could come up with a better job,' he says of his 18 years of hearing cases.
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Date published: 6/21/2005

OR 18 YEARS, Judge William H. Ledbetter Jr. sorted out other people's messes.

Their disputes, great and petty. Their poor judgment. Their calculated violence. Their honest mistakes, and their dishonest ones. The pain they caused. The pain they felt.

Such a day-in, day-out diet of trouble can be hardening, some lawyers say. Judges can fall prey to "robeitis"--amnesia about what it's like to be a practicing lawyer. They can be short with struggling attorneys, dense defendants, whiny civil plaintiffs or cagey witnesses.

Not Judge Ledbetter.

Judicial colleagues, lawyers and others involved in the legal system say that throughout his time as a judge in Virginia's 15th Judicial Circuit, from 1987 until his retirement this spring, Ledbetter set an example for courtroom demeanor. He listened, understood, empathized when appropriate, and made reasoned decisions, all without letting it change him.

They describe a judge perfectly in control of his courtroom, yet respectful to all who entered it.

"When you walked into his courtroom, he always made you feel like somebody," said Vernon Keeve, a Spotsylvania County lawyer who handles criminal defense and personal-injury cases.

Ledbetter is an exceptional legal scholar with personal skills to match, said Spotsylvania defense attorney Mark Gardner.

"It's a combination you don't encounter very often in any walk of life," Gardner said. "My clients have left his courtroom feeling like they were treated fairly."

A judge's foundation

William Hersten Ledbetter Jr. was born in 1941, right before Pearl Harbor.

His father had been a semipro baseball player. But when he married, Mary Katherine Ledbetter insisted on a steadier lifestyle. William Ledbetter Sr. became an optician, opened a business in Fayetteville, N.C., and settled his young family in the little town of Stedman.

There, the future judge grew up hardworking but with a penchant for mischief.

Maybe it was the pain of laboring under the nickname of Herky. People never connected it with his middle name of Hersten, but instead mistook it as short for Hercules. That was tough for a skinny boy who couldn't top 135 pounds, Judge Ledbetter recalled in recent interviews.

Whatever the reason, the kid was a handful.

In eighth grade, he'd leave class, slip out the boys' bathroom window and walk to a town a few miles away to play pool.

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