Meet the judicial renegade overseeing Sen. Menendez's trial
Laura Jarrett and Sarah Jorgensen, CNN - Passing references to Agatha Christie novels, a nod to a carrot-based stew served during Jewish holidays, and an "old Mesopotamian" adage on herding cats have managed to shine through the federal corruption trial against Sen. Bob Menendez through an unconventional source: an 84-year-old federal judge.
Through self-described daily "homilies," akin to a first-year law school class with a cantankerous professor, Judge William H. Walls' one-man show holds the courtroom captive as he spars with lawyers trying to get a word in before he erupts -- in either laughter or fury.
Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, stands accused of accepting bribes from a long-time friend turned co-defendant, Dr. Salomon Melgen, in exchange for political favors.
Both men deny the allegations and Walls has promised to give them a fair trial.
"I have no dog in this fight," Walls has said repeatedly. "I really don't care who wins."
But the judge's courtroom management style is enough to set even the most experienced litigator on edge and, nine days into what's expected to be a two month-long trial, Walls' acerbic tongue shows no signs of softening anytime soon.
"He has a great sense of humor," said Judge Faith Hochberg, who formerly served on the district court in New Jersey, and now serves as an independent mediator and arbitrator.
When news spread that Walls was assigned to Menendez's bribery trial, the legal community in New Jersey collectively took note. As one litigator, who requested not to be named, said, "This is going to be wild."
Walls was born in 1932, raised from a young age by a single father and his grandmother in Atlantic City, after his mother left at age two. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth College and Yale Law School, according to testimony from his 1994 Senate confirmation hearing.
As a thirty-something lawyer, Walls served as corporation counsel for the city of Newark. His adventures in city politics even earned him a mention in a 1970 issue of "Jet," a popular African-American magazine.
Eventually, he found himself with a gavel in hand, serving as a state court judge in New Jersey for 17 years before being appointed to the federal bench by President Bill Clinton in 1994.
"His life has been the embodiment of the American dream," the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-New Jersey, said at time.
'A Bridge Too Far'
On the bench during the Menendez trial thus far, Walls' wit and affection for classic movie references have been on full display.
"There's a great World War II movie that teaches a lesson that I try to get across to counsel, as well as my clerks," Walls said as the first week of the trial came to a close. "It's the expression I use regularly, the movie is called, 'A Bridge Too Far.' ... So, don't push your luck with your adversary so they say look, you know, you are greedy."
The judge's temperament, however, has also proved prickly at times, as he thunderously clears his throat as a precursor to upbraiding lawyers in the case.
Walls generally saves the bulk of his ire outside the presence of the jury. He has the jurors escorted out of the courtroom multiple times a day -- an exercise he refers to as "aerobics" to their polite laughter. The rogues gallery of reporters, Menendez supporters, and other daily onlookers, meanwhile, have a front row seat as his jovial jabs at lawyers turn to downright rage when he perceives that his fairness to the defense has been wrongly questioned.
On the first day of trial, Walls told defense attorney Raymond Brown to "shut up" after Brown suggested the judge had "disparaged" Menendez in a public court filing.
Tensions further escalated during week three, as Walls turned his wrath in the direction of defense attorney Abbe Lowell after debating the admissibility of certain evidence the defense team wanted to offer to rebut the prosecution's bribery theory against Menendez.
"I am tired of defense imputing to me a disregard for the rights of the defendants. And it's almost to a point of professional insult," Walls said, creating seconds of uncomfortable silence in return. "I take personal umbrage at this suggestion."
Walls' crossness has been directed at the prosecution as well -- frequently chiding the lawyers to stop leading witnesses and telling prosecutor J.P. Cooney that he would not allow "this to become a tabloid trial."
"I am not going to let you just swish and swash nonsensical, you know, nonsensical substances, not substances, scenarios that really don't even make for a good pulp fiction story," Walls added.
'This is going to be wild'
CNN interviewed several litigators in New Jersey about their experience in Walls' courtroom -- though all asked to remain anonymous given their regular appearances in front of him.
Walls has always been "very much of his own mind," said one attorney who tried several cases in front of Walls and surmised that whatever idiosyncrasies he exhibited in the past have only grown more pronounced over the years. Walls went on senior status in 2005 but remains on the bench with an active docket.
An October 2016 survey of 455 federal litigators conducted by the New Jersey Law Journal on trial court judges in the district showed Walls with a lower than average rating, as compared to his peers, particularly on questions of being "courteous and respectful to litigants and lawyers."
"He's a strong hand," said another attorney who practices in the district. "He's certainly going to take the lead and be very aggressive in driving counsel to get to the point, making sure not to taint the jury's impression of the facts."
Hochberg fondly remembered Walls' personality on full display when the judges would lunch together once a week in a large conference room and Walls would end up in lively, though respectful, debates with a fellow judge with whom he frequently disagreed.
"It was funny to watch them go back and forth," Hochberg recalled in a phone interview with CNN, but said Walls never "thought ill" of someone "even though they didn't agree on anything."
Walls has already proved determined to keep the lawyers in the Menendez case on a tight leash, growing increasingly impatient when it comes to serving as the gatekeeper of evidence he views as "ridiculous" and irrelevant.
After mistakenly suggesting the trial was expected to last eight months instead of eight weeks, Walls course-corrected with humor.
"If I thought we would be together for the better part of eight months," he said, "I would resign."