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I was the child of a judge who went to prison, but my life was not destroyed: Richard K. Gordon Jr. (Opinion)

October 5, 2018

I was the child of a judge who went to prison, but my life was not destroyed: Richard K. Gordon Jr. (Opinion)

CLEVELAND -- Last week, Judge Brett Kavanaugh testified before the U.S. Senate, and the world, with his voice breaking, that “my family ... [has] been totally and permanently destroyed by vicious and false accusations.” I’m fairly sure that he’s wrong about this, or at least he would be if he stopped telling his family that they were.

Why do I know?

Because when I was a young boy, my father, also a judge, was publicly attacked by vicious, and I believe false, accusations. The attacks were reported on the front page of newspapers and led the local TV evening news.

And yet neither I nor my sisters were temporarily, let alone permanently, destroyed, even though our situation was even more harsh than that of the Kavanaughs. In fact, all the Gordon children wound up flourishing in spite -- or perhaps because -- of all that had happened.  

When my father was just 27 years old, Massachusetts Gov. Paul Dever appointed him to the bench, making him the youngest judge in the history of Massachusetts. He was shown enormous respect and deference by just about everyone we knew, and I benefited. I loved sitting with him behind the high bench in the jewel of his old courthouse in Ipswich, and even had my own judicial robes made, which I gleefully showed off to relatives and classmates.

Then, unexpectedly, came the vicious accusations against my dad. This is where the similarity between what happened to my father and family and what is happening to Judge Kavanaugh ends.

My dad was being investigated for the crime of conspiracy to commit grand larceny. I first learned of this when I saw him on the evening news being led to jail in handcuffs. My dad didn’t spend less than half a day being asked questions by U.S. Senators, a majority of whom were intent on exonerating and praising him. Instead, he endured a weekslong public criminal trial, breathlessly reported every night in detail by the media, and all from the perspective of the prosecution.

After the public ordeal, he didn’t go back to being a judge — he went to a maximum-security prison.

My dad wasn’t born to a family of means. He didn’t attend prep school or spend summers at the country club. He worked on the family farm while making his way through a public high school.

After graduating he didn’t attend an Ivy League college or join a dodgy fraternity; he signed up with the Army Air Forces, where he was so severely injured that, after spending nearly a year in a hospital, he was honorably discharged with his condition listed as “poor.” He didn’t attend Yale and Yale Law School, but got his degrees at a commuter college and law school — nights.

Though like Mr. Kavanaugh he achieved a judgeship, our family had nowhere near the resources his family does. By the end of my dad’s trial, we were financially destitute. At the end of Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation process he may no longer be coaching basketball, but I doubt he will be fighting bankruptcy.

The social and moral support that Judge Kavanaugh and his family have from the president of the United States, the hundreds of federal judges, elite lawyers, Ivy League classmates — the people who occupy the very apex of the social and political world — flows from his history. We most certainly did not have that.

And yet, with all that against us, my sisters and I were not “destroyed.”

Why? Without financial resources or a powerful social network, we turned to friends and relatives. “Just ask them to help,” my dad advised. They did, giving freely and with love. We learned that there were many material things we could do without. We found jobs. My wife jokes that even in dire circumstances, the expressions she’s heard most from me and my sisters are, “No matter what, we’ll eat,” and, “This may be bad, but compared to what?”

We worked to turn a terrible situation into a learning experience. Instead of being ashamed that my dad was an inmate, I made it a point to bring classmates with me to visit him in prison. I tried to glean what I could from his unexpected circumstance, and widened my view of the world: For my grade school presentation on what I did with my summer vacation, I showed the class how to pick a wide variety of locks, a skill I had picked up from an inmate named Brownie.

Other experiences led to my very satisfying educational path and professional career. I told the story of my dad’s incarceration to the admissions officer of a prestigious boarding school, and secured a scholarship. While there I got involved in studying prison reform, writing research papers and articles for the school magazine — and even dragging one of my teachers to visit some inmates. I continued such research projects at Yale. I went to Harvard Law School, and joined the Prison Legal Assistance program. Now I’m a law professor specializing in finding bad guys who launder their ill-gotten proceeds.

But first and perhaps foremost, my father never told me or my sisters that we were destroyed, let alone “totally and permanently,” as Judge Kavanaugh has said to his daughters and to the entire world. Instead of saddling us with that cruel burden, my dad made sure we understood that the charges were leveled against him, not us. In short, he never made us a pawn in his or his lawyer’s legal or public relations strategy. What does it say about Brett Kavanaugh’s character that he did?

Richard K. Gordon Jr. is a professor of law and founding director of the Financial Integrity Institute at Case Western Reserve University. 

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