Meet the Black Man Atop America's Secret Court

Reggie Walton is the presiding judge over the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a notable post for an African-American jurist.

Posted: 07/09/2013 01:46 PM EDT
Reggie Walton

He is the chief judge of a powerful American court that operates in near total secrecy. Reggie Walton is the presiding judge over the little-known Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which has attracted unusual public and media attention following revelations of spying by the National Security Agency.

Walton, who is a federal judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, heads the specialized court, whose 11 members are appointed by the chief justice of the Supreme Court. It is a judicial body that deals with requests for surveillance warrants against people who are suspected of being intelligence agents for foreign countries.

Earlier this year, the court gained notoriety in the media after a warrant it issued was leaked to the press. In that warrant, the court ordered Verizon to provide a daily listing of various calls to the National Security Agency, a move that ignited a great deal of controversy.

The country’s surveillance activity has become an international controversy after Edward Snowden, a former employee with the Central Intelligence Agency and the NSA, leaked details of several top-secret American and British spying activities to the press.

The 64-year-old Walton has done few interviews with the press, and he rarely speaks publicly. But in his time on that court, there has been a significant expansion in the government’s activities in collecting intelligence on Americans in the United States and in foreign countries and advocates of civil liberties have been deeply vexed.

“It’s a fascinating achievement for him, but his tenure is difficult to assess because we don’t know much about it,” said Michael K. Fauntroy, an associate professor of public policy at George Mason University, in an interview with BET.com.

“He has significant say over American public policy that, until recent years, had only been marginally revealed to the public. This is serious business, and I’m proud that a man of his stature is heading this work. He had a tremendous career and this is one more step along that path.”

Walton was raised in Donora, Pennsylvania, about 20 miles south of Pittsburgh. In his youth, he had to appear in court for charges of gang fighting. He has said that a pivotal event in his youth was when he had a friend who came close to killing a rival with an icepick.

That incident, he said, taught him to focus fully on academic achievement.

He entered West Virginia State College on a football scholarship and earned a bachelor’s degree in 1971. Walton, a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, then earned a law degree from American University in Washington in 1974.

He served in two stints as an associate judge of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia and also worked as associate director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

“I repeatedly stated my belief that efforts had to be made in the area of social programs,” he said, in an interview in 1993. “There was an aversion to social programs among the people in the drug office. They felt that you didn’t need to address the problems of jobs or housing or education or the host of other social issues that I thought had to be addressed.”

He was nominated by President George W. Bush to the federal bench in 2001 and confirmed by the Senate.

In 2004, Bush appointed him to chair the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission. He was appointed to a seat on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in 2007 by Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts.

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(Photo: Courtesy U.S. District Court)

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