In Richard Matsch’s Own Words

The late federal judge opened up in series of oral history interviews

In more than four decades as a federal judge, Richard Matsch built a reputation for his brusque bearing and self-imposed social isolation. But his public persona belied a complex personality. Lawyers knew Matsch for his quick temper in court, but for more than 40 years he regretted sharp words he said to a lawyer early in his judicial career. He worked hard to conceal his emotions, calling it part of the discipline of a judge’s role as a neutral arbiter. But he got defensive when characterized as unemotional.

Matsch was notoriously private, believing judges have a duty to draw a strict line between their professional and personal lives. He rarely socialized with lawyers or even other judges. But he revealed the intricacy of his personality and philosophies in a series of interviews for the 10th Circuit Historical Society, less than a year before his death on May 26. 

Retired federal bankruptcy court Judge A. Bruce Campbell interviewed Matsch. He said the prospect intimidated him, given that Matsch wasn’t known for warm fuzziness. The late judge opened up about his life, career and philosophies more than Campbell ever expected, though, and allowed virtually everything in their conversations to be published. The resulting transcript is nearly 250 pages.

And Matsch continued to surprise Campbell throughout their hours of interviews. Matsch worked to appear emotionally neutral on the bench, which he called “part of the discipline” of keeping the judicial process fair. But he bristled at the characterization he was unemotional. 

“It took tremendous discipline when [he] heard about the children in the day care center who were blown up in that bombing … to not cry, to control himself,” Campbell said, referring to Matsch’s presiding over the Oklahoma City bombing trials. “It was a real exercise in discipline.”

Matsch told Campbell he also struggled with handing down sentences he thought were unjust and would be destructive for the person’s life. “And when I came off the bench, I would be near tears because I did it to them,” Matsch said.

Any lawyer who had a case assigned to Matsch has a story to tell about his brusque demeanor and his strict affinity for procedure. But Matsch believed he mellowed later in his career, and he opened up about regretting for decades something demeaning he said to a lawyer about his case.

“I don’t remember what it was about. I was irritated that he brought it. And in talking with him at this social event, having a drink, I referred to his case as a little piss-ant case,” Matsch told Campbell. “And he took me on about that right there, which was good. But that’s a terrible thing to say about a case. And, you know, it’s the worst thing I’ve ever said. Maybe not the worst, but it’s something that I’ve regretted even to this day, and that’s maybe, you know, from 1975 or so, when I first started.”

His views on the role of jurists made him critical of judges who sought out attention. In his conversations with Campbell, Matsch took to task everything from Supreme Court justices writing books to investiture ceremonies that focus on praising new judges.

“The worst offenders are the Supreme Court justices. And I think when you look at Justice Scalia and his constant going over to the Federalist Society and writing for the press, and now we have Justice Ginsburg being an icon in books,” Matsch told Campbll. “They’re not supposed to be doing that.”

When asked if he thought some federal judges may feel comfortable with maintaining a public profile because their lifetime appointment insulates them from political retribution, Campbell admitted he hadn’t thought about it that way. But he said Matsch likely saw a weighty responsibility inherent in the unique protection of a lifetime appointment.

“Matsch would say that’s a big deal … that isolation from political retribution when you’re doing your job. That’s very delicate,” Campbell said. “I think maybe Matsch in his neutrality was saying, judges shouldn’t take the luxury of shooting off at the mouth in political issues beyond what they’ve got presented in the courtroom, not that they’re forced to take because they’re presented in a dispute.”

Campbell said he tried to get Matsch talking about how political Supreme Court appointments have become. His conversations with Matsch took place during September and October last year, in the thicket of the confirmation process for Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Campbell expected Matsch to decry the process’s politicization. But Matsch’s answer threw him:

“I believe that the political process is important because … we lose I think the view that the Constitution starts with ‘We the People,’ and the people’s opportunity to have a role through their representatives … in who becomes a judge.”

More than four decades of deliberate social isolation had to have made a heavy load of emotions for Matsch to have carried around by himself. Campbell said during their series of interviews, Matsch likely was explaining some things to himself as much as to Campbell. “He said to me at one point, ‘I’m really glad that we’ve done this. We’ve talked about some things that I probably should’ve talked about with my family years ago.’ We didn’t pry into intimate personal [things], but I don’t think he probably had much discourse with anyone about his view of his job.” 

—Julia Cardi

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