No-nonsense judge expected to keep Nacchio trial on track
By Sara Burnett
Rocky Mountain News
Saturday, March 3, 2007
It was the King of Pop vs. the King of Courtroom C203. On the
witness stand sat Michael Jackson, the Grammy-winning pop singer
who inspired fans around the world to moonwalk and sport a
single, sequined glove.
On the bench was Edward W. Nottingham, the no-nonsense federal
judge with a low tolerance for courtroom shenanigans, unprepared
attorneys or unnecessary delays.
Jackson, testifying in a 1994 civil copyright-infringement
trial, had sung and danced in his chair, entertaining the
crowded gallery for about an hour. But when he failed to answer
a question to Nottingham's liking, the judge made it clear he
was not impressed.
"Mr. Jackson, just answer the question," Nottingham barked.
"I am," a smiling Jackson replied.
"No, you're not."
"I'm trying," Jackson said.
The anecdote is classic Nottingham -- putting a person firmly in
his place and keeping proceedings moving along, even if the
witness happened to have recorded one of the biggest-selling
albums of all time.
They are skills that should serve Nottingham well come March 19
when he is scheduled to preside over one of the biggest trials
in years at the federal courthouse in Denver: the United States
of America vs. Joseph P. Nacchio.
The case against the former Qwest CEO has the potential to get
bogged down in complicated details of alleged insider trading.
It also comes with big-gun lawyers on both sides, including a
lead prosecutor and lead defense attorney who have served as
But make no mistake, those who know Nottingham say: If he
scheduled the trial to take no more than 30 days, the trial will
wrap up within 30 days.
And inside courtroom 1001 on the top floor of the new federal
courthouse, there will be only one judge.
Not always popular
Nottingham grew up on an Eagle County ranch and graduated from
Grand Junction High School. After attending Cornell University,
an Ivy League college in Ithaca, N.Y., he returned to Colorado
for law school.
He was a prosecutor in the U.S. attorney's office for two years
before joining Sherman & Howard, Denver's oldest law firm. He
became partner there before joining a private firm in Grand
Junction, where he was partner until being appointed to the
As an attorney, Nottingham was "a consummate professional,"
recalled James Rollin Miller, who heads the litigation group at
Moye White in Denver and who went up against Nottingham when the
judge was in private practice and an assistant U.S. attorney.
Nottingham worked hard, Miller said. He was ethical and always
prepared. He didn't play games, and opposing attorneys could
take him at his word.
"He was what he expects people to be," Miller added.
Those high expectations certainly haven't made Nottingham the
most popular judge at the federal courthouse.
In the 1990s he was known for scheduling hearings at 6:30 a.m.
for lawyers who had irked him, usually by filing frivolous
motions or having petty disagreements with one another. When
everyone arrived, Nottingham would be "ready to yell at you,"
one attorney recalled.
He still doesn't hesitate to fire terse words at lawyers or
witnesses or anyone else he thinks deserves it. Just a few
weeks ago he criticized the attorneys in the Nacchio case,
saying they were acting like "petulant children in a sandbox."
Nottingham declined to be interviewed for this story. He also
predicted there would be plenty of people willing to talk about
him but few, if any, who would allow their names to be used.
He was right.
Several attorneys said they didn't want to jeopardize future
pleadings in front of Nottingham by commenting.
"Everyone who goes before him is nervous," one of those
attorneys said. "Those who aren't should be."
Yet one of the lawyers who attended his share of 6:30 a.m.
hearings -- and was the only one to publicly speak out about it,
in a 1999 article in Westword -- said Nottingham never
held his words against him.
"He's not that type of person," said Curtis Kennedy, attorney
for the Association of U S West Retirees.
Start early, work late
Kennedy may have disagreed with some of Nottingham's tactics in
the past, but he thinks people following the Nacchio trial will
Nottingham is the "anti-Ito," Kennedy said, a reference to Judge
Lance Ito, the California jurist who became the butt of national
jokes -- including Jay Leno's "Dancing Itos" -- during the O.J.
Ito also was criticized for bungling jury instructions in the
savings and loan scandal case against Charles H. Keating Jr.
The error led an appeals court to overturn Keating's conviction
for insider trading.
Nottingham, by contrast, will run a tight ship, several
attorneys said. He'll start on time -- probably on the early
side -- and work late each day. He'll demand lawyers and their
witnesses be ready, and won't put up with any gamesmanship.
"It will be a well-run, fair trial," Miller predicted.
"He's just perfect for a case like this," he said.
Judge Edward Nottingham at a glance
• Age: 59
• From: Family ranched on Eagle County land that
is now part of Beaver Creek resort before they moved to Grand
Junction, where Nottingham graduated from high school.
• Education: Cornell University, 1969;
University of Colorado School of Law, 1972
• Legal career:
Law clerk, U.S. District Court for the District of
Private practice, Denver, 1973-76, 1978-87
Assistant U.S. attorney, District of Colorado, 1976-78
Private practice, Grand Junction, 1987-89
Nominated for federal judgeship by President George H.W.
Bush in October 1989; confirmed by U.S. Senate and commissioned
in November 1989
• Interesting cases:
In 2005, Nottingham ordered a Steamboat Springs woman
thrown in jail because she wouldn't stop filing lawsuits he
called "frivolous," "abusive" and "gibberish." The woman spent
four months in prison before agreeing to drop the suits. Once
free, she promptly filed appeals.
In 2003, his office was flooded with angry phone calls
after he ruled the popular federal "do not call" list violated
telemarketers' free speech rights. An appeals court overturned
the ruling but not before radio stations broadcast the phone
number of the judge's chambers, urging people to call and
Also in 2003, he questioned the U.S. military's use of a
mandatory anthrax vaccine. While Nottingham dismissed the case
of a soldier dishonorably discharged for refusing the vaccine,
he said her claims that it was unsafe were reason for concern.
"The military will be held accountable if it is using its own
soldiers as guinea pigs," he said.