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From President Bush to local lawyers, judge, 99, is honored

Editor's note: This story originally was published in The Wichita Eagle on Friday, June 23, 2006/

U.S. District Judge Wesley Brown says he'd rather be known as a good judge than an old judge. But Thursday he turned 99 and had to deal with the fuss people made over it.

Friends, staff and media, not to mention the president of the United States and the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, decided it was a big deal.

"I've had more publicity than I deserve," Brown said at his desk in his chambers inside the federal courthouse in Wichita. "I just know I'm still here, and I'm working the best I can."

On the desk was a letter from Chief Justice John Roberts praising Brown for "the 60th anniversary of his 39th birthday." Near it was a card from President and Mrs. George W. Bush.

According to the Federal Judicial Center, Brown is the second-oldest federal judge in the country. Arnold Wilson Cowen, 100, is a federal circuit court judge in Washington, D.C.

But Brown is the oldest judge serving in U.S. district court.

"You do it by concentrating and by having a great staff of people that help you," Brown said. "You try to be patient, compassionate and follow the law."

"Or," he said, amending his comment, "you follow the law and try to be patient."

President Kennedy swore Brown into office in 1962.

"For life, or for good behavior, whichever I lose first," Brown said.

"I try to honor the confidence he and the Senate had in me. I've never lost the desire to do that."

Brown still puts in a full day at the courthouse. He arrives between 8:30 a.m. and 9 a.m., eats lunch in chambers with other judges, and leaves between 4:30 and 5 p.m.

"He works as hard as anybody in that courthouse," said Steve Gradert, an assistant federal public defender.

Brown became a senior judge with a reduced workload in 1979, meaning he's been on senior status nearly twice as long as he was on active status.

But he stays in shape and remains mentally sharp. For exercise, Brown said, he does sit-ups every morning and plays golf when he has the time.

"He's slowed down, but he's still very good about focusing on the big issues," said Mike Lahey, Brown's clerk since 1987. "He's never gotten bogged down in detail, always focused on the big picture, and that hasn't changed at all."

Brown said lawyers think he's changed on the bench over the years, and he admits he may have mellowed.

"He used to be very demanding on the lawyers, and I think he's relaxed a little bit," Lahey said. "But he still keeps them alert."

Gradert, who has appeared regularly in Brown's courtroom, said the judge has always been kind and patient with him, but he's heard stories of less fortunate attorneys.

"Most of the consensus of the bar is that he's mellowed a little bit," Gradert said. "As far as his intellect and his rulings, he's never changed. He's as sharp as a tack and in control of his courtroom."

Brown, who has presided in courtrooms all over the country, praises lawyers for bringing new ideas to him. The law, for him, is ever changing.

"It's been a challenge. Still is. That's what makes it enjoyable," Brown said.

He singles out as his most memorable a helium case that lasted 25 years. Helium companies, natural gas producers and landowners fought over how profits should be shared from the helium extracted from the Hugoton field. It didn't end until 1988, when Brown approved a nearly $90 million settlement.

But, Brown said, "Every case is important."

He plans to hear more of them, even if it means enduring another fuss when he turns 100.

"I'm working toward it," Brown said. "I have no illusions. But as long as I can do the job, I'll carry on."

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