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Saltwater Portrait

Brook Hedge: A life in law

Lewes resident set to officially retire from bench in December
September 4, 2018

When Brook Hedge was a youngster growing up in New York City, she was enthralled by the civil rights movement. So much so that she asked for law books for her 10th birthday. 

“Luckily my parents didn’t give them to me,” she said. “I got a new baseball mitt, which is fine. I would’ve been bored out of my mind.”

But that desire to help others through law remained ever present in her mind.

“I’ve always thought the law was a means to social justice and that it was important to have the courts open to all,” she said. “Everybody has to be equal before the law. You have to dispense justice equally no matter who the person is before you. They deserve the same treatment as everybody else, regardless of money, power, prestige, race, ethnicity or any factor. It all comes down to the facts and the law.”

Hedge, a full-time Lewes resident since 2011, is just a few months shy of full retirement after a 40-year career as an attorney working for the federal government and later a Superior Court judge appointed in 1992 by President George H.W. Bush. Since moving into semi-retirement, Hedge has had more time to focus on her other passion – photography. Photography also has been part of her life since childhood. Her father, a radio actor starring in popular soap operas of the 1950s and 1960s, often had a camera in his hands. 

“He would make hats, and then he would take these very artistic photos of the hats on my mother’s head,” she said. “I would constantly grab at his camera.” 

After her mother remarried and they moved to California, she inherited a 1955 Leica camera from her stepfather’s mother. The passion continued in college at the University of California Santa Barbara, where she joined the photography club for $5. The club had a darkroom setup and she used it often.

“I bought my own equipment when I graduated and we had a darkroom in our apartment,” she said. “I did that for a number of years until I went to work for Justice. Then I didn’t have time. The day job took over.”

After graduating from UCSB, Hedge moved back to the East Coast, settling in Washington, D.C. During a year off from school, she worked for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, researching the U.S. Employment Service. After finishing in the top 12 percent of her class at Catholic University School of Law, Hedge clerked for Judge June Green. Selected by President Lyndon B. Johnson, Green was the fifth woman to serve on the federal bench.  

“She gave so much to her clerks. She treated them as if they were her children,” she said. “She always had her dignity and chin up regardless of discrimination or slights that came her way. She always came in from trials and told us what the lawyers did right and the lawyers did wrong.” 

Hedge admired Green and other women in the profession because it was very much a boys’ club. “It was hard for women to break in,” she said. 

She experienced it firsthand when trying to get a job in the Justice Department.

“I had a friend look at my file later, and basically I had been sabotaged by the interviewer who had come to the law school,” she said. “None of my materials were in there. I was in the top 12 percent of the class, and the guy who got the job was in the middle 50 percent.” 

After proving herself during the clerkship with Judge Green, the Justice Department came back and recruited her.

“After that, you just make your road,” she said. 

She worked as a trial attorney for three years, then became an assistant director for national security agencies.

“I handled all of the nationwide litigation of all the intelligence agencies,” she said. “I had my own badge for the CIA.”

In a 1979 case, she was part of a three-person team that represented the CIA in a landmark First Amendment case, U.S. v. Frank Snepp. The CIA sued a former agent for all the profits of his book “Decent Interval” about the withdrawal from Vietnam.

“He had duped the head of the CIA and told him he would submit it for prepublication review, and he didn’t,” she said. “Then it flashed all over the front page of the New York Times.” 

Hedge and the CIA eventually prevailed at the Supreme Court, reversing an appellate court decision. 

“The New York Times was so against us,” she said. “They had so many editorials on it. It wasn’t about free speech. You can write your book, but you just have to submit it to the agency for review to make sure there’s no classified materials.” If there were, the author could alter or appeal the CIA’s decision for judicial review. 

“We took the position that it was irrelevant whether there was or wasn’t classified materials in it,” she said. “The whole point was the review because the agency gets to decide if it’s classified. If you disagree, you have the right of judicial review. It’s not like they can just shut you down.”

She rose up to the role of director in a branch of the Justice Department, supervising more than 80 trial attorneys in litigation involving employment policies and decisions, education, health and human service matters, and banking litigation. She also worked on suits involving the White House and the judicial and legislative branches. She received the attorney general’s second-highest award, the Distinguished Service Award. 

In 1992, she became an associate judge of the Superior Court of Washington, D.C. She served in the civil, criminal and family divisions. She was also the presiding judge of the domestic violence unit for three years. 

She became a senior judge in 2011, sitting on the bench for a few months each year. About a year ago, she went inactive, and come December, she will officially retire.

“There comes a time when you just know it’s time to take a step back,” she said. “When I’m on my deathbed I’m not going to say I wish I decided another motion.” 

Since moving to Lewes full time with her spouse, Bonnie Osler, in 2011, Hedge has enjoyed a slower-paced life. She’s focused on photography and giving back to the community.

“My family had a house on Nantucket before anyone had ever heard of Nantucket,” she said. “It was just a sleepy place no one wanted to go to because it took too long to get there. I always came back to Lewes because it was the closest to New England. The houses were charming. The people were like the people I knew from the early ‘60s in Nantucket, just solid working people who took care of their neighbors and their homes.” 

They bought a home in 1993 across the street from their current home. Each with full-time jobs, Hedge and Osler came down on weekends and for vacation. In 2005, looking forward to retirement, they bought their current home on Savannah Road.  After moving to Lewes, Hedge was appointed to the board of adjustment.

“Because I was still in the court, I couldn’t run for office, even if it was a nonpartisan position,” she said. “So the mayor appointed me to the board of adjustment. It was a natural fit.”

Hedge chairs the board, and runs the meetings and hearings like a judge in charge of a courtroom. 

“It was an adjustment because I had to remember to hang back and let other board members ask their questions,” she said.

She’s also a board member of Coastal Camera Club and Rehoboth Art League. She formerly served on the board of the Overfalls Foundation and volunteers weekly at the Historic Lewes Farmers Market. 

Her photography has been included in juried shows of the art league, the Biggs Museum, Peninsula Gallery and Gallery 50. When making a photograph, Hedge said, she enjoys the challenge of finding textures, shadows and lines.

She said photographing the farmers market has made her a better photographer.

“It forces me to look at things differently,” she said. “You have to find a new way to photograph something you see all the time. That’s the challenge.”