As an Arlington County Circuit Court judge decades ago, Charles Russell used to receive an unusual letter each Christmas.
Prison inmate John Patler, who had been convicted in Russell’s court for the August 1967 murder of American Nazi Party leader George Lincoln Rockwell, always used to send the judge a drawing of himself languishing behind bars and the inscription “Merry Christmas.”
Patler, an artist and associate of Rockwell’s who had changed his name from the original Patsalos so it would sound more like Hitler, was a model inmate and earned parole quickly on his 20-year sentence.
After that, “I stopped getting those Christmas cards,” said Russell, now a Virginia Supreme Court senior justice, during an Arlington County Bar Foundation luncheon Nov. 23 at Washington Golf & Country Club.
The foundation’s board of directors on Nov. 23 gave Russell the group’s annual William L. Winston Award, which honors a Northern Virginian for public service, promotion of democratic ideals and advancement of the rule of law.
Former Arlington commonwealth’s attorney and later U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia Helen Fahey, who received the Winston Award in 2018, said Russell always treated everyone in his courtroom, from lawyers to defendants, with respect.
“When you treat people in the courtroom like he did, people return that,” Fahey said. “The lawyers were tremendously respectful of him and the court in general . . . The way he treated everyone was the way that a court should be.”
Born in Richmond, Charles Stevens Russell grew up in Arlington, attended Washington-Lee High School and graduated from the Congressional Page School at age 16.
He enrolled at the University of Virginia in 1943 and also joined the U.S. Navy’s V-12 officer-training program. Russell completed his undergraduate degree and law school by 1948, then began active duty with the Navy, where he was executive officer on a destroyer and subsequently on a minesweeper in the Korean War.
During his naval duties, Russell met fellow naval officer Carolyn Abrams in New Orleans; they married in 1951. He was discharged from active duty in 1951, but served as a lieutenant commander in the reserves for more than two decades.
1951 also was the year when Russell began working as an associate attorney with the law firm of Jesse, Phillips, Kling and Kendrick in Arlington. Specializing in litigation and condemnation issues, Russell worked on cases involving Interstate 66, the Dulles Access Road and Woodrow Wilson Bridge.
Among his colleagues at the firm were Charles Duff and the award’s namesake, William Winston.
Russell practiced law in Arlington from 1951 to 1967 before being elected by the General Assembly to the Arlington County Circuit Court bench. The judge, who as a child often had witnessed courthouse proceedings presided over by the legendary Judge Walter McCarthy, joined him on the bench along with Paul Brown and Winston.
Russell throughout his career has served as an adjunct law professor at nearby law schools. He also has instructed trial and appellate judges at the National Judicial College and at other conferences.
Officials also credit Russell with kicking off the process that led George Mason University to acquire the International School of Law, which became the George Mason University School of Law in 1979 and in 2016 was renamed the Antonin Scalia School of Law.
Russell, who will turn 96 next February, was elected by the General Assembly to the Virginia Supreme Court in 1982 and he served there until retiring. After spending nine years living with his wife in the Caribbean, he came back to the U.S. in 2000 and began working as a Circuit Court substitute trial judge throughout the commonwealth. He returned in 2004 to the Virginia Supreme Court and still serves on the court as a senior justice.
Virginia Supreme Court Justice Cleo Powell, participating via video that was projected onto a screen, called Russell an “amazing man” and “effortless overachiever” who remained true to himself, regardless of external forces weighing on him.
Russell has a keen intellect and historical knowledge and brings a “balanced, moderate, calm voice to the court,” Powell said.
“He is everything this award embraces and more,” she said. “When I grow up, I want to be Justice Charles Russell.”
Arlington Circuit Court Chief Judge William Newman Jr. said Russell is the most scholarly jurist he has ever known and a consummate gentleman. Russell is thoughtful, does not raise his voice during proceedings and explains matters succinctly and tactfully, he said.
“Even if you had made the most ridiculous argument in the world, he would make it seem as though you had come across as someone who was very sage in your analysis,” he said, adding that those habits had rubbed off on him.
“I have always tried to exercise patience with everyone who comes before me and to try to make sure that everybody has a feeling that they’ve had a fair day in court,” Newman said.
Attorney Ken Curtis, who when working with the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office between 1975 and 1980 tried his first cases before Russell, described him as “patient” and “kind.”
“He was the brightest human being I’d ever met,” Curtis said. “He’s probably the most respected judge that I know . . . You always knew you’d be treated well when you walked into his courtroom.”