Stern seen as a star performer
By Andy Vuong, Staff Writer
Sunday, March 11, 2007
Award-winning actor Martin Sheen fondly remembers a real-life
federal judge he portrayed two decades ago -- even though the
film, "Judgment in Berlin," generated meager box-office results.
Presiding over a 1979 plane-hijacking case in the U.S. Court for
Berlin, the judge defied orders from the U.S. State Department
and granted the defendants a jury trial, a procedure never used
before in Germany.
"That's why he was so revered, and that's what I admired about
him so greatly," Sheen said in a phone interview from Malibu,
Calif. "He upheld the Constitution above his job."
The judge was Herbert J. Stern -- the same man who works these
days as the lead attorney for former Qwest chief executive Joe
Twenty years removed from the bench, Stern has spent much of the
past 16 months defending a man accused of dumping $100.8 million
in Qwest stock in early 2001 while he had nonpublic information
that the company's financial condition was deteriorating.
Nacchio has pleaded not guilty, and his trial is set to begin
March 19 in federal court in Denver. If convicted, he faces a
maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $1 million fine on
each of the 42 counts of illegal insider trading.
Sheen, who spent time with Stern while filming in Berlin, said
Nacchio "has one of the best jurists in the country" as his
"I often thought, if I was in trouble, if the feds were after
me, he'd be the first guy I'd call," said Sheen, who recently
starred in best picture Oscar-winner "The Departed."
Stern, 70, declined comment for this story.
Over the course of a 45-year career that includes a decorated
stint as a U.S. attorney, Stern has built a larger-than-life
persona, garnering praise not only from veteran Hollywood actors
but from former governors, federal judges and opposing
"He's probably the best trial lawyer that I have ever seen,"
said former federal judge and prosecutor Frederick Lacey, who
has practiced law for more than 55 years.
In the subtitle of the 1973 Stern biography "Tiger in the
Court," author Paul Hoffman describes him as "the U.S. attorney
who prosecuted 8 mayors, 2 secretaries of state, 2 state
treasurers, 1 U.S. congressman ... and 64 other public
Stern grew up in Manhattan's Lower East Side, the only child of
a politically active attorney.
"He was a bookish youth who would rather go home and read than
play stickball in the streets," the late Hoffman wrote.
When he was 10, Stern decided he wanted to be a trial lawyer
after reading transcripts of cases from his father's private
practice. His mother died when he was 16.
At 25, Stern began his career as an assistant district attorney
in New York after receiving his law degree from the University
of Chicago. In that role, he spearheaded the investigation into
the murder of Malcolm X. Three men were arrested, but Stern
left the office before they were ultimately convicted of
As a trial attorney for the Justice Department in the late
1960s, Stern helped convict several executives from large
corporations such as Colonial Pipeline Co. and Bechtel Corp. in
a massive white-collar crime case.
"I wanted this fellow on my team"
One of the attorneys who battled with Stern in the case was
Lacey, who represented Bechtel.
"He impressed me so favorably that I decided I wanted this
fellow on my team even though he had just beaten me," Lacey
When Lacey was named U.S. attorney for New Jersey in 1969, he
asked Stern to be his first assistant. Stern accepted and took
over for Lacey two years later when Lacey left for the bench.
In 1974, Stern was appointed to be a federal judge in New
Jersey. He later wrote a book, "Judgment in Berlin," about his
work in the 1979 hijacking case. Impressed by the story, Sheen
bought the rights to the book and made it the first feature film
for his production company.
"He probably would've been on the Supreme Court if he had stayed
on the bench," Sheen said.
Stern left the bench in 1987 to start his own law firm.
"I had never represented a private client, and I didn't want to
end my legal career without doing that," he told The Wall Street
Journal last year.
Private practice has been lucrative for Stern.
In 1962, Stern earned an annual salary of $5,500 as an assistant
district attorney in New York.
His law firm, Roseland, N.J.-based Stern & Kilcullen, is billing
$500 an hour for Stern's work as the monitor of the
scandal-plagued University of Dentistry and Medicine of New
Defense tab could hit $75 million
The tab on Nacchio's defense, which includes the services of
local law firm Richilano & Gilligan, could run up to $75
million, experts say.
Nacchio may have hired Stern because of his work as a federal
judge and his experience with classified information, which
could play a key role in the case.
Stern replaced Nacchio's longtime attorney Charles Stillman, no
stranger to high-profile white-collar cases, in November 2005.
Just days later, Stern sent a letter to the Justice Department
seeking security clearance so he could discuss classified
matters with Nacchio.
Nacchio contends his talks with top-secret agencies in the late
1990s and early 2000s led him to believe Qwest would receive
lucrative contracts, boosting his outlook on the company.
The letter highlighted Stern's experience.
"Some years ago, I obtained secret security clearance when I was
asked by Judge (Lawrence) Walsh to handle ... pretrial motions
in the Iran-contra matter," Stern wrote. "I am a former U.S.
attorney and also a U.S. district judge, so I do not believe it
would be inappropriate nor cause undue delay to grant me
security clearance. ..."
During pretrial hearings, Stern has been plainspoken and
approachable, although he recently stated in court, during a
light exchange with the judge about news coverage of the trial,
that he is "as vain as anybody else."
One of Stern's greatest skills is his ability to explain
complicated matters in simple terms, said David Zornow, a former
law clerk for Stern who worked with him on the Iran-Contra case.
"He is very able, adept at explaining things to juries in ways
that they will understand them," said Zornow, an attorney with
During opening arguments, Stern intends to use an easel to help
make his points rather than a projector or other high-tech
Behind the scenes, Stern is a strategist who loves to exchange
ideas with others, colleagues say. He has written a series of
books, "Trying Cases to Win," that details some of his
Daniel Capra, co-author of two of those books, says Stern's
experience as a judge should help him. "As a litigator, it
helps to know how a judge approaches a matter," Capra said.
"You don't really know that till you've been one."