The Conscience of an Ex-Judge
Ronald Tweel’s stand against the Iraq War is reminiscent of the anti-war stance of his most famous client: Muhammad Ali
Published in 2006 Virginia Super Lawyers magazine
on June 23, 2006
Updated on November 3, 2016
Ronald R. Tweel hands the letter across his desk at the offices of Michie, Hamlett, Lowry, Rasmussen & Tweel in the remodeled and stately Monticello Hotel in Charlottesville.
“This was written in January 2003, two months before we invaded Iraq,” he says. “I dare you to find one statement in there that I make about the war that’s wrong. I just read it again and I thought, ‘Holy cow, I don’t know anything and look what I came up with.’”
Conscience demanded he pen the letter and resign after 23 years as a substitute judge in and around Charlottesville, but the choice wasn’t easy. He loved the few days a month he was a judge. Sure, the pay barely covered a billable hour, but it was interesting and he felt he was doing good — whether sitting in General District Court, where misdemeanors, traffic cases and minor civil matters are heard, or in Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court, Tweel’s specialty.
“He made the difficult but right decision that if he was going to go public [with his opposition to the war], he had to resign,” says Ed Lowry, a partner in the firm and a friend from their law school days at the University of Virginia. “It’s consistent with his entire lifestyle. He never hesitates to express his opinion on matters of conscience.”
Tweel’s protest letter to Sen. John Warner, Sen. George Allen and Rep. Virgil Goode (his letter of resignation went to the Supreme Court of Virginia) listed eight points, and several subpoints, for his opposition to an invasion of Iraq. “A pre-emptive policy is a new American foreign policy and sets a dangerous tone,” he wrote, noting that the United States would lose the moral high ground, alienate the rest of the world, create new terrorists in response and hinder the existing war on terror as well as the search for the more immediate threat: Osama bin Laden. Tweel also noted the lack of compelling evidence proving the existence of weapons of mass destruction, the lack of an exit strategy and an explanation of the cost to create a new government in Iraq. Finally Tweel wrote, “There has been no discussion of the moral necessity for the war as there was in 1991.”
A few acquaintances gave him the cold shoulder for his anti-war stance but his close friends knew where he stood. “I’ve been pretty consistent in my political beliefs throughout my life, right or wrong.” He adds, laughing, “Often in error, but never in doubt.”
But he was delighted by the reaction from his four grown children. His eldest, Jennifer, then 28, came by the house to tell him how much she admired what he’d done. So did Lauren. Rebecca, Lauren’s twin, and son Clay, called. He hadn’t told them of his plans; they read about the resignation in the local newspaper. “That’s probably one of the proudest moments of my life,” he says. “They were all truly impressed.”
Three years later Tweel is still angry that his Democratic party didn’t raise the questions he did, angry that the press didn’t investigate deeper. But he’s happy to be involved in politics again after sitting out his more than two decades on the bench. “It was so clear [the current situation in Iraq] was going to happen,” he says. “I’d just had it. I had to speak out.”
As a student at the University of Virginia School of Law in the early 1970s, Tweel participated in peaceful antiwar demonstrations and helped close down the law school for a few days. He went to Washington, D.C., to talk with senators and members of Congress about ending the Vietnam War. When he graduated, he worked for the legal aid office in Charlottesville, handling everything from family law to welfare rights to bankruptcy cases. And when he began to specialize in the mid-1980s, it was in family law, a particularly complex and emotionally exhausting area.
Tweel credits his parents and the Bible for giving him the guidance to live by his principles. He has taught adult Sunday school for 25 years, and he says the schools he attended — Hampden-Sydney and the University of Virginia — instilled in him a sense of honor that remains to this day.
His four grandparents grew up in the same small Lebanese village and immigrated early in the 20th century. His father, a conservative Republican who believed in social justice, opened an integrated restaurant, Jim’s Steak & Spaghetti House, in 1938 and later hired a black World War II veteran who managed the restaurant for 58 years. “You just didn’t discriminate,” his father taught him. The restaurant became a Huntington landmark — John F. Kennedy ate there during the 1960 primary and John Kerry sat in the same booth in 2004 and was served by the same waitress. Tweel’s older sister currently runs the place.
At Hampden-Sydney, Tweel captained the track team; even now, more than three decades later sitting behind a desk, his boundless energy is evident. “At this stage in a career, lawyers like him usually want to slow down a little bit,” Ed Lowry notes. “If anything, he outworks everybody in the firm.”
That work merges two seemingly disparate areas of law — family law and the personal and business dealings of several prominent people, including billionaire Patricia Kluge, University of Virginia President John Casteen, and another outspoken war critic and man of conscience, Muhammad Ali.
The connection with Ali began 20 years ago with a referral by a law school classmate. Tweel handles a myriad of financial work for Ali — including contracts and taxes as well as the recent sale of 80 percent of Ali’s company, Greatest Of All Time, for $50 million — and when he talks about their relationship it’s clear that Tweel is both lawyer and fan.
“I graduated from high school in 1964 and I remember all his fights,” Tweel says. “Most of the people I hung around didn’t like him, but I revered him from the start. When you get to meet and represent your hero, it just blows your mind.”
They first met over dinner with their wives at the Boar’s Head Sports Club in Charlottesville in 1986. Tweel was nervous but Ali put him at ease, performing sleight-of-hand magic tricks. He complimented Tweel’s wife, Lynda, saying she looked like the sportscaster Phyllis George. Ali was just beginning to have trouble talking, the result of Parkinson’s Disease, so everyone stopped eating to hear his soft voice.
After dinner Tweel and Lynda were walking to the parking lot when they stopped and turned to each other. “We said, ‘Did we just have dinner with Muhammad Ali?’ It was like we couldn’t believe it had happened,” he recalls. “Then we just laughed.”
Since then Tweel has attended countless dinners and award shows with Ali. He was with him during a celebration at the Clinton White House. “I’ve never seen him refuse an autograph,” Tweel says, “never seen him refuse a picture. He can be in the middle of a bite of steak and he puts down the fork and takes the picture.” Tweel and his wife also went to Atlanta for the 1996 Olympics with Ali. “To be there with him and see how the waters parted for him and how everybody worshipped him was a highlight of my life,” he says.
The couples trade gifts and notes. Tweel thinks that because both men have grown children and enjoy each other’s company, their relationship is closer, much closer, than lawyer and client. Ali also attended the weddings of Tweel’s two daughters; and when Tweel’s father died in 2005, Ali dropped everything and came to the funeral in West Virginia (Tweel’s father had met Ali years earlier). The appearance caused a stir, but people were respectful, and Ali quietly stopped to talk and shake hands.
Of course, Ali and his wife congratulated Tweel on his antiwar stance.
While working with Ali is heady, Tweel points to his family law work as intellectually and emotionally challenging. With the advent of the equitable distribution law and the creation of the Court of Appeals in Virginia, just keeping up with the reading is a challenge. Opinions come down almost weekly from the court.
“Family law has become a very complicated, complex area of the law,” he says. “We touch more areas of the law than any practice there is. That’s one reason why a lot of lawyers got out of it. A complicated, moneyed divorce case is as complicated as any case — plaintiff personal injury, insurance defense, bank cases, contested will cases — you name it. Over the course of the years I’ve tried them and there is nothing more complicated than a moneyed divorce case.”
How complicated? Consider the areas in which Tweel must be conversant: the valuation of real estate and closely held corporations, pension plans, reading tax returns for determining actual income, trust and estate law, and child psychology — including the methods psychologists use in evaluating children in custody cases.
An emotional element is inherent in family law. Lowry, who stopped doing domestic law long ago because he had trouble maintaining perspective, admires Tweel’s ability to be sensitive but also leave the work at the office.
“Your clients are in the worst moments of their life,” Tweel says. “There’s a lot of misplaced anger. They can no longer get angry at their spouse, so oftentimes they get angry at you.” Negotiating with clients is often a delicate dance. “You have to tell people things they don’t necessarily want to hear in order to help them get perspective on their situation,” he says. “It takes a lot of skill to help a client decide where they want to go with the process. It’s easy to say you’ll do what a client wants, but it’s more important to help them make a good decision about what they want.”
Tweel says his background, with family as a central, guiding part of his life, governs his family law practice. “It makes me understand the importance of the institution [of marriage] and that it should not be taken lightly or dissolved lightly,” he says. “That’s why in every initial conference I ask people about reconciliation, about counseling. I ask people about how their children are doing. Part of that has to come from my upbringing.”
He cites a recent meeting to discuss the custody arrangements for a separated couple. The mother was the primary caregiver while the father, Tweel’s client, traveled often on business. When the father told him, in front of the mother and the mother’s lawyer, that he wanted the children half the time, Tweel suggested it wouldn’t be wise. “I said, ‘Your children are not used to being with you 50 percent of the time. You have to think about how it would feel for them,’” Tweel says. “‘Right now, it’s not good for your children to uproot them this way and have you doing all these things for them they’re not accustomed to, so let’s work out a schedule that eases you into this arrangement.’”
The client was not happy, Tweel says, but it was the right thing to do. “You have to have sensitivity to children. Ultimately, your clients respect you for that,” he adds. “When you get to the end of the process, they understand what you’ve done.”
“My favorite line,” he adds, “is ‘I’m not a cheerleader. I’m a lawyer.’ My job is to give objective legal advice. If you want a cheerleader, go talk to your mother … that sort of gets them off of this idea that they want me to go in there and hate the person like they do.”
Lowry recalls a different example of Tweel keeping the children’s interests at heart. Tweel had taken a legal aid case for a woman whose children were going to be taken away by social services and placed in foster care because she was too poor to take care of them properly. Tweel argued that if the sole criteria was whether you could find a better situation for the children, then all parents were at risk. “The court was very much persuaded by that argument,” Lowry remembers.
Tweel’s latest legal aid case is similarly emotional: He’s trying to get back a Nigerian mother’s children after her husband spirited them out of her country. She tracked them to Charlottesville, where she walked into Legal Aid with a Nigerian court order giving her custody. But it’s been two years since the children were taken. “It’s going to be tough,” he admits.
Which is why it’s exactly right for Ron Tweel. Alex Gulotta, executive director of the Legal Aid Justice Center, says Tweel wants the cases “nobody else will mess with because they’re complex and complicated.” Then he adds five words that would make a good motto for Tweel or any man of conscience: “If I call,” Gulotta says, “he helps.”