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September 2006

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.

 

Magistrate Judge Gives Gift of Life


U.S. Magistrate Judge J. Gregory Wehrman (E.D. Ky.) is a humble man being praised for what many see as a heroic deed. Last June 20, he donated his left kidney to a federal prosecutor.

"He represents all that is good in the federal Judiciary," Chief Judge Joseph Hood (E.D. Ky.) said about his colleague. "Those who know him were not surprised by this selfless act."

District Judge David Bunning, who works in the same Covington, Kentucky, courthouse as Wehrman, added, "All who know him admire him. He is a stellar person, a humanitarian, and just the consummate judge."

Wehrman, who became a part-time magistrate judge in 1975 and moved to full-time status in 1991, had known Assistant U.S. Attorney E.J. Walbourn, 54, as a courthouse regular but the two men were not personal friends. Walbourn had been to the judge's house just once, to have a search warrant signed over a decade ago.

Nevertheless, Wehrman, 62, volunteered to be a transplant donor shortly after finding out about Walbourn's condition in the summer of 2005. The prosecutor thanked the judge, but told him he hoped to receive a kidney from someone in his family.

When that hope faded, Walbourn—who lost one-third his body weight while on dialysis—asked the judge if his offer was still good. "The doctors never told me I was running out of time, but the end of the rope might not have been far off," Walbourn said in a recent interview.

The judge's offer was still good, removing Walbourn from a list of 60,000 Americans waiting for a kidney from a cadaver. (Kidneys from live donors are preferred because the organs last longer. There is risk: about 6 in 10,000 live donors die from infection or some other complication.)

"Years ago, I signed an organ-donor card. But I never thought I'd have the opportunity to be a live donor," Wehrman said while working in his chambers in early August. "All seemed to go well. I returned to work on a part-time basis two weeks ago, and am working full-time now. I'm feeling very good."

Walbourn, too, reported feeling well. "The judge says he's no hero but my family and I disagree," he said. "The judge is my hero, and so are his wife and family."

"My family was very supportive of my decision," Wehrman said. "It's been a very emotional experience."

The deeply appreciative Walbourn has one regret. "I will miss practicing before the judge," he said. "As soon as he agreed to be a donor, I decided never to appear in front of him again. Even though I'm told that, with full disclosure, I could handle cases before him, I think it raises too many issues. I would never do anything to put Judge Wehrman's integrity in doubt."

Asked whether he had worried about any possible conflict, Wehrman chuckled as he recalled one lawyer's quip. "He told me, 'Judge, I have to advise my clients that you may be impartial, but you and E.J. are now a genetic match.'"

The judge said he hopes his decision will inspire others. "I'm a bit uncomfortable with all this notice. I simply reacted to seeing someone I knew in need," he said. "My family and I hope and pray that others hearing about this will be moved to do the same thing. There is a great need."