Before he became a United States Magistrate Judge; before he worked on the Waco investigation with Sen. Jack Danforth; and before he went to Harvard Law School and Amherst College, The Honorable Willie J. Epps Jr. ’88 had to pass Gary Kamper’s AP Chemistry class at Saint Louis Country Day School. It was no easy task.
Despite being a bit of a renaissance man at CDS—he played three sports, served as student body president, acted in school plays and worked on the newspaper—Epps struggled so mightily in chemistry his sophomore year that Gary Kamper advised his former student not to take the AP iteration as a senior. But Epps knew he needed a demanding schedule to be the best college applicant, so he was determined to master the subject.
“I struggled at times in that class,” Epps said, “but I have very fond memories of Gary Kamper tutoring me a few times a week during his lunch periods to make sure that I would do as well as I could.”
Epps did indeed succeed at AP Chemistry and matriculated to Amherst College for his undergraduate studies, but those lunch-period study sessions were not easily forgotten as Epps left St. Louis. Nearly 30 years after Epps graduated from CDS, Gary Kamper travelled to Jefferson City to attend his former pupil’s investiture as magistrate judge.
When remembering his time at CDS, Epps thinks most fondly about mentors like Kamper and the devotion those mentors showed him. Beyond Kamper, there was Graylon Tobias, an assistant varsity basketball coach; Dr. John Johnson, then-headmaster; and Senator Jack Danforth ’54, a CDS alum who took Epps under his wing.
Danforth, in particular, proved a crucial connection. During Epps’ undergraduate days, Danforth offered him a summer internship in his office, exposing the future lawyer to new experiences and opportunities while deepening the relationship between the two CDS alumni. Then, after Epps served as a judge advocate in the Air Force for four years, Danforth tapped him to act as assistant special counsel in the Waco investigation.
Only 29 years old, Epps found himself at the center of one of America’s most famous investigations. The team Danforth assembled collected evidence so they could determine what happened in Waco that spring.
“I watched someone over that period of almost two years exude excellence, integrity and honor,” Epps said of his former boss. “He put together an incredibly talented, diverse team, and I just felt blessed to be in the room.”
For most, working on an investigation of such importance would be the pinnacle of a law career; but for Epps, it was far too early for him to peak. For the next 17 years, he continued to practice law in many capacities, doing criminal and civil cases, prosecuting and defending, partnering at law firms and working as in-house counsel. All those experiences, he said, led to his appointment as federal magistrate judge in 2017.
But adjustment from the courtroom floor to the bench isn’t as easy as putting a new title on a desk nameplate. With over two decades of practicing law programmed into his brain, Epps remembers that it took him some time to quiet his lawyer-like impulses.
“When you first become a judge, you still feel more like a trial lawyer,” Epps said. “Sometimes you instinctively want to help that lawyer make better arguments, and you cannot do that as a judge. You see strategic decisions that lawyers are making, and you know you would have made different strategic decisions. But you have to bite your tongue.”
Epps boils the difference down to these mindsets: Lawyers “zealously advocate,” while as a judge “you just sit back and see.”
“There’s something pretty refreshing about it—to be neutral in a trial versus an advocate at trial,” Epps said.
While Epps maintains that his most memorable case is always the last one he’s presided over, he does admit that he finds jury trials more fascinating than others. It’s the atmosphere of a jury trial that draws him in—how two parties present their versions of events and attempt to persuade a dozen peers that their story is based more on truth than the other.
Epps most recently worked a trial that involved a construction worker who had been hurt on the job and could no longer work or even care for himself. The jury in that case had to decide if the machine had malfunctioned, and if so, how much in damages the man should be awarded.