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Case puts focus on judge’s record, temperament

“Mark Wolf is a very smart judge who doesn’t cut any corners. He’s the most thorough judge I’ve known.” — Randy Gioia, defense attorney “Mark Wolf is a very smart judge who doesn’t cut any corners. He’s the most thorough judge I’ve known.” — Randy Gioia, defense attorney (Portait by Mary Minifie)
By David Abel
Globe Staff / June 28, 2011

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Over the years, Mark L. Wolf has been derided as an arrogant judge who has a brittle ego and likes to hear the sound of his words. Admirers have described him as a maverick idealist of unassailable integrity and fierce intelligence.

Today, after a decade-long crusade against FBI misconduct, the chief judge of the federal district court in Boston will reprise his role in overseeing the racketeering charges against James “Whitey’’ Bulger. Wolf will preside over a hearing this afternoon to decide whether to appoint a taxpayer-funded lawyer to represent the crime boss, who authorities say stashed $822,000 in cash at his Santa Monica hideaway.

“There’s not a better judge that I’ve been in front of,’’ said Randy Gioia, the attorney in charge of public defenders in Roxbury who previously represented one of Bulger’s codefendants. “Mark Wolf is a very smart judge who doesn’t cut any corners. He’s the most thorough judge I’ve known.’’

Wolf, who recently oversaw the trial that ended in the conviction of former House speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, has presided over a number of high-profile cases in Massachusetts, including those involving Bulger, Stephen “The Rifleman’’ Flemmi, Francis “Cadillac Frank’’ Salemme, and other members of the Boston crime underworld. Wolf wrote a 665-page decision that upheld the charges against Flemmi.

He was the judge who ordered the FBI to publicly disclose the bureau’s relationship with Bulger and Flemmi and to turn over its informant files.

Wolf, the son of an accountant. grew up in Newton, attended Yale, and graduated from Harvard Law School. He became a deputy to US Attorney General Edward Levi, whom President Ford appointed to restore transparency to the Justice Department in the post-Watergate era. Wolf’s responsibilities included rewriting guidelines for the handling of informants by federal law enforcement agents, which emerged as a glaring problem in the prosecution of Bulger and his codefendants.

Before President Reagan appointed him to the federal bench in 1985, Wolf served as the top deputy to William F. Weld when he was US attorney in Boston and became chief of the public corruption unit, compiling a record of 45 convictions and one acquittal over five years.

As a judge, Wolf has ruffled prosecutors, once criticizing former US attorney Michael J. Sullivan for spending too much time on low-level drug and gun cases that belonged in state court, rather than public corruption and white-collar crimes.

Wolf did not return calls for comment.

His conflict with Sullivan reached a peak in 2002, when Wolf ordered the US attorney to appear in court within an hour, even though Sullivan was at a dental appointment. The judge wanted him to explain why prosecutors had allegedly failed to provide exculpatory evidence to defense lawyers in a criminal case, and Wolf threatened to hold Sullivan in contempt when he failed to arrive.

Several attorneys were reluctant yesterday to openly criticize a judge whom they might appear before again, especially one who is seen as intemperate at times.

Harvey Silverglate, a prominent civil liberties and criminal defense lawyer in Boston, spent years clashing with Wolf. He once described Wolf as “overzealous’’ as a prosecutor, especially when he conducted an investigation into alleged corruption in City Hall in the early 1980s.

Silverglate wrote a letter opposing Wolf’s nomination to be a federal judge.

“I thought he didn’t have the temperament to be a judge,’’ he said. “He made threats to witnesses and prosecutorial abuses in the grand jury.’’

But over the years Silverglate has changed his mind about Wolf.

“Once he became a judge, I was pleasantly surprised,’’ Silverglate said. “He was a terrific judge, very clear, right down the middle. Nobody could pull the wool over his eyes. This was a judge who could do his job from a completely neutral position, and he was not concerned with one side or another winning.’’

One of the judge’s former clerks, Mitchell D. Webber, said lawyers sometimes confuse Wolf’s longwinded orations for self-regard or pomposity, but he said it was really the judge’s effort to thoroughly explain his reasoning.

“He expects a lot from lawyers who appear before him, and that may be where some of the criticism is coming from,’’ said Webber, a lawyer at Goodwin Procter LLP in Boston who worked for Wolf in 2007.

He described the judge as “extremely thoughtful’’ and “impartial to an extent I didn’t even think was possible.’’

“He never comes to court with predispositions, and, most importantly, his decision making is very transparent,’’ Webber said, adding that the judge drafts his own decisions.

Martin Weinberg, a local defense attorney who has appeared before Wolf in four major cases over the years, including in the case against DiMasi, praised Wolf’s “mastery of the law’’ and what he described as his “incredible work ethic.’’

“He’s absolutely first rate,’’ he said.

Milton Valencia and Peter Schworm of the Globe staff contributed to this report. David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

Clarification: The credit for a portrait of Judge Mark Wolf was omitted when the painting was published with a June 28 story about Wolf, who will oversee the charges against James ‘‘Whitey’’ Bulger. The artist is Mary Minifie.