The Honorable Karen A. Henenberg, a longtime judge in Arlington County’s General District Court, curls her fingers up and makes quote signs in the air as she says “retire.” The City of Falls Church resident plans to make use of the flexibility this so-called retirement will provide. She’s calling it “shifting my emphasis.”
Henenberg, who is married to former Falls Church City Manager David Lasso, will have more time to support their sons Kenneth, guitarist for the electro-rock band Rites of Ash, and Benjamin, a professional golfer, as they excel in the pursuit of their passions. She’ll also continue to teach law at a few area schools. Plus, as a substitute judge, she’ll find herself back on the bench as the need arises.
But March 1 will bring an end to Henenberg’s 18 years of full-time service as a 17th Judicial District judge.
Henenberg has spent her entire 35-year career in law in Northern Virginia. She graduated from the T.C. Williams School of Law at the University of Richmond, where she met Lasso, a fellow law school student and moot court companion who would later become her husband.
“We decided after three years of law school that if we could survive law school together, we’d probably survive marriage,” Henenberg said.
Henenberg relocated to Northern Virginia with her husband after graduation and began her law career at the Arlington County Attorney’s Office, later serving as Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney for Arlington County for four years. The couple settled in the City of Falls Church in 1979, where they still live today.
After 10 years in private practice, though Henenberg enjoyed advocating for her clients, she wanted to see if she would like being a judge.
“Anyone who knows me as a person knows I’m a decisive person, and that’s a very important skill for a judge to have,” Henenberg said.
She began her time on the bench in the same way she’ll continue it upon retirement: as a substitute judge. She became a substitute judge in 1991, and in 1995 began the first of her three six-year terms in the Criminal, Civil, Traffic and Small Claims Divisions of the General District Court.
Of the many cases she’s heard in her time on the bench, some stick with her. She’s been privy to gut-wrenching tales, like the testimony in a reckless driving case delivered by a woman whose fiancé was killed in the auto accident. There have been uplifting moments, like when she chose probation for a man from a troubled family who hadn’t been given the opportunity before and saw him thrive. And curious things have unfolded before her in a courtroom.
The sheer number of cases a judge must see is a challenge, she said, one which tests the virtue of patience as all must be heard fairly and given, as the saying goes, their day in court. Also difficult is sentencing, she added, determining within an often broad range of punishments which is most appropriate for a given offense.
But she enjoys the challenge.
When she first applied to law school, Henenberg was drawn to the study of law because it involved helping people, but also because it was intellectually stimulating. She finds law fascinating, and enjoys reading through cases to get to the core of the legal issue and research its proper resolution.
“Rarely is it just black and white,” Henenberg said, “and it wouldn’t be any fun if it were.”
It’s not unlike a whodunit, she said, like the detective stories she read as a girl; her task is to find the truth when it isn’t always obvious.
She also applied to a master’s program in political science when she applied to law school. She was accepted to both. Though law won out, she has found a way to educate throughout her career, be it more formally in the classroom or just through teaching the people in her courtroom how the legal system works.
“I’ve been lucky to combine those two passions, the interest in law and also teaching,” Henenberg said.
The nature of her vocation will stay the same in retirement, but in leaving behind her full-time career Henenberg says she’ll miss the day-to-day work of being a judge and seeing the people she’s worked with for so many years.
She’ll no longer be a daily presence at the courthouse, but there are other places she’d like to be – at a late-night weekday concert watching Kenneth and his band rock out, on the greens watching Benjamin play, or in the classroom training the next generation of lawyers and judges.