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April 2006

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


"A Man Uniquely Suited to his Job"

As Director Leonidas Ralph Mecham approaches retirement, the current and former chairs of the Judicial Conference Executive Committee, who worked closely with him throughout his tenure, took this opportunity to reflect.

Chief Judge Thomas F. Hogan (D.D.C.),
Chair of the Executive Committee, 2005-Present

For the past 20 years, Leonidas Ralph Mecham has been a stalwart supporter of the federal Judiciary. I personally would like to express my appreciation for his outstanding stewardship, unwavering dedication, and high level of commitment to the judicial branch. Watching Ralph operate is like watching a master conductor guide the philharmonic orchestra through a complicated Bach symphony. Ralph’s family name, Leonidas, is appropriate. He has been our hero of Thermopylae, holding the high ground for the Judiciary.

Serving on the Executive Committee and as Chair has given me a deep appreciation for all that he has done and all that he has accomplished. He has had to steer the Judiciary through many difficulties. To work with Ralph has been an honor and a pleasure. Serving as Chair has allowed me to work closely with Ralph and observe his formidable leadership. It is evident he has helped to shape the federal Judiciary to be one of the finest in the world.

Chief Judge Carolyn Dineen King (5th Cir.),
Chair of the Executive Committee, 2002-2005

The Executive Committee of 2000-2005 and Director Mecham were blessed to live together in interesting times. We faced the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 and the urgent need to equip the courts with functioning continuity of operations plans. We went from federal budget surpluses to huge budget deficits, and we saw the increases over prior years in our Salary and Expenses appropriation from Congress decline from 9.9 percent in 2000 to 4.3 percent in 2005, even as the amounts required to maintain current staff and services increased steadily. As a result of budget shortfalls, we faced a loss in 2004 and 2005 of 8 percent of our court staff. And we ended with a bang—Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which devastated the City of New Orleans and large parts of the Gulf Coast, displacing for several months the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and federal district and bankruptcy courts in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

In tackling these problems, Director Mecham exhibited his usual inventiveness, intensity, tenacity, and judgment and his remarkable ability to inspire others—judges, court staff, and AO staff—to do the very best they were capable of. But this particular constellation of problems put a premium on Director Mecham’s best quality: his ability and commitment to surround himself with a superb staff.

Taking the Judiciary’s fiscal problems as an example, the cost-containment strategy that the Chief Justice called upon the Executive Committee to devise and implement was the product of the work of 10 Judicial Conference committees, as well as the Executive Committee. Virtually the entire staff of the AO was called upon to support those committees and to develop detailed information about the Judiciary’s costs and proposals for controlling those costs. The staff did a magnificent job of it, all in a period of just a few months. The Cost-Containment Strategy for the Federal Judiciary: 2005 and Beyond, which was adopted by the Judicial Conference in September 2004, has proved to be an effective blueprint for substantial reductions in our costs, both in hand and in prospect.

The AO’s response to the hurricanes and the disruption in our courts was yet another splendid example of Director Mecham’s personal managerial strengths and of extraordinary team work by his staff. Director Mecham’s immediate response reflected his deep compassion for the members of our court staff and his recognition of the severe emotional distress and financial hardships that they were suffering. Financial help in the form of per diems for staff temporarily relocating to serve the needs of the courts and of dependent allowances for relocated family members made all the difference in terms of staff morale and of being able to attract court employees to new locations to get the courts up and running again. Employees from several divisions of the AO provided prompt expert help on location in the Gulf Coast in dealing with problems for which there were no templates.

The Executive Committee and the entire Judiciary were extremely fortunate to have had Ralph Mecham at the helm during these unusually difficult times. What a difference he made!

Judge Ralph K. Winter (2nd Cir.),
Chair of the Executive Committee, 1999-2000

You should know that my admiration for you is not simply because of the inspiration shown by your parents in choosing your middle name and your own wise initiative in using it. It is true that the Republic will probably survive the departure of two Ralphs from high positions in judicial administration. However, that survival will not be without effort.

In discussing a replacement for you with the Chief Justice’s Search Committee, I had recent occasion to ponder the complexities of the job you have held and performed so well over two decades. It is a job that requires representing the judicial branch in Congress without having much of a constituency among voters, running a large organization with vastly disparate administrative responsibilities, and acting as the servant of the Judiciary itself, a group of individuals who, although generally modest and retiring, might occasionally express a myriad of strongly held individual views. You performed all these functions brilliantly, showing a remarkable capacity for keeping the long view in mind while putting out the short-term fires that would relentlessly pop up in various directions.

You will no doubt recall that we had to deal with issues reflecting those complexities with regard to financial disclosure by judges, the various judges’ travel issues, the recusal or, perhaps, non-recusal problems, and the attendance-at-seminars issue. We did our best, held our own, and worked well together for the good of the Judiciary. I will always remember you as that unusual bureaucrat who was accessible and listened to reasoned argument.

Most of all, I remember you fondly as a friend. And for all the talks we had about various controversies, most of my memories about you are of casual, warm conversations at our various meetings.

I hope you enjoy retirement as much as I do.

Judge Wm. Terrell Hodges (M.D. Fla.),
Chair of the Executive Committee, 1996-1999

It is said that no one is irreplaceable, but I don’t believe it. There are some individuals who are so uniquely suited to their jobs that they really are irreplaceable in terms of the level of achievement they have attained. A few famous football coaches come to mind as examples. Ralph Mecham, as a Director of the Administrative Office, may well be one of those gifted few. Oh, to be sure, the institution will successfully carry on its mission (thanks in large part to the foundation laid by Mr. Mecham) and we should all be very confident that the Chief Justice will find a supremely able person to take up the reins and guide it as it goes forward. But to my mind (1) effectively dealing with Congress in behalf of the federal Judiciary while (2) successfully managing a huge bureaucracy and (3) patiently answering to over a thousand bosses, each with a substantial ego, requires a special collection of skills I have encountered only once in a single person—Ralph Mecham.

During my time on the Executive Committee, the Director confronted and resolved a host of issues including the annual challenge of the budget, the first COLA for judges since 1993, the automation of the entire Third Branch, decentralization of spending authority, the 75th anniversary of the Judicial Conference, and the preparation and adoption of the “Judicial Conference And Its Committees” as a governing policy document of the Conference. He was also constantly attuned to the late Chief Justice’s insistence upon openness in the operation of Conference committees, including broader participation by judges who desired to serve; and, contrary to what some may have perceived during a period of growth in the AO, he was constantly vigilant to make sure that the agency did not become the tail wagging the dog. He knew that the purpose of the AO was to serve, not direct.

Leonidas Ralph Mecham has been a loyal, dedicated and effective public servant who served with candor and integrity. If anyone could ever leave a position with the satisfaction that comes with a job well done, it is he. All of us owe him thanks and best wishes during a well earned retirement!

Judge Gilbert S. Merritt (6th Cir.),
Chair of the Executive Committee, 1994-1996

I hope that whoever takes over Ralph Mecham’s position as Director will look upon him as a kind of senior judge and seek his advice and counsel frequently. No one else knows so well the inner workings of the administrative apparatus that he has run so effectively for these past 20 years. The Judiciary is in much better shape administratively than it was 20 years ago. It is remarkable to look back and see the improvements that have been made under his supervision.

It was a wonderful experience for me to be associated with Ralph during the period that I was on the Judicial Conference, and particularly during those years that I served on the Executive Committee. The role of the Director of the Administrative Office—like the role of the federal Judiciary—is unique, and it takes a multitude of talents to operate it successfully. It will be hard for anyone to come up to the standard he has set.

I know that I speak for my colleagues—and particularly for my good friend, the late Judge Richard Arnold, who worked with him for so many years and held him in such high regard—when I extol the job Ralph has done for us over these years.

Judge Charles Clark (5th Cir.) (ret.),
Chair of the Executive Committee, 1989-1992

In 1985, Leonidas Ralph Mecham became Director of the Administrative Office, succeeding William Foley. Because I served on committees of the Judicial Conference during this entire time, I have a unique insight into the value of Director Mecham’s contributions to the federal Judiciary.

The hallmark of his 21 years of service has been his ability to maintain a trusted liaison with Congress, which was of outstanding benefit to the Judiciary.

His work as Director also was of the highest value to all members of the federal judicial family, both judges and support staff, to gain adequate personnel, equipment, and courtroom and chamber facilities. He was a diligent, effective, efficient administrator, a real master of his craft and of great assistance to judges in the discharge of their constitutional responsibility to the Third Branch of government.

On Mr. Mecham’s watch, the Judiciary faced increased caseloads and an exploding bankruptcy docket, overcrowded facilities, serious security concerns, natural disasters, computerization, long-range planning, the bicentennial of the Bill of Rights, and the Federal Courts Study Committee Report. In the midst of handling it all, he was able to secure substantial pay increases for judges and funding for needed increases in staff. Every one of these issues, and many others, were more than adequately met and resolved.

With Director Mecham’s help, we enlisted the aid of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who enabled the Judiciary to fill the long-time need to consolidate the physical facilities of the Administrative Office and Federal Judicial Center. The Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building has greatly enhanced the efficiency of the Administrative Office, and helped to solidify the Constitutional stature of the Third Branch on Capitol Hill.

Director Mecham exceeded expectations and excelled in his work because he combined a strength of character and conviction with candor and fairness in the discharge of his office. It’s not possible for a human so tasked to satisfy all of his life-tenured critics. Those who did not get everything they requested—and that right promptly—made themselves known. However, the critics quieted when they understood how their wishes had to fit into an overall budget of the Judiciary and the reality of congressional funding.

We could not have had a better person in the office than Director Mecham. This abbreviated overview of his tenure discloses that we have been in the best of good hands with L. Ralph Mecham as our Director of the Administrative Office. May his successor learn and prosper from this fine leader.

Judge Wilfred Feinberg (2nd Cir.),
Chair of the Executive Committee, 1987-1989

Leonidas Ralph Mecham was named Director of the AO, nearly two years before I was asked by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist to chair the newly constituted Judicial Conference Executive Committee. By then, of course, Ralph was engaged in supervising the supply of the AO’s many services to the federal court system.

The job of AO Director has never been an easy one, but during Ralph’s tenure it became even more difficult because the federal courts simply got busier. Consider the following figures from the AO: In 1985, 33,360 cases were filed in the courts of appeal; in 2005, the figure was 68,473, more than double. In the same period, criminal cases filed in the district courts almost doubled as well, going from 39,500 to 69,575, and the number of bankruptcy cases almost quintupled from about 365,000 to over 1,780,000. Ralph had to provide leadership for a complex agency that offers a multitude of services and programs to the increasingly beleaguered federal courts. He had to communicate effectively with the courts, while staying attuned to their problems and concerns. And he had to be an effective advocate for the Judiciary to the other branches of government and the public.

Ralph handled this difficult job with confidence, competence and dedication. It is a testament to his hard work and dedication that today the federal courts to a large extent so successfully manage their own resources and operations. We will miss his strength, his talents, and his support and wish him well in the years to come.

Judge John F. Gerry (D. NJ), who died in 1995, served as Chair of the Executive Committee from 1992 to 1994. In September 1994 remarks, Gerry said, “[t]he past nine years have been the golden age of judicial administration at the national level under Director Ralph Mecham and Chief Justice Rehnquist.” Director Mecham is “a giant in the field of judicial administration.”

Judge Charles H. Haden III (S.D. W. Va.), former chair of the Executive Committee, is deceased. He served from 2000 to 2002.