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On Being Chief Judge
Every federal court is led by a chief judge, whose responsibility is “the efficient and effective administration of the court in compliance with statutes.” The job calls for an individual to see not only that administrative tasks in the court are carried out, but also to address the needs of the public, attorneys, court staff, and fellow judges.
For many judges who come to the position, it’s a job with mixed blessings. There’s the opportunity to make a contribution, yet the demands of the job can be overwhelming.
“It’s a very rewarding job and there’s satisfaction in helping to resolve problems and help the court run more efficiently,” said Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson, who served a 7-year term as chief judge in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. “At the same time, a chief judge can’t be afraid to delegate. You need to choose good people and trust and rely on them. There’s no way you can do it all yourself.”
“Delegating is a good thing,” agrees Chief Judge Donetta Ambrose in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. “I speak with my clerk daily, but I don’t micromanage. Having capable people running the court makes my job easier. I have the final responsibility, but every one of my colleagues has an important job to do.”
A recitation of just a few of a chief judge’s responsibilities (in no particular order) illustrates why delegation is key. Chief judges:
ensure that laws, regulations, and court policies are followed;
monitor court caseloads;
develop and implement court plans;
supervise the clerk of court;
oversee local rule-making;
resolve informal disputes;
review court budgets and court spending;
oversee space acquisition, alterations, and construction;
ensure court security and emergency preparedness;
appoint and serve on court committees;
file reports and plans in a timely manner with the circuit judicial council, the AO, and other entities; and
serve as a liaison with outside groups such as the Judicial Conference, the public, the bar, state and local courts and governments, agencies, schools and the media. There’s also interaction with the U.S. Marshals Service, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and other federal government agencies.
At the district level, a chief judge supervises chief probation and pretrial services officers, monitors magistrate judges, oversees the use of jurors, and maintains effective relations with the bankruptcy court.
At the circuit level, a chief judge presides over any three-judge panel to which he or she is assigned, presides over meetings of the circuit council, supervises the appointment of bankruptcy judges, and authorizes and requests intercircuit and intra–circuit assignments of judges. He or she also reviews complaints of judicial misconduct and disability, and serves on the Judicial Conference. In much of this work, the chief judge relies on the circuit executive, the clerk of court, and other appellate court staff members.
Each court of appeals and district court is headed by a chief judge. Eighty-eight of the 92 bankruptcy courts name a chief bankruptcy judge and 42 of the 94 district courts name a chief magistrate judge.
“It was a great honor, the day I became chief judge,” Bankruptcy Chief Judge Albert S. Dabrowski in the District of Connecticut said, “but I quickly realized that I had significant new responsibilities but little or no new authority.”
Chief Judge Anthony Ishii inherited a district with the highest weighted caseload per judge when he became chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California last June. “The outgoing chief judge gave me a pretty good idea of what to expect,” he said. “Nonetheless, Day One came as quite a surprise. It hits you immediately—the chief judge has an incredible array of duties to perform. There has been a dramatic increase in my interactions with the clerk of the court, staff, agencies, the circuit court, and the Administrative Office, and in preparing reports, correspondence, and other documents. It was an eye-opener how time consuming the job of chief judge is, and I have certainly gained an even greater appreciation for anyone who has ever served as a chief judge.”
Chief judges come to the position through seniority in their courts. Generally chief bankruptcy judges are chosen by a majority vote of the district court judges, but some bankruptcy courts, such as the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Connecticut, mirror district courts with chief judges who serve a seven-year term and cannot serve beyond age 70. Chief judges are, as it’s traditionally expressed, first among equals, but they receive no additional pay for taking on the job, nor do they have any additional powers.
Chief Judge Sandra Lynch has been chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit for less than a year, the first woman to hold that position in the circuit. She has a background that includes leadership of the 8,000—member Boston Bar Association and of the litigation department of a large law firm. “And while the management skills I learned in those jobs are useful,” Lynch said, “I’ve discovered that federal courts are a unique model of an organization. This is where consensus drives a chief judge’s management style. I work very hard at communicating to build agreement.”
Lynch’s first surprise as chief judge was how lean staffing is in the courts compared to that in private organizations. Her second surprise involved the complaints made against judges; misconduct complaints are by statute directed to the chief judge of the court of appeals.
“It’s the nature of the job that judges rule against someone. But I note how many of those complaints about judges and their rulings are made by people who seem to be very angry,” Lynch said. “As a result, I am much more concerned about the safety of our federal judges.” Her circuit has looked at better mechanisms to assess risk and protect judges and hopes to work with the U.S. Marshals Service as it sets up a national threat assessment center.
A vacancy in the office of a district or circuit chief judge is filled by the judge in regular active service who is senior in commission, is 64 years of age or younger, has served at least a year as district or circuit judge, and has not previously served as chief judge. His or her term is limited to seven years, except when there is a delay until another judge becomes eligible.
No judge may serve as chief judge beyond the age of 70—unless no other judge is eligible to become or act as chief judge. In June, Chief Judge Lynn Winmill will have served ten years as chief judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho, several years over the limit. There’s simply no one to replace him.
“The only other district judge can’t be chief because of his age,” said Winmill, whose district currently has only two active judgeships. “So until there’s a new judgeship or a vacancy that can be filled, there’s no end in sight.”
The term “chief judge” has only been used since 1948, when Congress replaced the term senior district or circuit judge with chief judge, a change made by legislation drafters, “in view of the great increase of administrative duties of such judges.” Those duties have only continued to expand. Despite this, most chief judges carry a full or only slightly decreased caseload.
“A chief judge should try to sit on as many cases as possible,” said Wilkinson. “It’s important that you retain a sense among your colleagues that you are one of them—if only because when you ask a colleague to add to his or her workload, he or she knows you’re carrying a substantial caseload and an administrative workload too.”
Chief judges have the opportunity to put their imprint on a court. Dabrowski has taken his bankruptcy court 100 percent paperless. Ambrose inaugurated a now robust alternative dispute resolution program and electronic case filing, and renovated four new badly needed courtrooms. Winmill started a federal bar association, moved his court into a new courthouse with improved facilities, and consolidated automation, human resources, budget, and procurement for added efficiencies.
“If you’d like to make a difference in the way things are, there’s no better job,” said Winmill. Wilkinson agrees. “Being chief judge is a great opportunity to help other people,” he said. “And isn’t that what judges are in the business of doing?”