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Bankruptcy Clerk Becomes Army Reserve's Highest Ranking African-American Woman
Major General Marcia Anderson
A clerk of court’s life is busy and demanding. Combine a clerk’s responsibility with those of an Army Reservist and you describe the sometimes frenetic life of Marcia Anderson, bankruptcy clerk of court for the Western District of Wisconsin—and the first African-American woman to earn a second star and a promotion to Major General in the Army Reserve.
“You find yourself having conference calls after work at home at night, waking up in the morning and checking your military Blackberry before you brush your teeth,” she said. Still, Anderson says, “I’m proud of being part of the federal Judiciary and our military.”
The journey to her historic first began when Anderson, then a liberal arts major at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, was registering for courses and had to find a science credit.
“I really wanted to take an astronomy course, but it didn’t happen. As I was cruising around the gym looking for a class, I saw this big sign, Reserve Officer Training Corp, Military Science. Hmmm, science. And there were posters of people jumping out of airplanes, walking through the woods, and rappelling. I said, sign me up. That’s how I got into ROTC.”
Anderson received both her commission as a second lieutenant and college degree in 1979.
The Army Reserve was a constant in Anderson’s life, as she earned a law degree from Rutgers Law School, worked briefly in the corporate world, and then, in 1985, joined the federal Judiciary as operations manager in the Second Circuit clerk’s office. Shortly after, she became the circuit’s supervisory staff attorney and, from there, moved to work with the Second Circuit’s Bankruptcy Appellate Panel.
“Then the bankruptcy clerk of court position opened in the Western District of Wisconsin,” Anderson said. She has been bankruptcy clerk of court since 1998.
Through out that entire period of time, Anderson was still managing her military career and attending various professional courses. She became the first African - American woman in the Army Reserve Training Divisions to command a unit of Drill Sergeants.
“When I started as the bankruptcy clerk, I think the staff was a little afraid of me because they thought I was going to have them do group calisthenics or something,” Anderson recalls. “But from the military, you’re accustomed to pushing responsibility down to the lowest level. They’re all adults and they are perfectly capable of figuring out their workday without me or a supervisor telling them what to do. So I flattened the organization. We now have self-managed teams. It required a lot of training, but they really embraced it. The teams manage themselves. They had to learn a lot of critical thinking skills to do that, as well as being able to give and receive constructive criticism.
“At one point, I said, ‘You are like a bunch of really great sergeants.’ And they all looked at me—is that a compliment? Absolutely. Because one of the first things that happens, as a lieutenant or a private, is that you’re put in charge of not just yourself, but other people or resources.”
When she was on active duty for a year, Anderson brought her court hat with her.
“In terms of resources, the Army has more funding and people to throw at projects,” said Andersen. “But on the court side, we’ve always operated under constrained resources and we’re pretty austere.” She championed the use of process improvement tools that encouraged employees to innovate and be agents for change. “We even used some of that same process improvement here at the court, especially when we went to CM/ECF,” Anderson adds.
She pushed for automated leave tracking in the Army’s Human Resources division because she had seen it work in the federal courts. And she oversaw the revamping of the entire Human Resources Command website.
“In our court, we tend to think, ‘What would I do if I were a customer? Is this information on the website useful for me?’ The Army was still thinking people were going to pick up the phone and call them. I say you have to push out information, especially in these times when we’re trying to be very lean. They had to start thinking about how to put themselves in that foxhole with that soldier in Afghanistan who has limited access to the Internet and who doesn’t want to click 15 times to find the information.”
In her new post as Deputy Chief Army Reserve, she will focus on simplifying the many legal and process barriers that make it difficult for soldiers to move seamlessly between full- or part-time roles throughout their military careers, depending on personal availability, employer capability, and military requirements. And she’ll continue her duties as bankruptcy clerk of court.
“I have confidence in my people here in the bankruptcy court. And they always have warranted that confidence,” Anderson said. “Yes, we’re a small court. But even when our caseload was exploding, we didn’t have backlogs, we didn’t have complaints from attorneys about things not getting docketed. I think the court staff does more because they know that I have confidence and trust in them. It has allowed us to keep our staffing levels pretty low. The judges are happy, the bar is happy, the pro se litigants are happy—so we must be doing something right.”