Collins Fitzpatrick, Longest-Serving Circuit Executive, Reflects on Career
On Sept. 28, Collins Fitzpatrick will retire as Circuit Executive of the Seventh Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, after 50 years of service in the federal Judiciary. In 1976, Fitzpatrick was appointed as the Seventh Circuit’s first executive, five years after Congress created the position. He is by far the longest-serving circuit executive in the federal court system.
After he announced his planned retirement earlier this year, Chief Judge Diane S. Sykes said Fitzpatrick “has been a true pioneer in this position.”
“He has served the 15 courts in our circuit with great dedication and throughout enormous operational changes in the administration of the federal courts. He has provided continuity and support as our Judiciary has grown and changed,” Sykes added. “As he retires, he takes with him our lasting appreciation, admiration, and affection.”
Fitzpatrick, who worked in Chicago, reflects on his career and the circuit he served.
Q: Why did you first join the Seventh Circuit, and how did that evolve into your current role as circuit executive?
My second and third years of law school, I provided civil legal aid services to individuals in need. Upon graduation from Harvard Law School in 1969, I received the Reginald Heber Smith Community Lawyer Fellowship to work in legal aid services. After two years, I was one of the most senior lawyers and I was not developing my research and writing skills. In 1971, I applied for and received a one-year law clerkship from Seventh Circuit Judge Roger Kiley. That seemed like a better position to develop my skills than an offer I had received to edit a tax journal in The Hague.
There were no staff attorneys in the Court of Appeals, so half of my law clerk work was on Judge Kiley’s decisions and half of my time was working for all the circuit judges on procedural and substantive motions, mandamus petitions, and pro se appeals. Chief Judge Luther Swygert then asked me to be his law clerk and administrative assistant the next year. I went home and told my wife Mary that this position would postpone my career decision for another year. In retrospect, Chief Judge Swygert was considering me before I ever knew of the Circuit Executive Act. In 1975, I was appointed as the first Senior Law Clerk (Senior Staff Attorney) for the Seventh Circuit.
In those days you could only be appointed circuit executive if you were approved by a Board of Certification composed of five members. In 1976, I was certified by the Board and then appointed by the Judicial Council. For about the first 10 years, I was the youngest circuit executive in the country.
Q: Name some ways the Seventh Circuit has changed since 1971.
A federal statute authorized the chief circuit judge to review judicial disability and misconduct complaints and consider informal complaints. Also, the judicial councils and the courts of appeals began appointing bankruptcy judges to 14-year terms. This led to a tremendous improvement in the quality of those judges.
Technology made life better and more efficient by making it easier to edit opinions and providing multiple access to documents, such as the docket sheet. As a law clerk, I wondered whether I should ask the secretary to retype the opinion to correct my error. There was only one typed copy of the docket sheet, so it was a problem when it could not be found. Thank goodness for the word processor and electronic files.
Q: What are some central functions of a circuit executive?
Circuit executives make sure that the courts are all operating very well. If they are, then there is less to do for everyone.
The hardest task is telling a judge that the judge has an aging problem or other problem interfering with his or her judicial work. Or that lawyers or staff think that the judge has a problem, even if the judge does not think so. Judges have asked me why should the circuit executive do that? The reason is that often no one else is doing it. All judges and staff need to tell the problem judge that the judge has no clothes. We all need to make sure that (1) the litigants have a fully functioning judge, (2) the court maintains a great reputation for the quality of its decisions, and (3) a judge who has served the public for many years retires with her or his head held high.
Q: Did you know early on that you wanted to make this a lifetime position? What did you most enjoy about the job?
My initial interest was in elected office, where I could serve the public. Early on, I realized that it would hurt my family by being away for nightly meetings and events and campaigning. I realized that I could serve the public in the Judicial Branch without running for office.
I enjoy working with our great judges and staff and having courts that operate very well.
Q: Can you talk about some of the most significant improvements you and the court have made with regard to efficiency, both in technology and procedure?
Monitoring how the courts are doing and learning the problems they face in getting timely decisions. My job has been to convince judges to ask for help when they need it. Often it is easy to get other judges from the circuit to help an overworked court due to an ill judge or vacant judgeships. Providing temporary law clerks helps. It also helps to speak to the judge about the need to get their excellent law clerks, judicial assistants, and clerk’s office staff to work as a team.
When I started with the Court of Appeals, three judges would decide unargued cases seriatim. The appeal moved from one judge to a second judge to the third judge. Now, a staff attorney is assigned to prepare a memorandum on each unargued case. A panel of three judges is provided with the briefs and the bench memorandum. The judges then collegially discuss the appeal with the staff attorney there to answer any questions. Then an assigned judge will work with the staff attorney to prepare a proposed decision, which will then be circulated to the other judges.
Q: In what ways have you and the court advanced core values of justice through your work as circuit executive?
I have been asked many ethics questions. I answer them if there is a clear answer. If the answer is not clear, I suggest that the person contact the General Counsel (at the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts), or the circuit member of the Codes of Conduct Committee.
I actually worked on a part of drafting of the Russian Code of Conduct, which then was adopted for all the Russian judges. My first contact with foreign judiciaries occurred when a delegation of the Chief Justice of the Soviet Union and the chief justices of several of the major Soviet Republics visited Chief Judge Luther Swygert. They had been invited to visit by Chief Justice Warren Burger.
Over the years the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, State Department, World Chicago, U.S. Russian Foundation, Open World, and others have asked me to meet with foreign judges and other visitors who wish to learn about the federal courts. Those contacts have resulted in my being asked to speak to judges in Armenia, Australia, China, Laos, Turkey, and on many trips to Russia. It is an honor to talk about how well our federal courts work and learn how things work in other countries.
Q: Do you have any retirement plans? Will you remain active in the legal profession?
My interest is to continue as a lawyer and serve as a mediator, arbitrator, master in the federal courts, and continue to serve on the Rule of Law Committee of the U.S. Russian Foundation. I am also exploring part-time teaching in an inner-city high school, where I can also encourage future lawyers from that school.
Q: After a half-century of working in the Seventh Circuit, and with hundreds of judges over the decades, what do you consider your greatest achievements and satisfactions?
I have tried to make sure that our judges and staff are the best people representing the diverse persons that make up the American public.
My goal is to make sure that the courts operate very well.
Q: Do you have any other thoughts not covered in the prior questions?
It has been an honor to serve in the Judiciary Branch.
Related Topics: Judicial History