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Longtime Clerks Recall ‘Seismic Shift’ in Appellate Courts

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  • Michael Gans, of the Eighth Circuit, is the longest-serving clerk of court for a federal court of appeals.

    Michael Gans, of the Eighth Circuit, is the longest-serving clerk of court for a federal court of appeals.  

  • Clifford Jackson, a case administrator in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, is supported by modern IT networks and equipment.

    Clifford Jackson, a case administrator in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, is supported by modern IT networks and equipment.  

Michael Gans had recently joined the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1983, as a deputy clerk of court, when a crisis threatened to reduce the court’s paper records to mush.   

Tipped off that water was pouring out of his courthouse in St. Louis, Gans raced back to the building, only to watch helplessly as safety sprinklers kept soaking the clerk’s office long after a small fire was extinguished.  

“The sprinklers ran for about five hours because they couldn’t find the shutoff valve,” recalled Gans. “All these paper files and docket sheets were under the sprinkler heads. We had to have everything freeze dried to try to save things.” 

Since that long-ago episode, almost everything about how appellate courts manage their records and administrative staff is different, and Gans is one of several longstanding clerks of court to have witnessed the transformation firsthand.  

“How we work has changed so dramatically,” said Gans. “I often say that if you could bring someone from the clerk’s office in 1920 into the same office in 1985, they would be able to sit down and do the job. But somebody who worked here in 2000 would not be able to do the work today.”  

Gans was promoted to clerk of court in August 1991, and with 32 years of service, he is the nation’s longest-tenured clerk of court for a federal court of appeals. His observations are echoed by peers in other appellate courts who joined the Judiciary in the early 1980s.  

“I came along at a time when there was a seismic shift beginning in clerk’s offices,” said Deborah Hunt, Sixth Circuit clerk of court. “It was starting to professionalize.” 

While methods have evolved, the clerks’ essential mission remains largely the same.  

“I sort of see myself as the person who has to know where everything is at any time and what everyone does,” said Mark Langer, who joined the D.C. Circuit in 1984 and has been clerk of court since 1995. “I have to know where things stand.” 

Mark Langer, of the D.C. Circuit, has provided documentation for several Supreme Court nominations.

Mark Langer, of the D.C. Circuit, has provided documentation for several Supreme Court nominations.  

The federal law governing appellate clerks of courts was passed in 1948. However, such positions have existed since 1891, when Congress established the modern appellate system.

The federal Judiciary has 13 courts of appeals. Unlike district courts, which hear trials and testimony, appellate courts review lower-court decisions to make sure proceedings were fair and the law was applied correctly.  

Clerks of appellate courts are both managers and lawyers. In addition to maintaining records and managing administrative staff, they make legal decisions on many procedural matters. In the D.C. Circuit, Langer oversees a team of staff attorneys who assess legal filings.  

“We actually call it the legal division of the clerk’s office,” Langer said. “I read most of the work that the staff attorneys send to the court. If I have questions, I’ll call them and say, ‘Did you think about this?’” 

Most filings are routine, but emergency motions, such as for a stay in a death penalty case, can require attention at all hours.  

“High-profile cases and emergencies are so stressful,” Hunt said. “During COVID, it seemed like everyone had an emergency on Friday night, where if this doesn’t happen by Monday, the world will come to a screeching halt. It wasn’t just our court, it was every court.” 

All three clerks agree on the two greatest changes they have seen since the early 1980s. Information technology has eliminated most paper, and clerk’s offices manage their own budgets and operations. In earlier eras, even many small expenditures required approval by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO). 

In a 1984 photo in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, employees were entirely reliant on typewriters and paper documents.

In a 1984 photo in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, employees were entirely reliant on typewriters and paper documents.

“When I became clerk, I saw a slew of letters between my predecessor and the AO over a typewriter repair,” Gans recalled. “They finally agreed to spend $30 to repair this typewriter. And I wondered, what did that deputy clerk do for six weeks while they hashed out this $30 bill?” 

Hunt, based in Cincinnati, has been Sixth Circuit clerk of court since 2012. She also was clerk of a district court and bankruptcy court. Technology has revolutionized efficiency, but at her bankruptcy court, job attrition was painful.  

“I was literally reducing staff every year,” Hunt said. “That’s the most disheartening thing to have to do.”  

Each appellate court has its own history and culture. In the District of Columbia, Langer has served many judges who later joined the Supreme Court. His office has supplied extensive documentation for each confirmation process.  

“It’s both exciting and stressful,” Langer said. “It’s all hands on deck because so much information needs to be turned over to the White House and Senate. But you feel like you’re a little part of history when that happens.”  

The Eighth Circuit has been marked by continuity. Gans is just the fifth clerk of court in its 130-year history. And after 32 years, Gans still enjoys coming to work.  

“I still love the work and I love the people,” Gans said. “I’ve had many wonderful friends here, and we’ve always had a sense of family and team. Being able to provide a service not just to the court but also to the public, it really is important to me.”  

Related Topics: Appellate Courts

Judge José A. Cabranes to Receive 2023 Devitt Award

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Judge Jose A. Cabranes

Judge José A. Cabranes

Judge José A. Cabranes, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, is the 2023 recipient of the Edward J. Devitt Distinguished Service to Justice Award. Cabranes will receive the award in a Sept. 26 ceremony at the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Devitt Award honors an Article III judge who has achieved a distinguished career and made significant contributions to the administration of justice, the advancement of the rule of law, and the improvement of society as a whole.

Recipients are chosen by a committee of federal judges. This year, the committee was chaired by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, and included Judge Britt C. Grant, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, and U.S. District Judge Christopher R. Cooper, of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

“Judge José Cabranes is a legend in the law,” Justice Kavanaugh said. “He has devoted his career to defending the rule of law, ensuring equal justice, and enhancing American education. He has worked hard to mentor young lawyers and serve others in need. He is a superb judge and extraordinary scholar. As a federal judge for the past 44 years, he has preserved the Constitution and protected individual liberty. He is well known for his brilliance, judgment, and wit.”

“It is an honor to receive this award,” Cabranes said in a statement. “The colleagues with whom I have been privileged to serve for more than four decades are models of the judicial craft. In their name, as well as my own, I express gratitude and reaffirm our commitment to the principle that animates our work – equal justice under law.”

According to a biography on the Second Circuit website, Cabranes was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut in 1979. He was the first Puerto Rican appointed to the federal bench in the continental United States.

He was chief judge of the district court in 1994, when he was appointed to the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. In 2013, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., appointed Cabranes to serve also on the three-judge United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review.

In 1988, Cabranes was one of five federal judges appointed by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist to the 15-member Federal Courts Study Committee, which was created by Congress “to examine problems facing the federal courts and develop a long-range plan for the future of the federal judiciary.”

Cabranes was born in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, and at the age of five moved with his family to the South Bronx. After attending public schools in New York City, he graduated from Columbia College in 1961 and Yale Law School in 1965. In 1967, he received a degree in international law from the University of Cambridge in England. 

Cabranes served in a New York City law firm and as special counsel to the governor of Puerto Rico. He was General Counsel of Yale University when he joined the federal bench.

According to a news release by the Dwight D. Opperman Foundation, which sponsors the Devitt Award, Cabranes was nominated for the honor by Chief Judge Debra A. Livingston, of the Second Circuit.

“Judge Cabranes has been the epitome of what a federal judge ought to be – a brilliant scholar, a wise jurist, and a generous colleague,” Livingston said. “He has made extraordinary contributions across multiple fields, each of which has strengthened the federal judiciary immeasurably.”

The Devitt Award is named for the late Edward J. Devitt, longtime chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota. The award was established in 1982.

Related Topics: Awards & Honors

Probation Officers Partner with Community to Help ‘People Change Their Lives’

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Probation and pretrial services officers play a public safety role, monitoring individuals under supervision and ensuring they follow court orders. But unlike traditional law enforcement officers, they also focus on rehabilitation, a job that requires constant collaboration with non-profit organizations, local businesses, and government agencies.

“It takes more than just the probation office,” said Chief Probation Officer Kito J. Bess for the District of Minnesota. “We’re working with community members because, as the old saying goes, it does take a village.”

Highlighting how these offices and their community partners are stronger together is the goal of this year’s National Pretrial, Probation, and Parole Supervision Week, which is being observed from July 16-22 this year.

Two people in a classroom setting at a Minneapolis-based trucking school.

The probation office in Minnesota partners with a trucking school connecting people under supervision to training that can help them earn a commercial driver’s license.

The goal of probation officers is to help individuals who have been convicted of federal crimes to fully reintegrate themselves into society. Many face a wide range of needs, including employment, mental health treatment and even getting a driver’s license after spending time in incarceration.

Bess said community partnerships start with identifying, sharing, and building on resources that are already available and can help people under supervision.

“We don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” Bess said. “There are a lot of resources out in the community, and we need to be able to tap into them.”

Working with community partners, the Minnesota district’s probation office connects individuals to peer-to-peer mentoring, substance use treatment, psychological care, and job training.

“We’re being part of the change process, not just supervising a defendant,” Bess said. “People under supervision are getting the support that they were lacking before, and that can make all the difference in the world.”

In Massachusetts, probation and pretrial services officers aim to ensure that people under supervision reenter their communities with a foundation for success. And from affordable housing to reliable transportation and a steady income, community partners help shore up that foundation.

“On a day-to-day basis, we’re helping people change their lives,” said Chief Probation Officer Ricardo R. Carter of the District of Massachusetts. “That really depends on the communities in which people under supervision live.”

People under supervision in Massachusetts go fishing with their children as part of the federal probation office’s Fatherhood Program, which teaches parenting techniques.

People under supervision in Massachusetts go fishing with their children as part of the federal probation office’s Fatherhood Program, which teaches parenting techniques.

The district’s partnerships with local cities and towns, nonprofit organizations and other groups have led to programs for people under supervision including job coaching, cognitive behavioral therapy, parenting resources, and affordable cars. These services better the lives and communities of people under supervision, an effect that Carter said can lead to more collaboration.

“When you’re out in the community and you’re celebrating some successes with cases, other people want to get involved,” Carter said.

Despite their focus on rehabilitation, the perception of probation and pretrial services offices as law enforcement agencies can make some community members reluctant to share resources. Carter said he hopes to correct that perception through forming more partnerships, talking to the community, and building buy-in from the public.

Whether they stem from the initiative of individual officers or office-wide outreach, community partnerships have been and continue to be essential to successful supervision.

“There are agencies out there that are doing amazing work,” Carter said. “Reach out – it’s a win-win for both of us.”

Related Topics: Probation and Pretrial Services

Florida Courthouse Named for Influential Judge

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U.S. Eleventh Circuit Judge Joseph W. Hatchett. Courtesy of Rashad Green.

U.S. Eleventh Circuit Judge Joseph W. Hatchett. Courtesy of Rashad Green.

The federal courthouse in Tallahassee, Florida will be named in honor of the late Judge Joseph W. Hatchett, a trailblazing jurist who was among the first African Americans appointed to the federal bench in the South.

The naming ceremony for the Joseph Woodrow Hatchett U.S. Courthouse and Federal Building will be held on June 30.

“Judge Hatchett was a role model for both the bench and the bar, a patriot who served the public with honor, humility, and integrity,” said Chief Judge William H. Pryor, Jr., of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. “Throughout his career, he was a trailblazer. Our court and nation owe him a debt of gratitude.”

Born in Clearwater in 1932, Hatchett was the youngest of five children. He grew up in poor segregated neighborhoods, attending all-black schools during the Jim Crow era. Hatchett’s father was a fruit picker and his mother was a maid. Both were devout Christians. They instilled in their children the importance of hard work and humility, said Hatchett’s grandson, Rashad Green, in an interview. In high school, Hatchett was athletic and studious, playing basketball all four years, joining the band program as a trombone player, and graduating second in his class.

At the onset of the Korean War, Hatchett enrolled in college at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee on a full academic scholarship. After graduating with a major in political science in 1954, he served in the army and was stationed in West Germany as an anti-aircraft lieutenant in the 73rd AAA Battalion. It was the first time Hatchett lived in a place free of segregation, Green said.

Judge Joseph W. Hatchett is sworn in.

Joseph W. Hatchett is sworn-in to the Florida state Supreme Court, becoming the first black justice on the high court. Courtesy of Roscoe Green.

Realizing a career in the military was not for him, Hatchett was accepted into Howard University’s law school in 1956, taking the advice of a high school civics teacher who once told him, “America would change when the law changed,” the judge said in a 2018 interview.

After graduating and passing the Florida bar exam in 1959, Hatchett opened a law practice as the civil rights movement was gaining momentum. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was challenging discriminatory laws in courts across the country, and Hatchett partnered with the organization on several civil rights cases.

Circuit Judge Joseph W. Hatchett works in his chambers at the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. Courtesy of Rashad Green.

Circuit Judge Joseph W. Hatchett works in his chambers at the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. Courtesy of Rashad Green.

Hatchett often defended demonstrators arrested during civil disobedience actions and filed lawsuits against local governments and businesses in Florida to stop discriminatory policies. He was once chased down U.S. Highway 1 by members of the Ku Klux Klan as he drove away from a county jail, where he had posted bail for a client. Hatchett managed to outrun them in his car, he recalled in the 2018 interview.

Hatchett’s work got him noticed by the Justice Department. In 1966, he was asked to join the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida. A year later, he became First Assistant U.S. Attorney.

In 1971, after Congress passed the Federal Magistrates Act of 1968, Hatchett became one of the first U.S. magistrate judges, serving in the Middle District of Florida. Four years later, he was tapped by former Florida governor Reubin Askew to join the Florida Supreme Court, making him the court’s first black justice. The following year, Hatchett made history again when he successfully defended his seat on the high court, becoming the first African American candidate to win a statewide election in Florida.  

In 1979, Hatchett was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the U.S. Court of Appeals, leading to another career first, as the first African American to be appointed to the Fifth Circuit. He was reassigned to the Eleventh Circuit after legislation in 1981 divided the Fifth Circuit and created a new Eleventh. Hatchett served on the court for 20 years and was circuit chief judge from 1996 to 1999.

Circuit Judge Charles R. Wilson, left, congratulates Circuit Judge Joseph W. Hatchett, right, on receiving the Jurisprudence Award from the Anti-Defamation League.

Circuit Judge Charles R. Wilson, left, congratulates Circuit Judge Joseph W. Hatchett, right, on receiving the Jurisprudence Award from the Anti-Defamation League.

Hatchett retired from the bench in 1999 and continued to practice law. He died on April 30, 2021, at the age of 88.

“He demonstrated deep compassion for people, especially the less fortunate and oppressed, and he never lost sight of the role that the law and our courts can play in protecting the rights and lives of people,” said Eleventh Circuit Judge Charles R. Wilson, who clerked for Hatchett in 1981.

Hatchett received many honors during his career, including the American Bar Association’s Spirit of Excellence Award and the Florida Supreme Court Historical Society’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Wilson said Hatchett helped pave the way for him and other lawyers who now practice in law firms, serve in government, or sit on the bench.

“Judge Hatchett had high expectations of his law clerks. And we didn’t want to disappoint him because we knew he had given us this rare and prominent opportunity that we might not otherwise have,” Wilson said. “As we received and carried out our assignments, we learned of his remarkable intellect, his sound judgment, and his unfailing and abiding faith in the law as an instrument to achieve justice.”

Related Topics: Courthouses, Judicial History

Librarians Trade Books for Databases in the Digital Age

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The New Orleans Headquarters Library in 1972

Court employees conduct legal research at the main Fifth Circuit library in New Orleans in 1972. Photo courtesy of the Times-Picayune.

While the landscape of court libraries has changed as new information technologies have reduced the need for books, court librarians still play a critical role in providing judges, law clerks and other Judiciary staff with legal resources used to support decision-making.

“Changing technology hasn’t changed what librarians do, but it has changed how we do it,” said Sue Creech, the circuit librarian for the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

This month, courts are marking the 75th anniversary of the creation of the circuit librarian position, a role that today makes possible a wide variety of services in the digital age. Librarians train court professionals to make effective use of databases and presentation tools, negotiate contracts for legal research services, plan and staff court civics and community outreach events, archive court historical data, produce news summaries, and monitor social media.

Patricia Michalowskij, right, trains a court employee on how to use a legal research database.

Patricia Michalowskij, right, trains a court employee on how to use a legal research database.

“We may not have the same foot traffic we once did in our physical locations, but library services are being used more than ever,” said Patricia Michalowskij, circuit librarian for U.S. courts for the District of Columbia Circuit.

During her 39-year career with the Judiciary, Creech said, she used to race to local law libraries to fax photocopied pages of rare law books to chambers staff. She recalls training law clerks on the court’s first legal research terminal, which she said resembled a red microwave oven.

“The speed at which we can complete requests has grown exponentially,” she said. “Research that once took days now takes hours. Adopting new and emerging technologies has been key to being able to better answer judges’ questions.”

Today, Creech and her colleagues spend most of their time using large online research databases for materials to help judges prepare to render decisions. Creech is one of 13 circuit librarians who have staff throughout the circuit at various court locations. This model ensures judges and court staff receive timely support, while also assisting in reducing building space and personnel costs.

The U.S. Courts Library Program, which brings together all 13 circuit librarians and other federal court librarians, is working to ensure that the libraries maintain essential services, while reducing their space footprint to accommodate changing technology.

“New technologies have allowed librarians to prune back duplicative law book collections and economize their overall physical footprint, while still maintaining essential services,” Michalowskij said.

Creech said, “Information overload is a real issue. We’re here as research specialists to help find the needle in the haystack so judges can render timely and informed decisions.”

Modern Courthouse in Pennsylvania Opens to Public

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Colorful brushstrokes adorn the entryway walls of the newly built federal courthouse in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, paying homage to the nearby Susquehanna River. The expansive mural is visible from the outside through large full-height windows, which provide natural light throughout the building.

“Our new Middle District of Pennsylvania courthouse is a modern, light-filled architectural gem that should serve the court, attorneys, litigants, and the public with style and efficiency for decades,” said Chief Judge Matthew W. Brann.

On Monday, the public opening of the Sylvia H. Rambo U.S. Courthouse marked the conclusion of a decades-long effort to work with the General Services Administration (GSA) to secure funding to build a safer space for those visiting the federal court in the Middle District of Pennsylvania.

The 243,000-square-foot courthouse, located at the corner of Sixth and Reily streets, replaces the Ronald Reagan Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse, where shackled detainees shared the same building entrance as court visitors and could end up riding the elevator with the judge or jurors involved in their case.

A view of the new federal courthouse entryway in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

A view of the new federal courthouse entryway in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Credit: Ennead Architects.

“The Reagan building wasn’t designed with court operations in mind and had some pretty glaring security flaws,” said Clerk of Court Peter J. Welsh. “We put the safety of our visitors, judges, and staff at the forefront when designing the new space.”

The new courthouse has restricted corridors and elevators to allow secure, efficient movement around the building of prisoners, judges, judicial staff, and visitors.

In late 2015, Congress appropriated $948 million to fund eight new courthouse projects, including Harrisburg, which is the most Congress has funded in recent decades.

“While Congress’s approval of these projects may not be unprecedented, it is certainly unusual in modern times,” said Judge Jeffrey J. Helmick, chair of the Judicial Conference’s Space and Facilities Committee. “This investment is essential to providing access and safety to all — jurors, lawyers, court employees, parties to a case, and the public – so that they may focus on the administration of justice in a fitting setting. Everyone in the Judiciary, and the public at large, should be grateful to Congress, the General Services Administration, and the Judiciary for coming together to tackle the often urgent needs these new courthouse projects address.”

The new facility includes eight courtrooms, 11 judges’ chambers and space for the bankruptcy bench, probation and pretrial services offices, U.S. marshal’s office, and U.S. attorney’s office as well as GSA and U.S. Trustees. It also offers state of the art audio-video technology.

A display in the new courthouse details the legal career of Judge Sylvia H. Rambo, who was appointed to the federal bench in 1979, as part of a historic class of women federal judges.

“The Court is pleased that our new courthouse bears the name of our friend and colleague, the Honorable Sylvia H. Rambo, Senior United States District Judge, who has labored for the past thirty years to see this project to completion,” Brann said.

“Even as I stand here today, it feels unreal,” Rambo said during the courthouse naming ceremony last June. “As one of four children raised by a struggling German immigrant mother, I could never have imagined the life that has been bestowed on me, or on my name.”  

Related Topics: Courthouses

Judges Work to Build Roads to the Bench at Networking Event

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About 2,000 attorneys and law students spoke with federal judges during a recent symposium, which was simultaneously broadcast in 38 cities, about the many paths to becoming a bankruptcy or magistrate judge.

“The more we share our own journeys to the bench with those in the legal field, the more we demystify the judicial position and application process,” said Judge Stephanie Dawkins Davis, of the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. “People often think of judges as these larger-than-life figures, but really, we’re all just people. And many of the people I speak with at events like this are just as qualified, if not more.”

The April 3 event, titled “Roadways to the Bench: Who Me? A Bankruptcy or Magistrate Judge?” was sponsored by the Judicial Conference Committees on the Administration of the Bankruptcy System and the Administration of the Magistrate Judges System. Law students and lawyers were encouraged to consider pursuing Judiciary career opportunities, with the goal of expanding the pipeline of candidates for the bankruptcy and magistrate judges’ bench.

Unlike appellate and district judges, who are nominated by the President and confirmed to life terms by the Senate, bankruptcy and magistrate judges are appointed by other judges to renewable terms.

The thought, “Who me?” echoed in now-Magistrate Judge Shaniek Mills Maynard’s mind as she wrestled with the decision to apply for a seat in the Southern District of Florida in 2017.

“I didn’t think of myself as the most likely candidate, there wasn’t really anyone who looked like me on the bench in the county where I lived. Plus, I had spent the last three years outside of the courtroom running a non-profit,” Maynard said. “I think a lot of very good, very qualified lawyers rule themselves out because they don’t think they fit the mold.”

A panel of federal judges kick-off the Roadways to the Bench program.

A panel of federal judges kick-off the Roadways to the Bench program.

A panel of federal judges, meeting at the District of Columbia Bar headquarters, kicked off the event by explaining the magistrate judge and bankruptcy judgeship application process, how to succeed as a judge, and the importance of diversity on the bench. The panelists were: Judge Stephanie Dawkins Davis; Judge Laura Taylor Swain, of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York; Judge Kesha L. Tanabe, of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Minnesota; Magistrate Judge Mustafa T. Kasubhai, of the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon; and Judge Carl E. Stewart, of the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, who moderated.

This is the Judiciary’s second iteration of the national diversity event for law students and attorneys. The last program in 2019 informed law students and attorneys about federal judgeships, with a spotlight on the bankruptcy bench and bar. Afterward, a number of attendees applied for bankruptcy judgeships, and at least 10 have since joined the bench. The Roadways program aligns with the Strategic Plan for the Federal Judiciary, said Maynard and Bankruptcy Judge Peter D. Russin, who both participated at the Miami event location.

“Diversity promotes public confidence in the judicial system,” Russin said. “We all bring different life experiences to our sense of justice. Diverse life experiences on the Judiciary allows the Judiciary to better reflect the society it serves, which is fundamental to achieving true justice.”

Magistrate Judge Shaniek Mills Maynard and Bankruptcy Judge Peter D. Russin at the Miami roundtable session.

Magistrate Judge Shaniek Mills Maynard (third from right) and Bankruptcy Judge Peter D. Russin (second from right) share their insights with participants at the Miami roundtable session.

Following the broadcast, each location hosted roundtable discussions. Approximately 600 federal judges attended the discussions throughout the country to speak with participants in small group settings about their paths to the bench and careers in the law.

Veronica Brown-Moseley, a consumer bankruptcy attorney in Richmond, Virginia, who attended the program for the second time, said the opportunity to be in a room full of judges is priceless.

“It’s just such an inspiring program. It’s rare to have the opportunity to meet judges from all around the country, build relationships, learn from their experiences, gain insights, and learn about the skills that would be helpful for an aspiring judge,” she said.

Andrew O’Keefe, a law clerk who attended the event in Phoenix, said, “Judges can seem unapproachable because they are in this very esteemed position. But having the opportunity to hear their story and speak to them in a more intimate setting helps relieve those nerves.”

Presley Klinger, a law student who attended the event in New York City, said, “Getting to be across the table from a judge is something that doesn’t happen frequently, especially as a law student. We had conversations about who they are, what they bring to the bench, and the perspectives that they have.”

Judges who participated in the symposium agreed that interacting with students and lawyers outside the courtroom is an important step in casting a wider net to attract the broadest possible pool of qualified applicants.

“There are so many people who have questions and are interested in joining the federal bench, but don’t know who to ask or where to go,” said Magistrate Judge Sarah L. Cave, of the Southern District of New York. “The event creates an opportunity for those questions to be answered and for participants to realize that they too can gain or already possess many of the attributes that would make them a wonderful candidate to serve as a federal court judge.”

“We hope participants leave the event convinced that the judicial path is open to everyone,” Davis said.

Related Topics: Judges & Judgeships

Free Summer Court Camps Immerse Students in Legal and Life Skills

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Students engage with U.S. Second Circuit Judge Joseph F. Bianco at the 2022 Justice Institute in New York.

Students engage with U.S. Second Circuit Judge Joseph F. Bianco at the 2022 Justice Institute in New York. Credit: Second Circuit Library.

As summer approaches, middle and high school students can choose from catalogues of camps that promise to improve everything from language skills to layup shots. Federal court camps prepare participants to be informed and engaged citizens in every walk of life, and at no cost.

“We view the summer camps at our federal courthouses in the Second Circuit as an incredible opportunity to allow high school students to explore the justice system in an interesting and interactive format, while at the same time equipping them with some basic advocacy skills and the self-confidence to pursue their dreams in whatever career path they ultimately choose,” said U.S. Second Circuit Judge Joseph F. Bianco, who created the first camp of its kind in New York in 2016.

The initiative now is offered in multiple locations throughout New York and is one of a growing number of court camps across the country. At these interactive immersion programs, students observe and participate in the judicial process and gain legal and life skills from judges, lawyers, federal law enforcement agents and many other professionals who help the wheels of justice turn. Court camps benefit from partnerships in the legal community that bring together the courts, local bar associations, law schools, and law firms.

Students take notes during the 2022 Justice Institute in New York.

Students take notes during the 2022 Justice Institute in New York. Credit: Second Circuit Library.

“Keeping camps free ensures that all students, regardless of socio-economic status, can be exposed to the justice system and find career paths in it,” said Bankruptcy Judge William J. Fisher, of the District of Minnesota, who is involved in a weeklong camp. “We hope students come away realizing that justice is for all and that there are many interesting diverse careers in the justice system.”

Group sizes and program lengths vary at each location, with some courts hosting from 10 to 100 students for a day, a week, or even several months in the summer. Each camp culminates in a mock trial, so that students can put their newly learned skills to the test. Programs also feature guest speakers representing a wide range of justice system careers, observations of live court proceedings, and lectures.

“Over the years, we have seen firsthand how this program not only furthers the Judiciary’s important mission of fostering civics in the next generation but can be a life-changing experience for so many students as they look to the future,” Bianco said.

The learning experience continues for many students well beyond the confines of the camp through mentoring and internship opportunities.

In Milwaukee’s Summer Youth Institute, students are paired with an attorney or judge mentor who is available to them as they pursue their academic and career goals after their camp experience. When they complete the program, students also are eligible for an internship which places them in a variety of settings in the legal community such as firms, judicial chambers, and the U.S. probation office.

“In addition to introducing students from all backgrounds to the various careers in the legal profession, the Summer Youth Institute enriches students’ understanding of the critical role of the courts in our democracy,” said Magistrate Judge Nancy Joseph, of the Eastern District of Wisconsin, who helps facilitate the program. “In this regard, we are not just preparing them for future careers in the law, but for their roles as responsible citizens.”

Court camps across the country include:

Connecticut & New York




To find educational court programs at the nearest federal courthouse, contact the federal courts’ national educational outreach manager Rebecca Fanning. Visit the educational resources section for additional programs and activities.

Related Topics: Public Education

60 Years Later, Gideon’s Legacy Lives On

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Florida State Prison photographs of Clarence Earl Gideon in 1961.

Florida State Prison photographs of Clarence Earl Gideon in 1961. Credit: State Archives of Florida.

Clarence Earl Gideon, a Florida drifter who spent time in and out of prisons for nonviolent crimes, was an unlikely individual to help redefine a criminal defendant’s right to counsel 60 years ago in the Supreme Court case Gideon v. Wainwright.

After being accused of committing felony breaking and entering of a pool hall, the indigent Gideon petitioned the Florida state court to provide him with an attorney free of charge. The judge denied his request, and despite Gideon’s attempt to represent himself, the jury ultimately found him guilty.

From prison, Gideon wrote a letter to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard his case and decided that indigent defendants are entitled to counsel in state criminal trials. Gideon was retried in Florida state court – this time with an appointed lawyer – and found not guilty.

“The promise of the Gideon decision is increasingly important today as we struggle with the widening poverty gap, systemic racism, and unchecked prosecutorial overreach,” said Melody Brannon, federal public defender for the District of Kansas.

The right to appointed counsel had existed in federal criminal cases since the 1930s. But because the Gideon decision reached the much larger universe of state court defendants, it is still recognized as pivotal in making legal representation a reality for defendants accused of serious crimes. Public Defense Week and National Public Defender Day, which occur March 18, commemorate the landmark case and the vital work of public defense lawyers.

“The right to counsel has been a fundamental part of the Constitution since its adoption, and public defense attorneys are critical to ensuring that everyone receives adequate representation in our system of justice,” said U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez, chair of the Judicial Conference’s Defender Services Committee. “The Gideon case remains significant today because it established that no one could pick and choose who is and isn’t worthy of having the right to counsel because of the size of their wallet.”

In addition to its impact on state courts, Gideon opened a period of intense activity to ensure competent counsel for federal defendants. In 1964, a year after the Gideon ruling, Congress passed the Criminal Justice Act (CJA), which provides funding for court-appointed counsel in federal cases. Today, nearly 90 percent of federal criminal defendants are aided by lawyers, investigators and experts paid for under the Criminal Justice Act.

Many defenders and judges call the CJA a shining success. “It’s been called the gold standard of public defense,” Catherine C. Blake, then-chair of the Defender Services Committee, said in 2014, in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the CJA. “The Criminal Justice Act and the right to counsel have greatly strengthened the fairness and integrity of our system of justice.”

Image of men standing and sitting

A 1931 Alabama rape case led the Supreme Court to declare, a year later, that failure to appoint counsel could violate the Constitution.

Carlos Williams, executive director of Southern District of Alabama Federal Defenders, Inc., a nonprofit organization that defends clients in the district, cited Powell v. Alabama to capture the critical work of public defense lawyers in our criminal justice system. The 1932 Supreme Court decision helped set the stage for a right to counsel in all felony cases.

“Even the intelligent and educated layman,” Justice George Sutherland wrote, “requires the guiding hand of counsel at every step in the proceedings against him. Without it, though he be not guilty, he faces the danger of conviction because he does not know how to establish his innocence.”

Williams said, “Toughened sentencing laws have made a robust public defense more critical than ever.”

The Judiciary’s Defender Services Office is committed to protecting the right to counsel and works to even the courtroom odds through continuing education, training, and support for defenders and panel attorneys across the country. The Judiciary has also taken several steps toward implementing the interim recommendations of the Ad Hoc Committee to Review the CJA, also known as the Cardone Report.

“We honor the Gideon decision by striving for a robust and institutionally sound system of public defense,” Brannon said. “In the federal system, that means implementing recommendations in the Cardone Report, sufficient defense funding — for defenders and panel attorneys — in parity with the prosecution, and a voice in judicial policy decisions. Budgets and policy are moral documents, and how we invest in public defense reflects our system’s moral valuation of equal justice for all.”

Visit the Sixth Amendment Activities page to learn more about the right to counsel.

Related Topics: Judicial History

Women Judges Reflect on Constance Baker Motley’s Legacy

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Constance Baker Motley, the first African American woman to serve as a federal judge, poses with a group of colleagues.

In 1992, the organization Just the Beginning celebrated the diversifying of the federal Judiciary. Constance Baker Motley, the first African American woman to serve as a federal judge, poses with a group of colleagues. Motley remains revered by the many judges and law clerks she mentored. Credit: U.S. District Judge Anne Thompson.

Constance Baker Motley was the first African American woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court, and the first to serve as a federal judge. For all her achievements, Motley’s most-lasting legacy may be the generations of women she inspired to pursue careers in the law.

A 1998 portrait of U.S. District Judge Constance Baker Motley.

A 1998 portrait of U.S. District Judge Constance Baker Motley. Credit: Chester Higgins Archive.

In celebration of Women’s History Month, judges reflected on the life and career of the revered trailblazer and civil rights hero.

“She had extraordinary intelligence, fortitude, personal presence, and a desire to have an impact in the world,” said Chief Judge Laura Taylor Swain, who served as a law clerk for Motley, and later was a fellow judge with Motley in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York until Motley’s death in 2005. “Projecting that confidence and intelligence is the only way she could have survived and been successful at what she did.”

Motley played a pivotal role in the fight to end racial segregation from the late 1940s through the early 1960s. As a front-line lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Motley personally led the litigation that integrated the Universities of Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, among others. By the time she left the NAACP in 1965, Motley had personally argued 10 Supreme Court cases (winning nine) and assisted in nearly 60 cases that reached the high court.

Appointed to the bench in 1966, Motley quietly befriended and guided younger women judges. Her influence as a mentor was especially pronounced among Black women judges. Judge Anne Thompson, of the District of New Jersey, received a personal note shortly after her appointment in 1979. “She was just a very gracious person,” said Thompson, who eventually brought her law clerks to meet with Motley every year.

Constance Baker Motley and Judge Anne Thompson, of the District of New Jersey.

As a federal judge, Constance Baker Motley befriended and mentored many who followed her onto the bench. Here she is with Judge Anne Thompson, of the District of New Jersey. Credit: Judge Thompson.

While Motley was personally reserved and expected long hours of herself and her chambers staff, Swain also found her to be intensely loyal to her law clerks, inviting them annually to a chambers holiday party. Motley also built confidence by entrusting clerks with highly demanding assignments.

“The trust she gave her clerks was mind-boggling, but it taught me I could do this work,” Swain said. “You’d look in a mirror and say, ‘If she believes I can do this, I must be able to do this.’ And I did.”

In addition to her own clerks, Motley inspired generations of women lawyers who became judges themselves, including Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first African American woman to serve on the Supreme Court. Today, there are 299 female judges, including four Supreme Court justices. Women make up nearly 40 percent of the courts’ full-time, active Article III judges.

“I proudly stand on Judge Motley’s shoulders, sharing not only her birthday but also her steadfast and courageous commitment to equal justice under law,” Jackson said following her nomination at the White House. “Judge Motley’s life and career has been a true inspiration to me as I have pursued this professional path.”

Related Topics: Judicial History

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