Share with me your personal journey related to the position you have currently.
The path to becoming a federal judge is: you must be nominated by the President of the United States. After that nomination, the nominee must submit paperwork of his or her background to the United States Senate. All 100 senators along with their staffs will review your qualifications and decide whether they will vote for your confirmation or not support your confirmation. One needs 51 votes to be confirmed. The appointment is signed by the President. A federal judge has lifetime tenure. The reason for the lifetime appointment is: we do not have to be concerned about political pressure or outside influences. We can be independent in everything that we do.
The qualifications are: you must be an attorney who has had a distinguished career. Generally, it involves a person who has had experience as an attorney that shows progressive responsibility, and a long track record of work in the legal field. It is expected that a judge will be a person of high integrity and good character, a good temperament, fair, honest and impartial.
In terms of my life journey I graduated from Yale Law school in 1975 and I moved from New Haven Connecticut to Columbus to join Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease Law Firm. It was and still is one of the largest law firms in Columbus. I was the second black lawyer to work there. At that time, none of the black lawyers had become partners at that firm or any other major firm in Columbus. I worked there for about 3.5 years doing Corporate law. I applied for and obtained a position as a trial attorney at the United States Department of Justice in Washington, DC. I worked in the Civil Division Commercial litigation branch. I would represent the government when there was a commercial or contractual dispute. In the fall of 1980, I returned to “The Vorys” Firm. I became the first black partner in the law firm in January 1983. In 1986, I was one of 43 people who applied for a bankruptcy judge position. I was awarded the position. The appointment in the federal court of appeals is a 14-year term. I returned to Vorys, Sater in January of 1993. I planned to stay there until retirement. After about a year, I received a call from Judge Nathaniel Jones (1926 – 2020). He was judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. He told me he was considering going in senior status (semi-retirement), and some people thought that I would be a good candidate for nomination for the position. Initially, I wasn’t interested. He contacted me several times over the next 6 months. Eventually I gave in.
The process to become nominated is about 9 months. I met with Senator John Glen (Democrat). He was very supportive. Eventually, I met with then Senator Michael Dewine (Republican), who is now our governor. He did not oppose my nomination. I met with Congressman Stokes, labor leaders, newspaper people including Gil Price of the Call and Post. I was nominated by the President in 1995 because he knew the Senators supported me.
In August 15, 2014, I became the Chief Judge of the Sixth Circuit. It is a 7-year term.
What is the difference between the Chief Judge and the other Judges?
The Sixth Circuit covers Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals hears all appeals from the Federal District Courts in those 4 states. In Ohio, there are two different districts (northern and southern). Each district has a Chief Judge. The Chief Judge serves as the Chief Administrative Officer for all the federal courts, district judges, federal magistrates, and United States Bankruptcy judges, and federal public sectors.
Thanks for clearing that up. I figure if I don’t know, many others don’t know.
For the most part, we hear appeals in Cincinnati, Ohio. We don’t have any trials or hearings. The lawyers will come in and argue why they think the district court made an error of some sort and the other side will argue that no error was made. We hear four, five, or six appeals a day. The judges go in a conference room and discuss the appeals and try to reach a decision. Sometimes, we are unanimous. If there is a judge that disagrees, they can write a dissent. The judges return to their home location to write opinions with their law clerks.
What are a few of the obstacles you have had to overcome?
I was born in Birmingham, Alabama in the early 1950s. Birmingham was the epicenter for the worst of segregation in America. My family lived in the part of Birmingham called “Dynamite Hill.” It is where the Klu Klux Klan dynamited houses belonging to civil rights leaders, and others who were challenging Jim Crow Laws. It was understood that black people were to live on one side of the street called Center Street, but never move on the other side of Center Street. In the early 1950s, some black families began building on the other side of Center Street. That caused the Klan to drive through the neighborhood harassing people, shooting guns out the window, etc. There was no protection from the police. The police were known to drive through the neighborhood in police cars and police uniforms and often had their Klan gowns in the back seat or under the back window where you could see it. The men of the neighborhood had to arm themselves. They had to teach their children to be weary of white people in general.
All the schools I attended were completely segregated. Life in Birmingham was completely segregated. When I rode a bus, I had to sit in the back in the colored section. When you went shopping for clothes, black people could not try clothes on. You had to look at the clothes, decide they fit you, then buy them. The stores did not want the clothes to be on a black person’s body. The bathrooms in the department stores were clearly marked “colored” or “whites only.” There was usually a nice water fountain labeled “whites only” and an older dirty water fountain labeled “colored.”
My mother took me and my two brothers shopping. I was about 9. I told my mother I needed to use the bathroom. The colored only bathroom was closed for repairs. My mother went to talk to the white salesclerk to tell them that her son had to use the bathroom. The salesclerk said that’s just too bad because he can not use the whites only bathroom. My mother turned to me and said, “Well Guy, you have to use the bathroom and they won’t let you use the colored only, just go right here on the floor.”
I think that was just a dare. I don’t think she really meant it. It caused the white sales lady to say, “please don’t do that.” She looked around. Then she discretely walked me over the whites only bathroom and said, “I could use it but let’s make sure nobody sees it.”
We were taught in Elementary school how to fight off German Shepherds. German Shepherds were used to attack marchers and black people.
My best friend growing up was Jeff Drew. His father, John Drew, was a businessman who was very close to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When Dr. Marin Luther King Jr. came to Birmingham he couldn’t stay in the only black hotel because the Klan might cause him harm. He would stay with the Drews. They lived two houses over from where we lived. They could pull the cars behind the house so you couldn’t see that the cars were there. Many civil rights leaders would meet there to talk about how to confront segregation. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would come and watch us play football. He was getting some prominence, but he wasn’t yet a national figure.
I knew three of the four girls that were killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. I knew two of them quite well. I’m looking at a picture on my wall of two of them and me as kids. We were in a school play. Cynthia Westey lived next door to me. She was two years older than me. Carole Robertson, I knew as well. We moved in 1962 and that bombing was in 1963. That had a big impact on me.
We moved to New Haven, Connecticut. Many people thought that moving from the South to the North would avoid discrimination. In the North, discrimination was a little more subtle. I didn’t know any white person until I went to the seventh grade. The schools were integrated; but, within the schools, there was a lot of segregation. More of the black kids were in the vocational tracks. The white kids were in more academic tracks.
In 1968, I went to Tufts University. There was a lot of discrimination there because white schools were just starting to open their doors to black students. I have been reminded of being black at every stage of my life. I didn’t experience any discrimination from the other lawyers in the law firm, but I had a couple of client’s situations where I was reminded that I am black. One client turned to me once and said, “I smell a nigger in the woodshed.”
I remember looking at him as if to say, “what did you just say”? I remember meeting with him a little longer then telling him that wasn’t appropriate. I told the partner who handled that matter and the partner was sensitive to the situation. I had a couple of clients tell the partner that they didn’t want a black lawyer working on their matter. The law firm partners handled it well and were supportive of me.
What advice would you give a young person?
Make every effort to get a college degree or some type of skills or training that you can build upon to be able to support yourself and your family and to get satisfaction out of what you do. Challenge yourself in the face of opposition, maximize your opportunities, show people you have a strong work ethic. Be prepared for failure. We all fail at times. Be true to yourself. Work in honing your skills (continuing education). Find a good work/life balance. Ask for feedback so you can improve.
Hopefully, you will have someone in your life that is very supportive of you personally and professionally. I had the support of my parents, younger brothers, and wife Kathie who is your second cousin. Having a life partner that I can talk to about all aspects of life is a tremendous asset. I didn’t do this all on my own. For the last 36 years, having her support, has been instrumental.