9th Circuit’s James Browning Dies

Judge James R. Browning

[UPDATED]  Judge James R. Browning, considered the face of the nation’s largest federal appellate court, died on Saturday.  He was 93.

Browning served on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for 50 years, the longest tenure in the court’s history, and the San Francisco courthouse was named in his honor.

Browning, of Great Falls, Montana, was the last remaining circuit appointee of President John F. Kennedy.  He was nominated by Kennedy in September 1961 after working in private practice in Montana.  Prior to that he served in the Justice Department’s antitrust division.

He served as the 9th Circuit’s chief judge from 1976-1988, during a tumultuous period of efforts by Congress to split the circuit court.  It was Browning’s ability to navigate the political sensitivities and his constant smile and charm that helped hold the circuit together.  He was nicknamed “Tiny” as a child and stood just 5-foot, 2-inches as an adult.

“Judge Browning had a combination of charm, resolve, intellect, and an absence of guile that made for very effective leadership,” said Arthur Hellman, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who has studied and written about the court extensively.

Hellman said of Browning, “He’d start by saying, ‘I want to persuade you that …,’ and then he’d explain, step by step, why you should do something or take some position. And you’d end up thinking: ‘Of course that’s what I want to do.’”

“Perhaps the most dramatic manifestation of his leadership skills came in the late 1970s, when he was trying to stave off the division of the circuit. He managed to get all 18 Senators from the nine states of the Ninth Circuit – Democrats and Republicans – to sign a letter urging Congress to create new judgeships for the circuit immediately and put off consideration of a circuit split. And he was successful: that is what Congress did,” said Hellman.

Browning had a peculiar claim to fame prior to joining the court.  He can be seen in the famous photos of Kennedy’s swearing in ceremony holding the Bible as the Chief Justice administers the oath to Kennedy.  Browning was the clerk of the Supreme Court at the time and it was traditional for the clerk of the court to hold the Bible.

But the tradition ended with Browning.  All later Presidents found it a perfect spot to highlight the First Lady.

He is credited with much of the modernization of the court that allowed for streamlining procedures and reduction of case backlogs that stopped much of the pressure to split the court.  He was also a staunch advocate of fully computerizing the court’s docket and presided over its expansion in the number of judges on the court, nearly doubling in their numbers.

Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who served on the 9th Circuit with Browning before joining the high court, said, “After the Loma Prieta earthquake, the Courthouse that was the center for the Ninth Circuit was closed for years of renovation and reconstruction.  As Chief Judge, Jim Borwning moved quickly to find temporary office and courtroom space in that city, insuring that San Francisco would remain the real, as well as the official, headquarters of a federal circuit of immense size and influence.  He succeeded in all respects.”

“Her loved the Ninth Circuit and was devoted to maintaining its cohesion, its collegiality and its judicial excellence,” Kennedy said.

Despite his recognition on the court, Browning’s 1961 nomination was opposed by sitting Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, and he received a “not qualified” rating from the American Bar Association.

Browning was a friend of the news media and consistently urged his colleagues to open the court to the news media and wider coverage of the workings of the court.


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