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Four Federal Judges Talk about Their Journey to the Bench

Rachel Pereira


  • The American Bar Association has consistently reiterated the need for diversity within various ranks of the legal profession, from law school through the bench.
  • I interviewed three sitting members of the federal courts of appeals and one federal district court judge to find out about their journey to the bench, in an effort to demystify the process for lawyers considering serving in the judiciary.
  • All four judges were enthusiastic about their work and encourage others who are considering service in the judiciary to stay the course and persevere.
Four Federal Judges Talk about Their Journey to the Bench
gorodenkoff via Getty Images

The American Bar Association has consistently reiterated the need for diversity within various ranks of the legal profession, from law school through the bench. The commitment to ensuring that varied perspectives are considered and honored is critical at the judicial level. I interviewed three sitting members of the federal courts of appeals and one federal district court judge to find out about their journey to the bench, in an effort to demystify the process for lawyers considering serving in the judiciary. I spoke with Judge Denny Chin (Second Circuit Court of Appeals), Judge George Daniels (Southern District of New York), Judge Joseph Greenaway (Third Circuit Court of Appeals), and Judge Theodore McKee (Third Circuit Court of Appeals). All four judges were enthusiastic about their work and encourage others who are considering service in the judiciary to stay the course and persevere.

The pathway to the bench has been described as a wonderful and grueling process. What was your process like?

Judge Greenaway: Everyone has a different story. I was contacted by a member of the search committee, because my name had come up, and was asked if I was interested. That part was easy. The arduous part was once the process started. Although it was rewarding in the end, the process was lengthy. However, along the way, you find out there are a lot of people who like you as a person and consider you to be someone who will be the torch bearer of justice.

Judge Chin: There really are two aspects to one’s “pathway to the bench.” The first, of course, is the big picture—my family, including my grandfather and parents who led the way for me; my schooling and experiences in life that helped shaped me; and the different positions I held in the law—from clerking to being in private practice to serving as an assistant U.S. attorney. All of these were part of my pathway to the bench. The second aspect is the nomination and confirmation process. I went through this twice. The district court process was relatively smooth. The circuit court process was more complicated, as circuit court candidates are subject to greater scrutiny and politics are more of a factor. The circuit court process was more grueling at times, and it took far longer than it should have. But in the end, I was confirmed for the Second Circuit 98–0.

Judge Daniels: My process to become a federal judge included building skill and experience; developing both legal and personal skills, particularly effective communication skills. The process of obtaining a judgeship includes developing legal skills, demonstrating to others your strengths, and the politics of being known and respected for who you are and what you do. Whether you are appointed or elected to a judgeship, the process of exposing oneself for such scrutiny can be demanding but worthwhile and rewarding.

How and when did you know you wanted to transition from the practice of law to serving as a judge?

Judge Chin: I knew I wanted to be a judge even before I became a lawyer. After my first year of law school, I interned for Judge Henry Werker in the Southern District of New York. I loved the experience—I saw some trials, including a bank robbery trial; I drafted some opinions for the judge; and I saw justice in action. I decided that someday I would come back and be a judge myself.

Judge Greenaway: When someone asked me. Becoming a judge wasn’t an ambition I had before it was suggested that I consider it.

Judge McKee: When I was in the City Solicitor’s Office, I had the opportunity to work in a court system that allowed me to see immediately how working with a good judge could make all the difference for the people in the cases I worked on. I was involved in some abandoned city projects (homestead housing). The judge I worked with was so perceptive and knew exactly what the legislation was designed to do; if we had the wrong judge it could have gone wrong. Once I realized the power of a perceptive judge to make change, I felt that it might be something I too wanted to do.

What were some of the personal and character-building challenges you faced that prepared you to serve on the bench?

Judge Daniels: Objectivity is one of the most important aspects of being a good judge; this comes from understanding each party’s perspective. The greatest challenge is being able to represent a variety of opposing perspectives and to understand and empathize with the rich and the poor, the accused and the prosecutor, the individual and the corporation, the perpetrator and the victim. Learning to see the world through eyes other than your own is both challenging and skill building.

Judge Greenaway: Everything you’ve experienced in life before you get on the bench prepares you for the bench. Being in house prepared me the most for the bench because seeing the inner workings of a Fortune 500 company is great preparation for commercial litigation. Nothing quite prepares you for sentencing; learning to be humble is a great trait to have.

Judge Chin: The challenges began early—we came to this country from Hong Kong in 1956. My parents spoke little or no English. My father was a cook in Chinese restaurants, and my mother was a seamstress in Chinatown garment factories. So we had little money, but my parents stressed education and hard work—and things turned out OK.

Do you recall a memorable experience in your nascent period as a judge? What was it like for you the first few times everyone in the room considered you “the” judge?

Judge McKee: It felt weird; it was humbling and embarrassing. It took me a while to get used it. My first courtroom was basically a closet. The defense table was no more than 15 feet away from me. It took the gild off of the lily. People were so obsequious.

Judge Daniels: The transition from being a lawyer to becoming a judge is demanding. You transition from having personal and professional allegiances to an individual client, to committing oneself to the rule of law. I always remember being advised by a colleague when I first became a judge. I was frustrated because I had gotten into an argument with a lawyer in court. My colleague said, “If you never remember anything else, remember this: You don’t have to argue with anyone. You are the judge.” It emphasizes the power of the position that I should use rather than abuse.

Judge Chin: I do remember early on going to receptions and bar association meetings and suddenly being the center of attention. There also was some awkwardness as acquaintances weren’t sure what to call me. But you get used to it. One memorable experience as a new judge was the Megan’s Law case involving the constitutionality of the sex offender registration statute, as I found myself at the center of a controversial, high-profile case. When I ruled that certain aspects of the statute were unconstitutional, many disagreed with my decision. Indeed, the Daily News even gave me a nickname—“Denny ‘The Pervert’s Pal’ Chin.”

What resources or experiences would you suggest to lawyers who are considering a career in the judiciary?

Judge McKee: Getting here is so intricate, it depends on so many factors other than the aspiration. Do the kinds of things that enhance your reputation for integrity and excellence. Do what is professionally rewarding and makes you happy.

Judge Greenaway: Think about what judges do. Many people want to be judges because they think it is a prestigious job that will make life easier, or it’s hard work but it’s better than billing hours. Talk to judges and find out exactly what they do and how they go about it. I’d advise that you look before you leap. Get involved in the federal bar, the bar associations. Get involved in committees that bring you in touch with judges so that you can see and hear about the inner workings of the courts.

Judge Daniels: My advice for young lawyers who might want a career in the judiciary would be first find an area of the law that you enjoy and are good at, demonstrate publicly the skill you have developed, and let it be known that you have an interest in a judicial career. You never know who can be helpful and when an opportunity will present itself. Success is usually when skill and opportunity meet.

What has surprised you most about the judiciary since your appointment?

Judge Daniels: Two things surprised me the most—first, that there are still so many laws and situations that present novel questions or where reasonable minds can disagree. I have learned that there are very few right answers. There are instead answers that work and answers that do not. I have also realized that I cannot always expect others to agree with me, be appreciative of my efforts, or be happy about the result. Litigants do not come to court happy, and the only time both sides go away happy is when I perform a wedding. Otherwise, there usually is a happy winner and an unhappy loser.

Judge Chin: I was most surprised at first by how isolating it is to be a judge. At a law firm or in a law department, you have partners, associates, colleagues, support staff. A district judge works independently, with a staff of only four people. The circuit court is less isolating, as we sit in panels of three judges and we work together much more.

Judge McKee: On the federal side—the process; it’s very impressive. If people truly understood how much thought went into the process of deciding cases and drafting opinions, they would be happy. State side—sentencing was very difficult; the emotional difficulty of sentencing is taxing.

How do you handle the need to be an “expert” in all areas of the law on the federal bench?  

Judge Greenaway: I don’t think you handle it; it’s part of what is intrinsically humbling about the job. You have to pick up a new case and learn a new business and process. You have to be willing to say you don’t understand. It’s the blessing and the curse of the job to continually learn. When you are constantly bombarded with new information, it makes you more humble.

Judge Chin: One of the things I’ve enjoyed the most about being a judge is the variety—it is fun to be exposed to so many areas of the law and so many different aspects of society. You have to listen carefully to the lawyers, who usually are specialists, and you have to work hard to learn the new areas.

Judge Daniels: As a federal judge, I am a specialist in nothing but expected to be an expert in everything. Usually, a skilled lawyer is expected to know a lot about a little bit. A judge is expected to know a little bit about a lot.

If you could have any other profession, what would it be?

Judge Greenaway: I long ago gave up on my hope to become a professional baseball player; I would be a full-time professor.

Judge Chin: I almost went into teaching and I’ve always enjoyed teaching. The other possibility is writing—it would be great fun to be a novelist or screenwriter.

Judge McKee: A woodworker, although I wouldn’t enjoy getting rid of the object once I made it.

How do you remain neutral when dealing with issues that have personal significance to you or on which you hold a strong opinion?

Judge Chin: One thing I’ve learned is that judges can’t be result-oriented. Judges can’t be “lawless” in the sense that they must apply the law even if the end result is not what they would personally want. If you follow the rule of law rather than your own personal preferences in any particular case, justice will be better served in the long run.  

Judge Greenaway: I don’t find that difficult; not because we merely call balls and strikes, but because as judges you get used to the idea that the only thing that matters in decision making is the record before you. Our entire system relies on neutrality. Personal feelings must be of absolutely no consequence.

What is something that your clerks would say is the most unique aspect of your approach to the bench?  

Judge McKee: I don’t take myself too seriously.

Judge Chin: Perhaps that I have a Ping-Pong table in chambers.   

What is your “pre-game” ritual before you take the bench, if you would care to share? Athletes have musical playlists, and RBG does her push-ups. What’s yours?

Judge Chin: In the circuit court, my pre-game ritual has two steps. First, I finalize my binder—a three-ring binder that has a section for each case on the calendar that day (typically, five or six cases). I put my bench memos or draft summary orders and notes into the binder. Second, I put my briefs together for my clerks to take to the courtroom, with a rubber band around each set of briefs. Then, at 9:55 a.m., with five minutes to spare, I head to the courtroom.

Judge McKee: I get up and work out in the morning. I also make a cheat sheet of my cases beforehand and I review the cheat sheet—ironic that I make the cheat sheet because I find that I never need to use it on the bench.