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Leonidas Ralph Mecham, the feisty director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts for the past 20 years, is retiring at age 77. He has reigned over the administrative side of the judicial branch with a strong, behind-the-scenes hand. Case in point: no formal announcement of his retirement plans was made. But on Dec. 15, the Supreme Court announced that applications for his job are being accepted. Mecham will serve until Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. names a replacement. Salary will be $165,200, equal to what district court judges will earn as of Jan. 1. Sitting judges are eligible without losing their seats, so rumors have already centered on Jane Roth, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, and Barbara Rothstein, a federal district judge in Washington state who currently heads the Federal Judicial Center, as possible candidates. Mecham fought hard for judicial pay increases and presided over a huge expansion in courthouse construction and technology. The total space occupied by the judiciary tripled to 38 million square feet under his tenure, and the budget increased fivefold to $5.4 billion. In 1994, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said the new courthouses were “fit more for kings than judges.” Mecham was a zealous — some said too zealous — defender of the judiciary whenever his judges were criticized. Terry Carter of the ABA Journal once described Mecham lyrically as “the bulldog under the courthouse porch steps.” In 2002, when the Community Rights Counsel and the American Bar Association questioned the propriety of judicial seminars sponsored by interest groups, Mecham fired off an internal memo blasting the ABA and accusing the CRC of pursuing a “very clear-cut philosophical and economic agenda.” CRC founder Douglas Kendall hopes the next director will be “more inclined to respond constructively to valid criticism.” Mecham had critics within the judiciary as well, but 4th Circuit Chief Judge William Wilkins lauded Mecham for guiding the judiciary through tough budget times, adding, “Being the administrator is a tough job, and it takes a tough man. He was never timid.” Mecham was unavailable for comment.
Tony Mauro can be contacted at [email protected].

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