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Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. announced Thursday that he had picked James Duff, managing partner of the D.C. office of Baker Donelson, to run the judicial branch as the next director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Duff, 53, is a popular and familiar face at the sprawling judiciary, having served as administrative assistant to the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist from 1996 to 2000. There, Duff won praise as a low-key team player and a skillful behind-the-scenes negotiator. Duff was a close witness to history when he served as aide-de-camp to Rehnquist while the chief justice presided over the 1999 Senate impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton. “This is a bit like coming home,” said Duff after Roberts made the announcement before hundreds of administrative office employees in the atrium of the Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building. Duff will replace Leonidas Ralph Mecham, who has held the job for 20 years with a sometimes-combative style. Mecham, who is retiring when Duff takes over, was given a standing ovation. During a rare briefing for the press at the Supreme Court after the announcement, Roberts praised Mecham but said Duff’s arrival represents “a good chance for a fresh start and a renewed effort” to improve relations and address “tensions and disagreements” between the judiciary and Congress. Members of both houses, mostly Republicans, have been critical of the judiciary in recent years for exerting too much power over the elected branches and for operating with little or no accountability. For varying reasons, bills that are unappealing to many in the judiciary have gained support if not passage in recent years, including one that would bar citation of foreign law in cases and another that would hasten camera access into federal court proceedings. Congress also controls the $5 billion-plus budget of the judiciary. Mindful of the strained relations with Capitol Hill, Roberts said he and the search committee he named to find a replacement for Mecham had consulted with members of Congress as well as judges and others throughout the judicial branch. At all times during the search, Roberts said, Duff got universal high marks. “I was a bit concerned when all they got was praise,” Roberts joked. Duff agonized over whether to take the job, which means a sharp pay cut for the father of three. As head of the administrative office, his salary is pegged to that of a federal district court judge, now set at $165,200. Last year, according to listings in The American Lawyer magazine, the profit per partner at the Memphis, Tenn.-based Baker Donelson was $400,000. Roberts praised Duff for “being willing to undertake the sacrifice.” Duff said increasing judicial salaries, enhancing security for judges and courts, and separation-of-powers issues were top priorities for him. His first introduction to the judiciary came when he was a student at Georgetown University Law Center. Duff worked as an aide to then-Chief Justice Warren Burger from 1975 to 1979. He then went into private practice at Clifford & Warnke, where he worked until 1991, when most of the firm merged with Howrey & Simon. Rehnquist hired him in 1996 as an administrative assistant. One of Duff’s most delicate tasks in that role came early in his tenure. Muslim organizations objected to the depiction of the prophet Muhammad on the 60-year-old marble friezes on the upper walls of the Supreme Court chamber. Muslim precepts forbid images of Muhammad, and some groups insisted that the Court remove or sandblast the image, part of a frieze that depicts lawgivers throughout history. The Court refused to change the frieze, but Duff won high marks for defusing the dispute in talks with Muslim organizations. As a result of those negotiations, the Court agreed to make changes in its literature and displays to acknowledge the objections and make it clear that no offense was intended by the frieze. Tony Mauro can be contacted at [email protected]

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