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One of the nation’s pioneering female judges, Judge Gladys Kessler of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, will take senior status in January, creating the first vacancy on that court in four years. Kessler, who was appointed to the 15-member court in 1994 by President Bill Clinton, says her decision was a personal one and had nothing to do with political considerations or the recent completion of her 1,756-page opinion in the Justice Department’s racketeering case against the tobacco industry. Though taking senior status means judges can decrease their caseload, Kessler says she plans to remain busy. “I’ll never give up my work,” she says. The White House has yet to name a nominee for Kessler’s slot, but previous nominees have largely been drawn from the ranks of the D.C. Superior Court, the Justice Department, or from private practice in Washington. Many are former prosecutors — which is considered to be a key selling point in any nomination. Some of the names being bandied about by Republican lawyers are those of Superior Court Judges Maurice Ross, Robert Rigsby, and Erik Christian; White House counsel Dabney Friedrich; and Courtney Elwood, deputy chief of staff to the U.S. attorney general. Nominations for federal district court judgeships tend to be far less politicized than those on the appellate level. The Bush administration’s four previous nominees to the D.C. District Court — Reggie Walton, John Bates, Richard Leon, and Rosemary Collyer — easily won confirmation, even when the Democrats briefly controlled the Senate from May 2001 to January 2003. Normally, the White House Counsel’s Office, which approves and vets nominees, relies on input from U.S. senators from the state where the vacancy is. In D.C., Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) was given senatorial courtesy during the Clinton administration and organized a commission that interviewed and recommended nominees to the bench. But the commission ended when George W. Bush was elected in 2000. In a statement by Norton’s spokeswoman Doxie McCoy, Norton said she had maintained some involvement when the Democrats controlled Congress and would “seek the same arrangement again” with incoming Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). THE ROAD TO TOBACCO Kessler, 68, was among the first wave of women coming out of law school and has spent more than four decades as a prominent advocate for women, minorities, and civil rights. “She has a powerful commitment to justice,” says Florence Roisman, a law professor at Indiana University Law School who has known Kessler since high school. On the federal bench, Kessler is best known for presiding over one of the largest civil cases in legal history, the 1999 racketeering lawsuit against the tobacco industry, in which she recently wrote one of the most detailed and scathing accounts of the industry’s attempt to hide the harmful health consequences of smoking. In recent years, she also has paid great attention to the cases of detainees at Guant�namo Bay and others detained by the United States since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. For instance, in 2002 she ordered the Justice Department to release the names, circumstances of arrest of, and attorneys for those detained in the United States after 9/11. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit overturned her in a 2-1 decision. Kessler began her career in 1962 as an attorney with the National Labor Relations Board and then worked as a legislative assistant in both the House and Senate. In the late 1960s, she co-founded a public interest law firm, then known as Berlin, Roisman & Kessler, where she built a reputation defending women’s rights and civil rights, among other areas. She also was a founding member of what is now known as the National Partnership for Women & Families. This work won Kessler the favor of the Carter White House, which, in 1977, appointed her to D.C. Superior Court. In 1981, Kessler took the helm of the court’s family division, which oversaw everything from child custody to domestic violence cases. As the presiding judge of the section, Kessler displayed a managerial acumen that has left its imprint on the way the court and the city handle family and child law today. For instance, Kessler reorganized how judges handled abuse and neglect cases so that they remained in the hands of a single judge. And she was part of a team of judges and attorneys that wrote uniform guidelines for child-support calculations that were eventually adopted by the D.C. Council. Kessler also was one of the early proponents of alternative dispute resolution, helping to carve out such a system in Superior Court. Although she runs an efficient and strict courtroom, Kessler always keeps an eye on how a case or sentence would affect children, defendants, and their families, attorneys and former clerks say. “She was very much a straight shooter. You may not have agreed with where she came out on things, but she has a great deal of integrity,” says Brenda Smith, a law professor at American University, who clerked for Kessler in 1984. Former clerks say Kessler was a demanding boss, but one who always took a strong interest in mentoring clerks, many of whom she stayed close with long after they left her chambers. Outside the courthouse, Kessler has maintained close involvement with many of the social issues she once championed as an attorney. For example, she is a board member for Our Place, DC, which helps support women who have been incarcerated, and the Frederick B. Abramson Memorial Foundation, which gives scholarships to D.C. students and awards public interest law fellowships. VACANCY SIGN In the meantime, it’s unlikely any nominations will move forward until the new Democratic-controlled Congress begins work next year. Judges Ross, Rigsby, and Christian were all appointed to the Superior Court by the Bush administration. Before joining the bench, Ross worked in the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility. He is a Washington native and has served as a prosecutor in the D.C. U.S. Attorney’s Office and as senior counsel for Freddie Mac. Rigsby, whose wife, Anna Blackburne-Rigsby, was recently appointed to the D.C. Court of Appeals, was corporation counsel for the District from 2000 until his confirmation two years later. He is a former assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Virginia and served in the Judge Advocate General Corps from 1987 to 1992. Christian, who joined the court in 2001, was a legal counsel to Mayor Anthony Williams and served as deputy mayor for public safety. From 1989 to 1995 he was a prosecutor in the D.C. U.S. Attorney’s Office, and later was appointed to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Virgin Islands. Friedrich, who is in the White House Counsel’s Office, served as a clerk to now Chief Judge Thomas Hogan from 1992 to 1994. She was an assistant U.S. attorney in San Diego and the Eastern District of Virginia before joining Sen. Orrin Hatch’s (R-Utah) staff on the Judiciary Committee in 2002. Elwood clerked for former Chief Justice William Rehnquist of the Supreme Court and Judge J. Michael Luttig of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. She worked at Kellogg, Huber, Hansen, Todd, Evans & Figel from 1996 to 2001, and then joined the White House Counsel’s Office. In 2002 she went to work at the vice president’s office, where she served until taking a job with Justice last year. She is married to John Elwood, a lawyer in the solicitor general’s office.
Emma Schwartz can be contacted at [email protected].

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