U.S. District Judge Richard Story says his decision to take senior status after 20 years on the federal bench won’t suddenly reduce his caseload.
But he said his decision will likely result in more help for him and his judicial colleagues in the Northern District of Georgia.
The district no longer has the deep bench it once had of senior judges who carried substantial caseloads despite their semi-retired status. “There was a time on this court when we had more senior judges who were working and taking cases than we had active judges,” he said. “That is now far from the case.”
Yet, he continued, “The press of the docket just continues to grow. And the only way we can get help, quite honestly, is if someone takes senior status, continues to hear cases, and we can get an additional judge.”
“Our court is a very busy court,” he reflected. “Anything that can help with that load is good. For me, it almost became a no-brainer. This was a great way to improve my situation and, hopefully, make the court’s situation a little better as well.”
Besides, the judge added, the commute from Gainesville 60 miles north of Atlanta—where he and his family live and he began his judicial career—now eats up four to five hours a day. Audiobooks ease the daily journey, he said. “But it doesn’t solve the problem.”
“I come in very, very early to beat the traffic. … But there is no good time to leave in the afternoon. … You sit there thinking about the hours of your life that you are sitting in a car.”
Story, who was a Hall County Superior Court judge when President Bill Clinton appointed him to the federal bench in 1998, said he notified President Donald Trump on Aug. 20 that he will take senior status beginning Dec. 1. The judge turned 65 in May.
Beginning at age 65, a federal judge may retire at his or her current salary or take senior status after performing 15 years of active service, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts website. “Senior judges, who essentially provide volunteer service to the courts, typically handle about 15 percent of the federal courts’ workload annually,” the site reports.
Now a grandfather, Story said that taking senior status also will give him more freedom to focus on his family and attend events involving his grandchildren that “are so important to me.”
He professes no immediate plans to reprise his role as Atticus Finch, whom he portrayed in a 2007 theatrical version of “To Kill a Mockingbird” wearing an off-white summer suit, suspenders and Atticus’s trademark horn-rimmed glasses.
Taking senior status, he said, will give him more freedom to focus on the district’s Gainesville division, where Story became chief judge after U.S. District Senior Judge William O’Kelley—who presided over the division for decades—died last year.
Story expects to continue carrying a full caseload until he concludes and closes approximately 350 active civil cases, 60 criminal cases and a massive multidistrict product liability litigation involving more than 1,300 cases against Johnson & Johnson and its corporate subsidiary, Ethicon, over faulty hernia mesh that are currently assigned to him.
About 180 of those cases and the hernia mesh litigation are situated in Atlanta so he says, “I won’t be disappearing” from the downtown Atlanta courthouse for a while.
“My hope, in all honesty and this may be overly optimistic, is that, by late spring or summer, I might actually be able to tell a difference,” he said. “My goal is that by next spring or summer to feel that things have really changed.”