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Reviewed by:
  • Federal Judges Revealed
  • Andrew J. Dunar
Federal Judges Revealed. By William Domnarski . New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 231 pp. Hardbound, $65.00.

William Domnarski, a lawyer who has practiced in federal courts and has written previously about courts and justices of the Supreme Court, uses oral histories to examine Article III judges—federal judges whose offices are established in Article III of the Constitution. Although there is a great deal of statistical information available about federal judges and their courts, Domnarski found that most publications are institutional in nature, and thus seldom examine the judges as individuals. He found the antidote to this omission in oral histories, many of which he found in Circuit Court libraries and historical societies, state historical societies, the Federal Judicial Center, and the Regional Oral History [End Page 212] Office at the University of California, Berkeley. He read over 100 oral histories from all sections of the nation, and cites 75 of them. The judges were near or at the end of their careers when interviewed, so the majority received their appointments to the federal bench in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Men dominated the federal judiciary in this era, but eleven of the interviewees cited are women. Some had national reputations (Robert Bork, Gerhardt Gessell, and Griffen Bell) and others won praise from their peers as model judges (Charles Merrill and Otto Skopil).

Domnarski relies wholly on oral histories, and in fact cites nothing else after the introduction. He occasionally summarizes observations from several oral histories, but more commonly allows the judges to speak for themselves, quoting sections that typically run a long paragraph or more. The interviews are candid, sometimes surprisingly so; many are self-critical and illustrate a willingness to criticize their peers. Domnarski attributes this to two factors. First, because they are near retirement from lifetime appointments, they "often seem to think of themselves as bulletproof" (84). Second, he credits interviewers who often had known the judges for some time, and thus had a facility for prompting revealing stories. (Despite this nod to interviewers, Domnarski names only one—Collins Fitzpatrick—in the text, notes, or bibliography. He also notes that the interviewers were of varying ability, not surprising given the range of collections.)

The first two chapters examine the judges' lives before appointment and emphasize unique childhoods and the variety of routes to the federal bench, demonstrating that although all became lawyers, their lives before law school reflected the variety of the American experience. Law school stories recall favorite professors. This was a different era, and some of the Harvard graduates remember when women visited classes, to the consternation of professors, some of whom offered their arm and formally escorted the young ladies out, told off-color stories until they left, or refused to speak at all until they departed. Some of the future judges were clearly destined for splendid careers, but others remember having to study more than their classmates. One confesses to being a slow reader. They found ways to survive the ordeal; one gained an edge over classmates by looking up every case his professors mentioned, even in passing.

All judges were attorneys prior to appointment to the bench. Some worked for large firms, some for small firms, and others began to practice on their own. Whatever their situation may have been, most at some point ran into something for which they had no background—in some instances, these were actually routine matters, and secretaries came to their aid, but in others they learned crucial lessons through such challenges. Appointment to the bench required political endorsement. Some set their eyes on the bench and cultivated powerful politicians; others had not aspired to become judges and received summoning calls that surprised them. But many [End Page 213] appointment stories were complex, and judges remembered them in detail, since appointment was a high point in the life of most every judge.

The most revealing chapters are the last four—half the chapters, but only a third of the book. These chapters discuss the nature of the job, comment on judicial processes and practices at the appellate courts, and offer observations on lawyers and judges. Many find the...


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pp. 212-214
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2020
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