Academic journal article Journal of Appellate Practice and Process

A Judicial Secretary's Many Roles: Working with an Appellate Judge and Clerks

Academic journal article Journal of Appellate Practice and Process

A Judicial Secretary's Many Roles: Working with an Appellate Judge and Clerks

Article excerpt


A judge's chambers has been said to "consist of loosely organized relationships between judges and their staff and among the members of the staff." (1) Despite its "bureaucratization, a result in part of increasing numbers of personnel, (2) the environment remains one of work "in small, isolated chambers with a minimum of work contacts outside," and the relationships within chambers have been called "the most intense and mutually dependent ... outside of marriage, parenthood, or a love affair." (3)

It goes without saying that secretaries are a key part of any office; that is no less true of the office ("chambers") of judges. Yet in the literature on judges, secretaries are almost totally invisible, receiving little more than passing reference in some judicial biographies. One cannot examine a judge's chambers, including the judge's relations with clerks, without also looking at the judge's secretaries, with whom the clerks also interact and who often supervise the clerks. This Article is an attempt to increase the visibility of judges' secretaries and to provide at least an initial picture of their work. To do so, we explore the chambers of one appellate judge, Alfred T. Goodwin, a member of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit since 1971, and before that, a state trial judge, a member of the Oregon Supreme Court, and a federal district judge in Oregon.

This Article is based on interviews with a half-dozen of Judge Goodwin's secretaries; casual conversations with several of them; a 1995 survey of the judge's clerks; (4) extended conversations with the judge as part of the author's on-going research on the Ninth Circuit; and in-chambers observation of interactions of judge, secretaries, and clerks during several months in one year and over one-week periods in several other years.

Secretaries and clerks may be attracted to a judge of a particular ideology and temperament. Judge Goodwin is a pragmatic moderate who is thought to be easy to work for and who gives his secretaries and clerks considerable autonomy to carry out their tasks. Because of the variability in judges' uses of, and interaction with, their secretaries and clerks, one should be cautious about over-generalizing based on the description of one judge's chambers. However, the reported experiences of the several secretaries and large number of clerks who served Judge Goodwin provide a far richer picture than was previously available of in-chambers working relationships, and they also spotlight the secretaries who are such a crucial part of the judicial family.

The Article begins with a description of the number of people in the judge's chambers, both secretaries and clerks. It then turns to an examination of judge-secretary interactions and then to interactions between secretaries and law clerks. The latter examination includes some observations about law clerk selection; primary attention is given to the secretary's important roles as gatekeeper and as "traffic cop" directing work to clerks.


Most judges' chambers have changed over time through the addition of personnel. During his initial appellate service, on the Oregon Supreme Court, Justice Goodwin had one clerk and one secretary. When he moved to the United States District Court, he started with one secretary and a clerk-bailiff in addition to his regular clerk, but he then added a second clerk. The two-clerk situation carried over when he joined the Ninth Circuit, but in due course the number of clerks grew to three, and for a brief period, there were four. The judge continued with three clerks when he took senior status in 1991 after having served as chief judge. In addition, from time to time, law students worked for a semester as "externs" in his chambers.

Well into his court of appeals service, he obtained a half-secretary line to assist with his work as the court's en banc coordinator, and that line grew into a full-time second secretary position. …

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