Will Lawyers See A Difference As Fifth Circuit Swaps Chief Judges?
The chief-judge hat at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has changed heads to Judge Priscilla Owen of Austin after the retirement of former Chief Judge Carl Stewart.
On her first day on the job Tuesday, Owen told Texas Lawyer that she’s happy to assume the extra administrative responsibility of being the chief, although she acknowledged it’s a lot of extra hard work.
Texas Lawyer chatted with Owen about how she became chief judge, all of the duties that come with the new role, and the differences that attorneys may notice under her leadership. Here are Owen’s answers, edited for clarity and brevity.
How were you picked for this position?
It really wasn’t up to me. It’s a statutory change of command. A federal statute sets forth who is chief. Judge Stewart’s seven-year term ended yesterday, and under the statute, the judge in active service who has the most seniority and hasn’t reached the age of 65 becomes the chief judge. It’s statutory succession. No one can serve as chief judge past their 70th birthday, and I will be 70 in five years.
Can you explain exactly what a chief judge does?
Primarily the chief judge role is an administrative one. The chief judge has a lot of responsibilities. It’s for the whole circuit: not only the circuit judges, but the district court judges, all of the nonjudge judges who participate in the system. We have budget responsibility. If people complain about judges or other employees, there’s a grievance system the chief judge is more or less in charge of overseeing. The chief judge presides at oral arguments. There are all kinds of other things. For example, court-appointed attorney vouchers: We have a section of people at the Fifth Circuit who look at those and make determinations and recommendations about whether they should be paid in full.
What are some of your main goals to accomplish in this new role?
Do my job to the best of my abilities and hopefully do it confidently. The Fifth Circuit, we have a great staff in place, and have for quite a while, who assist the chief judge and all the other judges, for that matter, with a lot of things. It’s an administrative matter, essentially, to make sure the things that need to be taken care of are taken care of. There can be huge budgeting headaches—for example, I know Chief Judge Stewart had to deal with two government shutdowns. It’s just a matter of dealing responsibly with all the administrative issues that come up.
In what ways do you think attorneys will see differences?
Every judge has their own personality. I have served under Chief Judge Carolyn Dineen King and then Edith Jones and then Carl Stewart. They were all great chief judges, but they all had personalities and management styles that were different. The circuit was well run under all of them. From the attorneys’ perspective, what they might notice the most is who is presiding at their oral arguments. Beyond that, you would have to get in the weeds of what’s happening at the court.
How will the presiding judges at oral argument be different?
It will be the en banc oral arguments, and the three-judge panels that I sit on. We have multiple panels set at the same time. Sometimes we have five panels. If I’m on one of them, I’ll be presiding at that panel. I would be the one presiding at the en banc arguments.