A Look Back at 45 Years William J. Riley Hangs Up His Robes 7/14/17 07/13/17 11:54:55 PM
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A back hallway in Judge Riley’s office is lined with certificates received when he became a circuit judge, then Chief Judge, then appointed to the Judicial Conference Executive Committee.
A Look Back at 45 Years
William J. Riley Hangs Up His Robes
By Lorraine Boyd
The Daily Record
He’s the living example of Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote: “If you want something done, ask a busy person.”
William Jay Riley has been a very busy person since his graduation from the University of Nebraska College of Law in 1972.
Following a stint as law clerk to 8th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Donald Lay, the Lincoln native joined the firm of Fitzgerald, Schorr, Barmettler & Brennan in 1973, making partner in 1979, and leaving only to don the robes of an 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals judge in 2001.
His workload was to get even heavier when he was chosen the 8th Circuit’s Chief Judge in 2010. The appointment came as no surprise to at least one person: Judge C. Arlen Beam predicted at Riley’s investiture in 2001 that he would serve as Chief Judge “no later than 2010.”
The year 2001 was momentous for Riley. As president of the Oma-ha Bar Association that year, he coordinated, with The Daily Record, a dinner and tour of the new Roman L. Hruska Federal Courthouse in April. In June, he was nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals. Then tragedy struck in the fall of 2001, as terrorists attacked on September 11. One week later, Riley was sworn in as an appeals judge.
Was the job what he had expected?
“No. I [had] clerked for Judge Lay from 1972 to ’73. It was so different than what it was then. The cases are different, the legal issues are different. Much more variety now. I always say I thought I had a broad practice as a civil trial lawyer, but I found that 95 percent of what I do now I’d never done before.
“There was a huge learning curve for a year and a half, two years. I was working seven days a week, 7 in the morning to 7 in the evening, then taking work home. I called Circuit Judge Kermit Bye in North Dakota, and asked him, ‘Does this ever get easier?’ He said, ‘Give it two years.’ He was right. After about 1 ½ to 2 years things started becoming repetitive. So my time commitment dropped precipitously.”
What was the most surprising thing about his job as Chief Judge in 2010?
“The amount of work. By that I mean decisions that had to be made. The Chief Judge has so many things he [or she] is responsible for. The whole 8th circuit. Not just the Court of Appeals, but the district courts, the magistrate courts, the bankruptcy courts and the public defenders,” Riley said.
And in addition, he serves on the Judicial Conference of the United States in Washington, D.C., which meets twice a year. Riley was appointed by then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist and reappointed by Chief Justice John Roberts to serve on the Criminal Law Committee of the Judicial Conference.
“So all of that administrative work and decision-making was the biggest surprise – the quantity of it.”
Best and WorstWhat have been the best and worst things about his time on the bench?
“The worst first: the isolation. Particularly as a court of appeals or appellate judge. I do not have the opportunity to be with lawyers or clients or juries and so forth that a lawyer would have. We have a group of four lawyers – law clerks – and my judicial assistant. That’s all we have here every day, except for eight times a year, when we have a court week somewhere. Then we’ll see some other judges and staff.
“So, the worst thing is that you are functioning almost alone.”
The best thing: “One, the intellectual challenge of all the different issues and the variety of legal issues and factual issues that we address every day. Separate from that, the family atmosphere that you generate with your staff.
“When I hire law clerks, they are all very bright, but one of the most important things to me is: ‘Do I like this person? Would we get along well, would they get along with the others in the office?’ If I’m successful at that, we have a great team!”
Mentors and MentoringRiley worked with some heavy hitters at Fitzgerald Schorr, including Joe Barmettler and Judge Lyle Strom. We asked him what he learned from them.
“Working with Lyle Strom was a huge benefit. I was fairly young and only worked with him for 12 years, before he became a judge. Then there was Bill Brennan, who was between us in age, and they were both mentors who taught me so many things about the law and the practice of law, how to try a case and how to take a deposition and also how to deal with people.
“I learned a lot from them. Also from Joe Barmettler and Jim Brown. And all of that I put to use as a circuit judge and as a Chief Judge.”
In fact, it may be a record that the Barmettler firm can claim three sitting federal judges among their alums. Besides Strom and Riley, Thomas Saladino is a U.S. Bankruptcy Judge.
He also learned a lot from his many years as a decorated Boy Scout leader.
“I had two jobs where I had to manage and organize people: as a scout master and as manager of our law firm.
“As Chief Judge I had much broader and more diverse responsibilities, but I think what I had learned from scouting about dealing with people, and reaching a consensus when you can, was probably a huge benefit when I became Chief Judge, because I had to do that all the time.”
Just as he was mentored by such illustrious lawyers, Riley was determined to make sure young lawyers experienced the same kind of mentoring. When Judge Strom set up the local Inns of Court, Riley was a charter member.
“It’s important to have mentors. That’s one of the main things we do at Inns of Court. I‘m stepping down as a counselor now, but for years I’ve been a counselor, kind of a supervisory person. The purpose was mentoring young lawyers and law students, and of course all of us learned something at the meetings.
“Mentoring is very important, particularly for young people.”
Another way he mentored was by teaching. He has taught trial practice/trial advocacy at the Creighton and University of Nebraska law schools since 1991.
“I often learned as much from the students as I did from myself. I had to prepare. The students so creative. They would do things that I would not think of, but when they did it, in the back of my mind I thought, Wow, this works! I’m going to use it.”
Asked if he had advice for future judges, he said, “I’d give them the same advice that Judge Van Pelt gave to Judge Strom, and Judge Strom to me: Be yourself.”
“Judge Strom said to me, ‘Bill Riley got you this job. Bill Riley should continue to be the person working in this job.’ I’ve given that advice a few times. Don’t change. Don’t get filled with yourself.”
He pulled out a small statue of a dog wearing a plaque around its neck. On one side it said “Lawyer” and on the other “Judge.” The friend who gifted it to him said, “This is to remind you to be a lawyer, not a judge.”
Asked if he could share some memorable cases, Riley said, “When I was a trial lawyer I had what I called a ‘bathtub memory.’ When I got done with a case, I pulled the plug and it was gone.
“As a circuit judge, I could also serve as a district judge, so I had some jury trials, about one to six a year until I became Chief Judge.”
What You Might Not KnowWhen we noted that “Googling” his name didn’t turn up too much, he said that was good, because federal judges are told not to do much social media, including Facebook. Law clerks are cautioned not to reveal details of the location and time of court proceedings. Part of that is security. Ironically, his son Kevin is a “Googler,” who works for the company.
But he said there are a couple of things we might not know that we should know about him.
“All circuit chief judges served on the Judicial Conference; there are 20 some judges on it. [U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John] Roberts presides. That body meets twice a year.
The governance and policy-setting of the U.S. courts is done through that body, which is divided up into a lot of committees for the day-to-day work, Riley explained. In between those committees and the Judicial Conference, is the executive committee – seven judges with the responsibility for policy setting, budget setting, etc.
“Chief Justice Roberts put me on the executive committee. I have served almost five years on it, including when we went through sequestration, when we had to figure out how to keep the doors of the courthouses open, pay salaries, etc. We ended up laying off, as I recall, over 3,000 people. Not happy decisions. That was the big one, but we were dealing with many other issues.
“Also at that time, they made me strategic planning coordinator, to do strategic planning for the whole federal judicial system. That was a committee of ONE. I had a lot of help from the administrative offices of the U.S. Courts, including that of U.S. Bankruptcy Court Chief Judge Brian Lynch in D.C. and others. I worked with all those committee chairs. We revised the five-year strategic plan. You’d probably be surprised at what our number one goal is right now.”
He paused for emphasis: “It’s computer security. The courts are under attack constantly. Over 1,000 times a month we are hacked or they attempt to hack us. The executive committee, principally Merrick Garland, Chief Judge of the DC Circuit [and President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee] and I were the loudest voices saying we need to push this and put more money into it and find good people to protect the computers in the judiciary. It is our number one goal.”
He stepped down as Chief Judge in March, on the day before his 70th birthday, and also stepped down from the Judicial Conference and the executive committee. (Judge Lavenski Smith, of Little Rock, Arkansas, took over as Chief Judge on March 11.)
“But while I’m no longer in those three roles, I am still long range planning director. At least until the end of August,” when he formally takes inactive senior status.
“Chief Justice Roberts asked me to stay around as long as I could, he laughed. I’m still receiving reports from committees now.”
Riley noted that he thought it “a good reflection on Nebraska that you have someone from Nebraska who is functioning at the highest levels of the judiciary. And that’s one of the reasons we were able to get Chief Justice Roberts to come back to Nebraska (a couple of years ago when he spoke at Creighton and UNL). It was a highlight for Nebraska and certainly for me.”
Midwest LawyersAre lawyers in the Midwest, particularly in Nebraska and Omaha, typical, or are they better than the norm, we asked.
“They are better, in the sense that as a group they are more civil and more caring about their clients and the case, as well as respectful of the court.
“Larger cities, especially on the coasts, have less civility, less respect for the courts, a much more combative atmosphere. It’s our conduct that makes us better.”
He said justice is being served here in Nebraska.
“Judges, without exception, in the 8th Circuit and in Nebraska are exceptional. They are very good, fair judges, who try to do what’s right. They decide the cases where the law and the facts lead them.
“The public has been served fairly and well by all of our judges.”
Would you recommend a career in the law to college students today?
“I would, but not so much as I would have 40 years ago. I think it’s more competitive, less civil and less professional, particularly in other places. Nebraska has not declined nearly as much as other places.
“Law school teaches you a way of analytical thinking. That can be used in all kinds of areas, in business, almost any activity, and can even be used in your own family!” he laughed.
“I would recommend it because it’s an opportunity to help people, with their economic issues as well as their liberty, but also, you have a chance as a lawyer to do a lot of public service.”
The FutureWhile he says he’s packed up quite a bit of his office (and “a lot of shredding!”), there remain stacks of tabbed papers to review, and dozens and dozens of pictures to carefully pack. Among the mementos are a series of caricatures of him as lawyer, judge, super-hero and god (Zeus). He said he and his artist friend had planned another one, but “What can we add after I’ve been portrayed as a god?!”
The office suite is spacious and well-appointed. A small study where he does much of his work features a large recliner, which he said he bought to sit and read briefs.
“I haven’t used it much though,” Riley said, “because every time I sat in it, I fell asleep!”
The fixtures in his office bathroom are gold-colored and he said he has Judge Strom, who was instrumental in getting the federal courthouse built, half-convinced that they are really gold, as befitting a Chief Judge. A sly smile appears, then his infectious laugh punctuates his remark.
As his years of judicial service come to a close on August 31, Riley plans a retirement filled with travel with his wife, Norma; chilling at their cabin in Estes Park; and spending more time with their three children (Kevin J., Brian J. and Erin J.) and the nine grandchildren, all of whom live within three miles of his house. After 45 years in the legal profession, he’s earned it.
No doubt many war stories will be shared when the Omaha Bar Association hosts a reception and dinner for Judges Riley and Strom on October 3. More information can be found on the OBA website at www.omahabarassociation.com.