The Fourth Circuit, which hears appeals from Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia, has 15 judges and receives nearly 4,000 appeals annually. The court was long deemed the nation’s most conservative, but President Obama’s appointment of many new judges has left the circuit more centrist, and some observers even consider it rather liberal.
The chief judge has overall responsibility for circuit operations — basically ensuring the expeditious, inexpensive and fair disposition of appeals — and is the court’s public face. The chief judge also heads the Circuit Judicial Council, the court’s policymaking arm, and represents the Fourth Circuit on the U.S. Judicial Conference, which makes policy for the entire federal judiciary. This policymaking includes prescribing federal court litigation procedures and securing court funding from Congress. Moreover, the chief judge guarantees that workloads are fairly distributed among the circuit’s members and that the jurists are working diligently and professionally. The chief judge as well initially screens complaints about the court’s jurists under the Judicial Conduct and Disability Act of 1980 and can dismiss complaints found meritless.
Judge Traxler compiled a very successful record in his seven-year tenure, most of which overlapped with the Obama administration and including a time when Democrats enjoyed a Senate majority. Traxler worked cooperatively with the president and the Senate to ensure that all Fourth Circuit vacancies were expeditiously filled. Senate confirmation of six well-qualified, mainstream judges means the court now has its full complement. Traxler’s record is even more impressive because, for much of his tenure, he simultaneously served as Judicial Conference Executive Committee chair, which required that Traxler persuade Congress to fully fund the courts.
Judge Gregory enjoys a well-deserved reputation as a collegial, intelligent, diligent and independent jurist. Gregory grew up in Petersburg, Va. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Virginia State University and his law degree from the University of Michigan. Gregory practiced law with former Virginia governor Douglas Wilder (D) for two decades. President Clinton nominated Gregory in June 2000, but the Senate declined to consider him. Thus, Clinton recess-appointed Gregory to the Fourth Circuit in his administration’s waning days, and President George W. Bush nominated Gregory in 2001. The Senate confirmed him 93-1. Judge Gregory was the first African American to win Fourth Circuit appointment.
Judge Gregory authored the opinion in King v. Burwell, which upheld Affordable Care Act insurance subsidies that enable individuals to purchase reduced-cost health insurance. Gregory also was a member of the panel in Bostic v. Schaefer, which invalidated Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban.
Judge Gregory’s leadership of the court will probably resemble that of Judge Traxler. Both jurists respect their colleagues and appreciate the circuit’s 125-year history. Gregory’s collegiality, intelligence and dedication will enable him to successfully lead the court, a task frequently characterized as “herding cats.”
Carl Tobias is the Williams Chair in Law at the University of Richmond.