The well-respected public face of Washington’s federal court is saying goodbye to his job of the past 12 years and leaving for a similar job at the Supreme Court.
Sheldon Snook, the longtime administrative assistant for the U.S. District Court and court liaison to the public and news media, was hailed at a farewell reception Thursday afternoon as a trusted confidante of dozens of judges and the linchpin in making the court’s high-profile trials open to the public. Among those on hand to praise his talents were numerous federal judges, court staff members, federal prosecutors, public defenders and reporters from several news organizations.
Known in the court as Shelly, Snook worked for three different chief judges, mostly recently for Chief Judge Ricky Roberts. Both Roberts and his first boss, U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan, spoke admiringly of Snook’s modesty and discretion and his ability to make the court’s work transparent to the public.
Snook will take on a new role as special assistant to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.’s counselor. The counselor’s office advises the chief justice not only on the management and budget of the Supreme Court but also on his interactions with the executive and legislative branches, along with numerous other public roles in which Roberts serves.
At his reception Thursday, Snook thanked a long list of colleagues, including even the health workers who gave him his flu shot every winter and the bankruptcy court and research staff who helped him “look smart” in answering reporter questions. In a poignant moment, he thanked by name each judge he had worked with and choked up listing those who have since died, starting with U.S. District Judge William B. Bryant. Snook called Bryant — the first black chief judge on the federal bench — “the nicest man you could ever meet.”
Snook toasted his wife, Mary McCord, as “one of the best lawyers that comes into this court” and thanked her for her support throughout. McCord has been a rising star in Washington’s U.S. attorney’s office, moving from appellate and child sex crimes prosecutions to become the office’s chief of all criminal prosecutions. This year, she joined the Justice Department as a top leader over national security prosecutions.
Hogan recalled agreeing to hire Snook after McCord, his former law clerk, suggested her husband for the job. “I thought, ‘Well . . . if you can recommend him after 12 years of marriage, that’s pretty good,’ ” Hogan joked.
The relationship between reporters and courthouse officials can sometimes be tense in the coverage of a high-profile trial. But under his administration, Snook and his assistant, Jenna Gatski, worked with the court’s judges to create a model for helping reporters cover cases with improved access to records and proceedings.
In 2007, Snook set up a then-unusual media room in the federal courthouse during the high-profile trial of Vice President Dick Cheney’s top aide, I. “Scooter” Libby, who was accused of lying about leaking a CIA operative’s identity to the media to discredit her husband. The setup allowed reporters the option to watch the live proceedings on a screen from a nearby room where they could have laptops and phones. The process made it easy for reporters to stay close and also monitor developments in the courtroom, while simultaneously writing and filing timely reports for their Web sites or news stations.
In preparation for the Boston Marathon bomber trial, the chief judge of the federal court in Boston asked Snook to visit to help advise his staff on handling the international media coverage. Hogan joked that Snook was characteristically modest after the trip, saying the team in Boston had no problems. The chief judge in Boston told Hogan: “He’s a miracle worker.”
The goodbye salutes Thursday featured anecdotes from several members of the media, including a remote video testimonial from NBC “Today” show anchor Savannah Guthrie, who is home on maternity leave but first got to know Snook as a reporter for Court TV while covering the Libby trial. She praised Snook’s ability to herd and address the needs of hundreds of demanding journalists, and jokingly compared it to her time at home with a new baby. “All that fussing . . . whining,” Guthrie said. “I really feel for what you went through, Shelly.”
Snook also thanked reporters for their coverage of the court, remarking that by accurately capturing the decisions and operations of the court, their stories help the public understand the judiciary’s role and its legitimacy in our democracy.