Browning, James Robert

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Browning, James Robert

James Robert Browning, a federal judge, is credited with holding the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit together at a time when there was enormous pressure to split the nation's largest and busiest circuit into smaller, more manageable units. Browning's innovations in Judicial Administration demonstrated that the federal courts, despite ever-increasing case-loads, could continue to provide speedy and effective justice. During his tenure, the Ninth Circuit court, which oversees justice in nine western states and two Pacific territories, grew from a nine-judge panel, to a 28-judge tribunal that managed more than 5,500 appeals a year in the late 1980s.

Browning was born in Great Falls, Montana, on October 1, 1918. He grew up in and attended the public schools of Belt, Montana, a small town east of Great Falls, where his father was a blacksmith and, later, owner of the town's Ford dealership. Browning completed his undergraduate work at the University of Montana and entered that university's law school in 1938, becoming editor in chief of the law review and graduating with honors in 1941. After graduation, he joined the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. Two years later, he was inducted as a private into the U.S. Army Infantry. He served in military intelligence in the Pacific theater for three years, attaining the rank of first lieutenant and winning a Bronze Star.

Following World War II, Browning returned to the Justice Department's Antitrust Division, first in Washington, D.C., and then in Seattle, Washington. In 1948, at the age of 30, he was named chief of the Northwest Regional Office of the division. Before long, he was called back to Washington, D.C., and named assistant chief, General Litigation Section, Antitrust Division. By 1951, he had joined the Civil Division as first assistant. In 1952, he was named executive assistant to the attorney general of the United States. Later that year, he organized the Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys and became its first chief.

Browning left the Justice Department in 1953 to enter private practice. For the next five years, he was a partner at Perlman, Lyons, and Browning, in Washington, D.C. In 1958, he was named clerk of the U.S. Supreme Court. From this position, he was appointed as a circuit judge to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, by President john f. kennedy, on September 18, 1961.

As a circuit judge, Browning became involved with the Judicial Conference of the United States and started exploring the field of judicial administration. (The Judicial Conference is the principal machinery through which the federal courts operate and is responsible for establishing the standards and shaping the policies that govern the federal judiciary.)

In the mid-1970s, there was no guarantee of speedy disposition of litigation in the federal courts. The courts of appeals, in particular, faced widespread crises because the volume of appeals far exceeded the capacity of the courts to decide them. The Ninth Circuit court was no exception, and, because of its enormous backlog of cases, was the subject of much discussion among scholars, Congress, and the judiciary. Studies to examine the problems of the Ninth Circuit usually presented one of two conclusions: reduce the size of the circuit, or add more judges to the court. There was strong opposition to dividing the circuit, but there was equally strong opinion that adding more judges would make the circuit even more unmanageable.

Browning was named chief judge of the Ninth Circuit on July 1, 1976, and found himself in a position to experiment with his ideas on judicial administration. As the new chief judge, Browning was instrumental in convincing Congress to give the judges of the Ninth Circuit an opportunity to demonstrate that a large circuit with a large court of appeals could perform effectively.

"The Ninth Circuit is the only court in which, within our boundaries, is represented all the points of view, basically all the problems, social and economic, of the whole nation. That kind of court can make a very positive contribution to the development of the federal law at the national level."
—James Browning

Under Browning's leadership, that challenge was met with remarkable success. Foremost among the innovations initiated by Browning and his colleagues were new methods of case processing and control, including the installation of the first completely computerized docketing (scheduling) system in a federal appellate court. Browning's innovations were later chronicled in a study published by the Federal Judicial Center (Administration of Justice in a Large Appellate Court—The Ninth Circuit Innovations Project [1985]). The court also created an executive committee to facilitate administrative decision making, assigned similar cases to the same three-judge panel, resolved panel conflicts with a "mini" en banc court of 11 judges (rather than with all 28 judges assigned to the circuit), and created a Bankruptcy panel to hear bankruptcy appeals exclusively.

These modifications and more, from decentralized staffing to fundamental changes in the way the court deliberates, turned the Ninth Circuit into a model for other courts around the country. In addition to speeding up justice, Browning's innovations also improved the Ninth Circuit's judicial record over time. In 1984, the Supreme Court reversed 27 of 28 decisions from the Ninth Circuit. By 1987, the circuit's reversal rate was down to 47 percent—and was the third lowest in the country.

On June 15, 1988, after a dozen years as chief judge, Browning stepped down, but remained an active circuit judge handling a full caseload. In September 2000, Browning took senior status. He retained his chambers in San Francisco and continued to hear court cases. As of 2002, Browning's 40-year tenure on the court was the second longest of any federal judge in the United States.

Browning helped establish the Ninth Judicial Circuit Historical Society in 1985 and in 1987 he became one of the founders and current board members of the Western Regional Justice Center, a nonprofit group that focuses on the improvement of the judicial system. In 1991, he was awarded the prestigious Edward J. Devitt Award for Distinguished Service to Justice and in 2001, he received the Montana State Bar Association's William J. Jameson award. Also, in 2001, U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) introduced a bill calling for the Ninth Circuit Court's San Francisco headquarters to be named after Judge James R. Browning.

Further readings

Hursh, Jack. 1995. "Tribute to Judge James R. Browning." Montana Law Review 56 (winter).

MacLean, Pamela A. 2001. "Judge Has Given Half a Lifetime to Improving Courts; Diplomat, Leader Has 40 Years' Practice at Shaping an Expanding 9th Circuit. (James R. Browning, 9th U.S. Court of Appeals Judge)." The Los Angeles Daily Journal 114 (September 27).

——. 1988 "Judge Browning's Legacy: the Ninth Circuit's Chief Judge is Leaving the Court More Efficient Than He Found It." California Lawyer 8 (June).

"The State Bar's Highest Award Goes to Judge James Browning." August 2001. Montana Lawyer Magazine. Available online at <www.montanabar.org> (accessed June 19, 2003).