Thursday, February 14, 2008

Judge Joseph T. Sneed III

Judge Joseph T. Sneed III died last week. I had the pleasure of clerking for him during the 1985-86 term, and here are just some of my recollections:
  • Roughly the first week of the clerkship, he asked me to be the clerk who would drive him around Pasadena when he was sitting in Southern California. I greeted him with pink mirrored sunglasses and drove like a bat out of hell. He always got our co-clerk Bob to drive him places after that.
  • He had seminars with his clerks almost every week, where we'd bring in slip opinions and dissect them with him. Once a law professor, always a law professor.
  • Even though he was a Nixon appointee and I was much more liberal than he, he always impressed me as being very willing to do whatever the law actually mandated (more so than some of the more liberal judges on the court, who were known for bending the law to suit their own purposes). In that sense, I always thought of him as a true conservative.
  • Judge Sneed's wife, Madelon, was a delight--a painter of some skill, she managed to make their home's dining room follow the shading of the San Francisco sun (what there was of it) with the colors that she used to decorate it.
  • We did a workload study during my clerkship year to figure out where the logjams were. They most certainly weren't in his chambers. He was an efficient writer and a tireless worker. He also didn't take most federal holidays off, so we didn't, either.
  • David Goodwin, another former Sneed clerk, and I had the pleasure of taking Judge Sneed's oral history for the Ninth Circuit's Historical Society. It's fair to say that Judge Sneed was Zelig-like in the ways in which he was at the center of some big issues in the 60s and 70s.
  • I'm still close friends with one of the Judge's secretaries--one of the luckiest things to come out of the clerkship has been getting to know Carol Brown. I've also managed to stay in touch, intermittently, with two of his externs.
  • He only spoke rarely about his daughter Carly. And she never answered my letters later on, when I was dean, asking her whether she'd speak at the law school. I would have liked to have met her, though.
  • One of my theories about judges is that they are among the most silent of movers. Judge Sneed could move through the chambers almost as quietly as a sniper, which made for some fun with one of our co-clerks, who got a bit twitchy.

Judge Sneed contributed a great deal to legal education and to the law generally. I'll miss him.


Denise said...

I had to laugh when reading your post about driving Judge Sneed in Pasadena! It sounds so much like him. I was his secretary from 1999 until I retired in 2005, so I know of what you speak! haha. Having worked at the 9th Circuit from 1978 until 2005, I was always impressed with the Judge's willingness to take on the motions panel duties in addition to his merits panel workload. I also have to agree with you regarding his decisions - he was true to the law, and did not try to tweak it to make it fit with any ideological leaning he might have. The federal judiciary has lost a man who was, above all else, ethical, and a gentleman to boot.
On another note, I see Carol Brown is a friend of yours. I remember working in the Clerk’s office when Carol was working in the motions attorney unit, way back when. Please give her my regards.

Denise M Brown

Nancy Rapoport said...

Thanks, Denise, for leaving a comment about Judge Sneed--I'll always have good memories about him, and I'll also pass along your regards to Carol!

sullinsea said...

I will never forget Judge Sneed. I was in my second year of practice in 1985 - 86 and was sitting second chair on an appeal that turned out to be a minor footnote in the S&L debacle of the '80s. My firm represented a participant in a development loan where the lead lender went into FSLIC receivership. (Development of the Washington State Convention Center - the ony edifice built over an interstate highway.) The FSLIC was asserting we had no right to continue in the courts but had to present our claim in an administrative claims procedure they had quickly assembled out of thin air. They were kicking ass across the country based on the 5th Circuit "Hudspeth" decision. We lost at the District Court and knew we had an uphill battle. I spent weeks pouring over the history of the depression era banking and thrift regulatory schemes to assemble my argument that the statute didn't support their administrative scheme. At the last minute I found a late-breaking 2d Circuit decision in the MPPAA area that overturned an argument very similar to FSLIC's by the PBGC on the constitutional grounds that we are each entitled to an unbiased decisionmaker and that wouldn't be the pension (or deposit) insurer who benefits every time a claim is denied, subject only to APA review. I squeezed the constitutional argument into a footnote in our response brief that filled half a page and prayed someone would actually read it. Ultimately the constitutional argument wasn't reached, but I always felt it helped the panel reach the right decision on the statute because it showed something really was rotten in FSLIC-land. Anyway, what endeared me to Judge Sneed was after he worked his way up to the middle seat (with now-Justice Anthony Kennedy and Judge Beezer flanking him) with a stack of briefs that towered above his slightly tilted head, in the middle of oral argument, as counsel for FSLIC answered a question in a way that went, perhaps, a bridge too far, Judge Sneed drawled, "That's the problem wit' imperi'lists - they always go too far." (He pronounced "imperialists" the way a certain more famous Texan pronounces "nuclear.") At that point I felt the tide turn in our favor. Judge Sneed's panel was the first Federal Circuit Court to rule against FSLIC and the 5th Circuit - a position later vindicated by the Supreme Court in an unrelated case. Would that we had many more Jedge Sneeds -- espeially on the 9th Circuit.

Anonymous said...

In 1957 I entered Cornell Law School. My contracts professor was Judge Sneed. He scared the hell out of us but assured us that it would all fall into place by the end of the course. He was right on. Always available to chat with you and an outstanding gentleman. Today I am going to my 5oth Cornell Law reunion--that's what brought him to mind. I still remember him fondly. Bruno Colapietro Binghamton NY

Nancy Rapoport said...

Thanks, Anonymous--I think he'd be pleased that Carly is doing so well in her race in California right now, too. Have a great 50th!