On March 4, the U.S. Senate confirmed President Barack Obama's nomination of William M. Conley, of Foley & Lardner LLP in Madison, as the next federal judge for the Western District of Wisconsin.
A week later, Wisconsin Law Journal talked to Conley to give our readers a preview of what to expect from the new judge.
WLJ: Congratulations. When does the new job begin?
Conley: The current plan is that Friday, March 26th, will be my last day at the firm, and I’ll take the bench during the second week of April.
I’m going to be privately sworn in on my first day, and there will be a formal investiture in May. We haven’t set a date yet; I’m working on that with the Western District of Wisconsin Bar Association.
I’m trying to make the transition practical and effective, working out the logistics ahead of time, so I can get into substance as soon as I arrive.
WLJ: Can you give us the highly condensed version of your bio and tell us what attracted you to the bench?
Conley: I was born and raised in Rice Lake. I attended school in Madison for both my undergraduate and law degrees.
After that, I clerked for two years for Judge Thomas Fairchild of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago. [It] was a transformative experience working for someone that impressive, but also very caring about everyone around him, especially the litigants who appeared before him.
Then I came back to Madison to work at Foley & Lardner, and I’ve been here ever since, first practicing commercial litigation, and over time constitutional litigation, with an emphasis on distribution and antitrust law.
I’ve spent a lot of my time practicing in the Madison federal courthouse. Judge Fairchild told me that becoming a judge is “something that happens along the way.” I’ve always wanted to do something in public service, although I wasn’t always certain what that would be. When I learned about the opening on this court, all the stars seemed to align; it was the right time and place, and it suddenly crystallized. I’m very honored and humbled, and my goal going forward is to be a poor version of Tom Fairchild.
WLJ: How you plan to run your court? The Western District is known as the “rocket docket.” Do you plan to maintain that reputation for speedy dispositions?
Conley: People have different views of what the “rocket docket” means; some see it as a positive and others, a negative. I’m not sure I want to embrace that term.
What I can tell you is, I’ve always felt that this court was run with tremendous efficiency, but more importantly, it’s been run well. The clerk’s staff here is outstanding — easily the best anywhere in the country that I’ve practiced. It was one of the things that attracted me to the position: the opportunity to work with the people in this courthouse.
So from my perspective coming in, my goal should be to not get in the way of all the good things that are already happening with how the court is run. I won’t come in with any agendas for change. Having said that, each case is different, and if someone makes a strong argument as to why the timing of a case needs to depart from the ordinary, I’ll listen.
WLJ: The Western District of Wisconsin does not have many local rules, compared to the Eastern District of the state. Do you plan on adding more local rules anytime soon?
Conley: The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure are quite detailed already, and this court just hasn’t put a separate gloss on them. I anticipate that will continue into the future. I could be persuaded otherwise, of course, but in general, I think that local rules tend to further complicate and make it more difficult, not easier, for people who don’t regularly practice there to come in.
Overall, let me say that [Eastern District] Judge [William] Griesbach, I think, did a tremendous job in his transitioning to the federal bench, in reviewing individual procedures, getting input from practitioners and then tweaking those, without making radical changes, in ways that he thought would make his court run best for the litigants and the court. I’m going to try to emulate that practice.
WLJ: When attorneys have discovery disputes during depositions, will you take their calls, or should they file a motion instead?
Conley: I or someone else would likely be available to speed the discovery along. I believe that’s been the general practice of the court already.
WLJ: Lawyers don’t conduct voir dire in the Western District, but I understand that some judges in the Eastern District do allow it. Will lawyers be conducting voir dire in your courtroom?
Conley: Again, coming in, I’m inclined to follow the court’s current practice, [but] that might vary by individual case.
WLJ: Many years ago, Judge Barbara Crabb gave me a tour of her high-tech courtroom. She’s very proud of the role of technology in her courtroom. Do you also plan to encourage the use of technology at trial?
Conley: I think that anything that assists the jury in better understanding the case should be encouraged, and to the extent that that can accomplished through the use of technology, I’d certainly be open to it.
Judge Crabb has always encouraged lawyers who want to use technology in the courtroom to come in early and try test runs or do whatever else to make things run smoothly at trial, and I definitely plan to continue that practice.
WLJ: Do you have tips for brief writing for the attorneys who’ll be appearing before you?
Conley: I think what’s most important is to just convey, in a straightforward and organized way, the aspects of the case that are crucial for the court to understand. But how you do that can vary depending upon the nature of the case.
WLJ: How formal a courtroom do you plan to run — for example, will attorneys need to ask permission to approach a witness?
Conley: I think it’s a respectful practice to ask for permission to approach the first time you’d like to approach to provide an exhibit or direct the witness to a specific spot in the record, to answer that portion of the question, but in general I don’t stand on formality. I don’t think that counsel should take advantage of that practice to stay and hover over a witness.
WLJ: Will you allow juror note-taking or permit jurors to ask questions?
Conley: I’m inclined to allow note-taking, and for jurors to submit questions in writing — the primary goal being to most effectively communicate with the jury and help them understand the case. That’s my default, but there may be situations where I depart from it.
WLJ: Any particular pet peeves you want to discuss?
Conley: None that I think most good lawyers wouldn’t already know, but I would hope that all remarks from counsel will be directed to the bench. I don’t want attorneys to have an independent dialogue with each other while I’m on the bench.
WLJ: Any final words?
Conley: Only that I’m sincerely humbled by and respectful of the position I’ve been given, and will do my very best to uphold the traditions of this court and to deliver justice to the people who appear in front of me.