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Clevert discusses 30 years on the bench

By: dmc-admin//September 17, 2007//

Clevert discusses 30 years on the bench

By: dmc-admin//September 17, 2007//

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(Thurgood Marshall) is certainly one who inspired me greatly because of his courage, his background with regard to civil rights and his desire to see to it that there was equal justice under law.”

Hon. Charles N. Clevert

As a teenager in Richmond, Va., Charles N. Clevert knew he wanted to pursue a legal career after an encounter with then-attorney L. Douglas Wilder, who went on to become governor. Clevert went to Georgetown University Law School and then to Wisconsin as an assistant district attorney in Milwaukee County under E. Michael McCann. After three years, he became an assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Wisconsin. At age 30 he became the youngest U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge in the nation and spent 19 years, including his last decade as chief judge, in that role. In 1996 President Clinton appointed him to the Eastern District Court.

He was also the first African American in Wisconsin to be appointed as an assistant U.S. attorney (1975-77), U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge (1977-96) and U.S. District Court judge (1996-present).

About to turn 60, Clevert is expected to become the next chief judge in the Eastern District and shows no signs of slowing down, because as he says, he can’t.

He sat down with Wisconsin Law Journal reporter Jack Zemlicka on Sept. 6 in the jury room behind his courtroom in the Eastern District Courthouse to discuss his greatest influences, the effectiveness of a “rocket docket” and his passion for singing.

Wisconsin Law Journal: You are a native Virginian. What brought you to Wisconsin to start your legal career and what has kept you here for more than three decades?

Charles N. Clevert: I came to Wisconsin to work as an assistant DA in the office of E. Michael McCann and I remained here because of things that developed in my career. I left the DA’s office after getting an offer from William J. Mulligan to join his staff here and while serving as an assistant U.S. attorney, I applied for and got an appointment as a bankruptcy judge at a time when bankruptcy law was going through a great transition.

I fully anticipated that I would serve as a bankruptcy judge for a year or so and have the option of moving on to another place with a wider variety of experience. But I thoroughly enjoyed my work in the bankruptcy court and wound up staying for 19 years.

Then of course I met my wife and that totally changed my plans. We met when I was an assistant DA and so after meeting her and marrying her after a very short courtship, Wisconsin has been my home and I have not regretted it.

WLJ: You served 19 years as a bankruptcy judge and now 11 years as a district court judge in the Eastern District. What are some of the different challenges presented by the two?

Clevert: Obviously, with the bankruptcy position, the initial challenge was the fact that the bankruptcy law was changing from the old national bankruptcy act to the bankruptcy code. There was a lot of uncharted territory, which meant that a considerable amount of litigation that arose over various issues.

After the bankruptcy code went into effect there was the challenge to the jurisdiction of bankruptcy judges, who were to be appointed by the president. Part of the code was declared unconstitutional and the Supreme Court basically ruled that bankruptcy judges had too much authority. That meant for awhile that bankruptcy judges were actually considered consultants, which was a somewhat strenuous phenomenon.

On the district (court) side, some of the various challenges have included the increasing number of drug crimes, gun prosecutions and the sentencing guidelines. Now the aftermath of the U.S. v. Freddy Booker case which came down from the U.S. Supreme Court and essentially provides that the sentencing guidelines are no longer mandatory, but advisory.

WLJ: The Western District Court is known for its “rocket docket” method of case processing. Is that an approach which will ever be employed in the Eastern District or are cases being processed in a timely enough manner?

Clevert: I will say that I think it’s important that cases get whatever time they reasonably require. There are points where a judge should speed up parties, perhaps place limitations on the amount of time cases can take because there are other people and other matters waiting. I don’t know exactly what timetable they have in the Western District, I do know they are fairly current and move their cases with dispatch.

When it comes to something like a rocket docket, I will give up time to ensure that a defendant knows his rights. It’s more important that a defendant know and understand what he or she is doing when a plea is offered than it is for me to speed through a docket. I don’t think it’s a good idea to have a rocket docket just for the sake of having a rocket docket.

WLJ: What is the most unusual case you have presided over in federal court?

Clevert: One in bankruptcy court was filed April 15, 1982, and part of that case was still pending when I went on the district court (in 1996). It was a Chapter 11 case with hundreds of limited partnerships and properties in Milwaukee and the Caribbean. Hundreds of lawsuits were filed and a property in the case was damaged by a hurricane on St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. I just happened to see the property years later when I was vacationing there. To that extent, it was a very unusual case and one where I had to concede that I provided an overly optimistic estimate to Dean (Robert) Boden at Marquette Law School when I said that the bankruptcy trustee would not be tied up with the case very long. There are some nice properties here in Milwaukee, which have been developed and are now operating in the aftermath of that case, like the Diamond Towers on Prospect.

WLJ: You have noted that former Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder was influential in your going into law. Who are some other people who have motivated or inspired you throughout your career?

Clevert: Well, I can’t deny my admiration for Thurgood Marshall. I did my best to get in to seem him at the Supreme Court and when I had appointments, he was unable to keep them. He was ill the last time I was scheduled to see him. He is certainly one who inspired me greatly because of his courage, his background with regard to civil rights and his desire to see to it that there was equal justice under law.

Here in Wisconsin, I would have so say Judge John Reynolds was certainly somebody I admired greatly. In fact my first trip to Wisconsin was for the purpose of interviewing for clerkship with Judge Reynolds. I didn’t get the clerkship, but all things considered I’m not disappointed with how things turned out. And also the trust that Reynolds placed in me because he was one of the principle ones who inspired me to actually apply to the bankruptcy judgeship. I chatted with him about the opening and he was chief judge at the time, I applied at age 29 and ultimately got the appointment the following year.

WLJ: As the first African American in Wisconsin to be appointed as an assistant United States attorney, United States Bankruptcy judge and United States District judge, what are your thoughts on the current landscape with regards to diversity on the bench in the state?

Clevert: I certainly feel that our bench should be more diverse. Because people from different backgrounds are in our courts as parties, as jurors, as witnesses. Trust and confidence in the courts is undercut when people don’t see people like themselves. When people feel that they are being systematically excluded. Our system of justice depends in large measure on public trust and confidence. It also helps the process to have people from different background making decisions. Your background helps shape your decision-making process. If people of one mindset inhabit the bench, then I think we’re the lesser for it.

WLJ: I read that you decided to pursue a career in law when you were a teenager. If you hadn’t taken up law, what might you have chosen?

Clevert: There were several things which came to mind. I like history and I majored in history and political science so I thought about the possibility of becoming a history teacher. At one time I thought about civil engineering and at one time I even thought about the ministry.

I met Douglas Wilder when he was a young lawyer with a one-room office and I was impressed. I said to myself, I’d like to do that because I saw clearly how he was helping people who were underrepresented and people who lacked confidence in the system in segregated Richmond, Va. I felt then and still feel now that in this career, I can hopefully make a difference and instill confidence in our judicial system.

WLJ: You served as chief judge in the bankruptcy court for 10 years. With Judge Randa assuming senior status, I’ve heard that you will be the next chief judge in the Eastern District. Is that true?

Clevert: According to the statute, the senior judge in terms of tenure would move up to become chief judge, so I guess I’m the next guy in line. If it comes my way, I’ll do the job. I’ve done it before, so it’s not something I’m unfamiliar with and it does require a lot of extra work because there are so many administrative things that come up and it’s a job.

WLJ: I understand your daughter is an accomplished violinist? Did she get her musical talent from her father?

Clevert: My daughter is a classical violinist and has her masters in violin, so I don’t think I’m at that level and would not even try to do some of her music. I like to sing, I’ll admit it. I was at a birthday party Saturday and people asked me to sing. When I was in undergrad school, I sang in the college choir four years, took private voice lessons. At one time I sang with the Bel Canto chorus here in Milwaukee and have sung with a community choral group performing at an Easter Cantata.

WLJ: You have a milestone birthday coming up in October. Any plans to celebrate?

Clevert: My staff has kind of determined the basic approach to my birthday is work, work, work. I have a full calendar on my birthday, so I don’t have any great plans (laugh). It’s like any other year, any other day. I’ll be here doing my thing. Unless my staff pulls something out of a hat and they’ve been known to do some things over the years. One year I came in and had some black balloons on my chair and in my parking space. I don’t understand, why black balloons? It’s not such a bad thing to reach 60.


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