Bolch Judicial Institute
Duke Law School
Published February 2013
Judging is a unique and peculiar art.
It is more learned than taught. And it demands a delicate blend of patience, fairness, judgment, compassion, confidence, and legal brilliance. Some judges achieve greatness by demonstrated excellence in one, or perhaps two, of these attributes. Few do so in all. Fewer still are capable of achieving this type of greatness while also passing on to others the elusive art of judging.
Third Circuit Judge Anthony J. Scirica is such a jurist.
Judge Scirica mastered the art of judging by presiding in state and federal courtrooms at both the trial and appellate level for more than three decades. His judicial formation began by observing his father, a county trial judge, and continued during his term as a Pennsylvania legislator, earning acclaim as a bipartisan lawmaker whose judgment was valued by former Governor Richard Thornburgh.
Judge Scirica’s greatness is not defined by publishing scholarly law review prose, presiding over high-profile trials, espousing ideological stridency, or the public spectacle of his rulings. To be sure, he has steadily – and quietly – amassed a legacy of brilliant judicial decisions, especially in the federal appellate court. His greatness as a judge stems from his role in teaching the art of good lawyering and, ultimately, good judging.
Through the example of his daily life, he has illuminated the path to greatness for young lawyers and judges to follow. His mere presence transforms everyone into better and nicer people, helping them discover within themselves those elusive attributes of judicial greatness. I have witnessed this first-hand. In the 26 years since we met, I have served as his law clerk, appeared as a prosecutor in his courtroom, and worked with him in Philadelphia’s federal courthouse.
His quiet confidence and legal brilliance is evident in the courtroom where he can change minds by simply asking a question. He can disable a foe with a raised eyebrow and calm a heated dispute with his understated, yet powerful, presence.
His patience and compassion are obvious in his ability to broker a solution allowing everyone to save face when others would be tempted to ridicule and rancor. Rather than seizing an opportunity for revenge, Judge Scirica opts to collaborate and console. When given the opportunity for self-promotion, Judge Scirica steps aside and allows others to receive public acclaim and recognition.
His fairness and judgment are on display when he pierces a weak argument with a devastating hypothetical. Regardless of the answer, he softly smiles and thanks counsel for their brilliant insight. When he senses a lawyer is being unfairly battered, Judge Scirica comes to the rescue with an easy question that spares the lawyer total humiliation in the client’s eyes. And in conference, he invariably lets his colleagues author the most interesting and high-profile opinions. Even his rare dissents are marked by a tone that is conciliatory and almost apologetic.
But as many of his judicial colleagues know, Judge Scirica’s fairness and judgment are best illustrated in his ability to achieve justice behind the scenes — in the meeting room and on the telephone. His term as Chief Judge of the Third Circuit and as chair of the Judicial Conference’s Executive Committee was marked by achieving consensus when none thought it possible.
Fairness, not ideology, is his only master.
A biographer of one of our nation’s greatest Supreme Court justices, Louis Brandeis, commented that “even when he saw how the law could be twisted to achieve the goals of narrow-minded and selfish men, Justice Brandeis never lost faith in the ideal of rule of law.”
In our generation, Judge Scirica is the man who has lived that mantra. In doing so, he has transformed dozens of lawyers and judges from the brink of narrow-mindedness and selfishness to the promise of greatness.
He has taught us we can be better than we are.