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John Schwartz and Chief Judging


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The Storied Third Branch with image of tree branch

Published March 2013

There is a difference between being a good judge and being a good chief judge. John Schwartz, who served on the bankruptcy court in Chicago from 1984 to 2010, was certainly a good judge. He ran an effective courtroom, and he issued solid opinions, including In re Jartran, Inc., 71 B.R. 938 (Bankr. N.D. Ill. 1987) aff’d, 87 B.R. 525 (N.D. Ill. 1988) aff’d, 886 F.2d 859 (7th Cir.), which—as affirmed by the Seventh Circuit—“paved the way” for debtors to file successive Chapter 11 filings. See Thomas J. Salerno et al., Advanced Ch. Eleven Bankr. Prac. § 4.96, Jartran and the Chapter “22” (2d ed. 2013). But—of much more significance to me—John was a great chief judge. In the federal courthouse in Chicago there’s a conference room that bears John’s name, and its walls hold a photo of John and a number of plaques with stories and memorabilia. One of the plaques shows a 1994 clipping from the Chicago Law Bulletin. Its first sentence reads: “John D. Schwartz fosters collegiality in his job as Chief Judge of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Chicago.” Indeed he did that. But the sentence is an understatement. John did not merely foster collegiality. He infused love.

That love had three characteristics. First—I apologize for the cliché—he wanted everybody to get along. A little further around the conference room is a Law Bulletin article that quotes me saying that when I joined the court, John immediately took me under his wing. Again, this is an understatement. John actually took me under his wing well before I became a bankruptcy judge, while I had an application pending for a state court position. John invited me to lunch, assessed my ignorance of bankruptcy, and gave me not only a good meal but also a much better idea of why bankruptcy judging was an ideal job. I left that lunch feeling that I had a friend. John had a get-together like this with every new judge of the court.

After I joined the court, John never failed to show his friendship. At a meeting of the National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges in New Orleans, he took me on a personal tour of Bourbon Street, and at a Seventh Circuit conference in Indianapolis, we played hooky at the zoo. John also got to know my family. He hired my oldest son to help with his home computers; he went to my daughter’s stage performances. And this was typical. He got to know the families of all of the judges, he was a regular visitor to all of their chambers, he was the staple attendee at almost daily lunch gatherings of the judges, and he held summer parties for the whole court in his backyard.

These things were fun, but more than that, they served as a glue that held our court together. The formal monthly judges’ meetings that he instituted were almost always effective ones. We didn’t see one another as independent inhabitants of individual chambers, but as part of a collegial enterprise of people who cared about one another on both a personal and professional level.

The second characteristic of John’s love was legal—he wanted us to know the law we were applying. The Law Bulletin clipping about John goes on to quote a 1992 evaluation of our court saying that it was a legal backwater until John was appointed, but that it had transformed during John’s tenure as chief into “what many lawyers believed was the best bench, top to bottom, of any court in Chicago.” The article notes that John declined to engage in such comparisons—but in fact he did make us all better judges.

He started a practice of inviting scholars—legal, economic, and even Shakespearean—to have lunch with us and tell us about their work. He arranged for conferences and retreats on bankruptcy law for our court and for all the bankruptcy judges of the Seventh Circuit. And he made his practice of learning through small group discussions available to every bankruptcy judge in the country. John heard a complaint that meetings of the National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges had plenty of educational programs for the lawyers who attended, but nothing specifically for judges. He responded by contacting the NCBJ president and arranging that at the next annual meeting, there would be breakout rooms for judges to discuss issues of bankruptcy law based on readings they had been given in advance. Then John contacted judges around the country to lead the discussions—and let his colleagues in Chicago figure out what to talk about. It worked. Judges signed up, did their readings, and found both good ideas and good connections with their colleagues. These programs, now called the Schwartz Roundtables, continue as a part of each NCBJ meeting.

The third characteristic of John’s love for the court was his effort to give the court an effective working environment. In 1991, the bankruptcy court needed to move to a lower floor in the courthouse to make room for the circuit library. An initial design for our new space had all ten of our courtrooms on one floor—Traffic Court South, John called it. He negotiated a doubling of that space, a feat reflected in another plaque in the conference room, from his fellow judges. “We remember,” it says, “the astounding difference between our former shabbiness and present class. This was a task that required all of the leading qualities of our Chief.” It then lists those qualities, including, “an innocent appearance, powerful friends, and above all, a devious character.”

John also struggled with the Administrative Office of the United States Courts to obtain a computer system that would not routinely crash. When AO delivered a system that John was told could not handle our volume of cases, he decided simply not to install it. A few months later, the AO relented and gave us the system John had in mind. That system worked. John’s political acumen in this battle is reflected in yet another plaque, signed by the AO administrator with whom he tangled. It praises John, after the struggle was over, for his “wise counsel and enormous energies.”

I hope that these little stories make the point that, as chief judge, John didn’t simply make good judicial decisions. He made a good court, whose members worked together cooperatively, effectively, and—I have to say—joyfully.

After John’s death in 2011, there was a memorial service at which one person after another—legal colleagues, neighbors, family members—spoke of the deep personal relationship that John had with each of them. I was amazed that one person could extend himself so generously. And this may be the key to his greatness as a chief judge: a genuine involvement with all of the people with whom he interacted. John’s passing continues to be a loss for me, but his memory gives me a model to follow, not just for leading a group, but for living a life.