SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Head clerk for Idaho’s federal courts Libby Smith will take the helm later this spring as the Ninth Circuit’s top administrator, replacing recently retired longtime clerk Cathy Catterson.
Smith said she knows she has big shoes to fill as Catterson’s successor.
“If I had a nickel for every time somebody has said that,” Smith said by phone on Wednesday. She was headed to Washington for a series of meetings and had a few spare minutes to chat before boarding her plane.
But she is definitely up to the task of running the largest appellate court in the nation, with courthouses in San Francisco, Pasadena, Seattle and Portland, and a jurisdiction that spans nine states, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.
“I’ve just been touched by the people so excited to see me in this new role,” Smith said.
Smith said she was pretty shocked when she received Catterson’s email announcing her retirement at the end of February. Catterson had been circuit executive for 10 years, but her career in the court spanned more than four decades.
“It seemed like Cathy would always be there,” Smith said.
Within days, the Ninth Circuit sent out a job posting for Catterson’s replacement.
“One of my dear friends, also a clerk in the federal system, sent me an email and said, ‘Libby I think this has you written all over it,’” Smith said. “It just seemed to me that my work history and the things that I felt I was best at made me very well suited for the position.”
She added, “I’ve always said how much I love being around people.”
Chief Circuit Judge Sidney R. Thomas announced Smith’s appointment earlier this month.
“We are extremely pleased to have Libby assume this important leadership position,” Thomas said in a statement this week. “She is well known and admired in the circuit and brings the kinds of experience and management skills needed to succeed in this very challenging job.”
A native of Lansing, Michigan, Smith brings with her more than a decade of experience in court administration: as head clerk for the District of Idaho since 2009, and before that as chief deputy clerk and deputy court administrator for the Eastern District of Michigan.
But her career began 24 years ago at the state level in Michigan’s Sixth Circuit Court, where she started out working as a substitute judicial secretary while putting herself through school.
“I’ve always been a working student,” Smith said.
She was hired by Judy Cunningham, who would go on to be the first female corporation counsel for Oakland County in Michigan.
Cunningham retired in 2013, but at the time she and Smith both worked for Judge Steven Andrews, who Smith described as “arguably the toughest and hardest working trial judge in the state.” Smith said Cunningham was very influential in her decision to make the judiciary a career.
“She’s been a mentor to me. In my formative years as a young court employee and a working mother going to school and at times, a single mother, she was always supportive of me,” Smith said.
Smith moved quickly up the ladder, from judicial assistant to analyst to deputy court administrator then court administrator. She also attended Walsh College, earning her bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1999, and her master’s in business information technology in 2005.
Smith was happy working for Andrews, who she says despite his tough reputation became one of her dear friends. But in 2006, she moved on to the federal system.
“Getting the opportunity to serve in the same capacity for the federal court is really about all you can hope for,” Smith said. “I can still remember the day I came back the office and told my state court judges and they were so happy for me.”
In 2009, Smith accepted the job as clerk of courts for the federal court and bankruptcy court in Idaho.
Under Smith’s leadership – and, she noted, with the help of the circuit executive’s office – the court was able to greatly reduce the amount of space it uses, increasing its efficiency and reducing operation costs.
In a statement, Chief Judge B. Lynn Winmill said, “Libby has done an amazing job for us and done so under very trying circumstances. We are a much stronger district due to Libby’s efforts. She will be missed.”
Smith’s new job will include giving administrative support to the Judicial Council of the Ninth Circuit and running the circuit’s 38-employee executive office. Smith said she looks forward to working under Judge Thomas and with the other judges of the court.
“Judge Thomas is first and foremost and very good and decent person, and the opportunity to work closely with him is something that appealed to me,” she said. “I think his leadership style is something that also appeals to me. He is very collaborative, and he speaks about us working together as a circuit.”
Smith said she has always put a huge priority on the relationships, something she believes will serve her well in her new position.
“I think I have a heart to serve, and whether that is with judges, serving people who work beside me, above me or across the judiciary, if we can work together and collaborate and work smartly that appeals to me,” Smith said. “I just come in to work. I enjoy working, working with people and getting to know people. The number one thing of importance to me is relationships.”