SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – James R. Browning, perhaps best known for keeping the 9th Circuit together at a time when Congress threatened to divide it, died Saturday in a Marin County hospital. He was 93.
Browning grew up in the small northern Montana town of Great Falls, earned a Bronze Star during World War II and spent 12 years commanding the nation’s largest and busiest federal appeals court, the 9th Circuit.
He held the honor of being the U.S. Supreme Court clerk to swear in the president, a task that has since been reserved for the president-elect’s wife.
Browning held the Bible on which President John F. Kennedy laid his hand during his 1961 inauguration. The president nominated Browning to the 9th Circuit that same year.
Born in 1918, Browning earned his law degree from the University of Montana in 1941 and served as editor-in-chief of the school’s law review. He began his professional career as an attorney for the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice before joining the Army in 1943. He served until 1946, rising to the rank of first lieutenant.
After the war, he served as executive assistant to U.S. Attorney General James P. McGranery before leaving to become partner in a law firm formed by former Solicitor General Philip Perlman.
Chief Justice Earl Warren appointed him clerk of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1958. Browning then served as an active judge for almost 40 years, taking senior status Sept. 1, 2000.
During Browning’s tenure on the bench, he sat on 7,987 panels, either three-judge or en banc, authored 388 majority opinions, 60 dissenting opinions, 34 concurring opinions and, possibly, thousands of unpublished dispositions.
His contributions to 9th Circuit jurisprudence include Lessig v. Tidewater Oil, a watershed antitrust case, and Brubaker v. Dickson, one of the first decisions that set aside a criminal conviction for ineffective counsel.
Browning is credited with making the 9th Circuit what it is today for his rallying efforts that added 10 new judges to the then-backlogged circuit as it was poised to break into three separate circuits.
“While we are always saddened by the loss of a valued colleague, the passing of Judge Browning truly marks the end of an era for the Ninth Circuit,” Chief Judge Alex Kozinski said in a statement. “Judge Browning served on our court for more than 50 years, including 12 years as our chief judge. In that time, he name became synonymous with that of the Ninth Circuit and he is rightfully the eponym for our historic headquarters building in San Francisco.”
Judge Browning received many awards, specifically the Edward J. Devitt Distinguished Service to Justice Award in 1991 and the American Judicature Society’s Herbert Harley Award in 1984.
He is survived by his wife of 70 years, Marie Rose, and his daughter and son-in-law Jeanne and Scott Sommer, and three grandchildren, Lauren, Greg and Mark Sommer.