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Judge Sidney Thomas Takes 9th Circuit Helm

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Chief Judge Sidney Thomas grasped Judge Alex Kozinski in a bear hug Friday as he took the gavel in a ceremony marking his transition to the job of 11th chief judge of the country's largest appellate circuit.

"I could not be handing it over to a better man, a better person, a better human being," Kozinski said, who leaves the post after a seven-year term.

The 61-year-old Thomas, who lives Billings, Montana, is the third Montanan to hold the position. He joins Judge James R. Browning who was chief judge from 1976 to 1988, and Judge Walter Lyndon Pope, who served for one year in 1959. In his remarks, Thomas acknowledged his friend Browning, who died in 2012.

"He befriended me from the moment I was on the court. Seven years ago I sat down here with Judge Browning and as the gavel was passed, he grabbed my arm and said 'I want to be here in seven years when you take the gavel.' He didn't make it, he came a couple of years short. But I hope I can emulate his wisdom and his style."

The modesty and quiet nature for which Thomas is well-known was reflected in his remarks, much of which he spent thanking his family, friends and colleagues on the court, and paying homage to his beloved Montana.

"I'm privileged to be able to live in Montana and serve in the 9th circuit, and it reminds me a bit of what Odysseus said to the Phaeacians just before he came back to Ithaca. He talks about Ithaca and says mine is a rugged land but it's a good land for raising sons. I for myself know no sweeter sight on earth than a man's own native country and that's the way I feel about Montana and that's the way I feel about the 9th Circuit," Thomas said. "When I joined the 9th Circuit I expected to find brilliance and scholarship, but what I didn't expect to find was some of the best friends I have in life. We have our differences, but our differences are interesting and important. When we finish our cases, we care for each other's families, we care for each other's dogs, we take care of ourselves through joys and sorrows. It is a court family, and I'm proud to be apart of the collegiality of the 9th Circuit."

The standing-room audience at the James R. Browning Courthouse in San Francisco included Thomas' wife Martha, sons Oscar and Skeff and his two sisters, as well as Martha's two sisters, and her brother and his wife.

"And that's just the immediate family," U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen of Montana said, laughing. He added, "There are over 50 of Sid's former and current law clerks. This is remarkable. I think that speaks so highly of what the people who have worked with Judge Thomas think of him."

Kozinski also noted the packed audience, joking, "I guess word got out that I was stepping down as chief judge." He later joked about his term, saying, "Not everybody gets to serve. I made it by dint of age, years of service and having deftly avoided impeachment."

Senior Judge Michel Daly Hawkins, who spoke at the ceremony, poked fun at Kozinski.

"Seven years ago, Alex Kozinski was standing at this podium with a twinkle in his eye, thanking his colleagues for voting for him as chief judge," Hawkins said. "We don't vote for chief judge. If you're young enough and you're on the court long enough, you sort of ascend to the position."

Thomas ascended to the position by virtue of being the most senior active judge under the age of 65, in what Hawkins called "a peaceful transition that can be likened to going from Clint Eastwood to Gregory Peck."

He added, "So now a tall Montanan takes the helm. Like Alex, he's young of heart and mind. He's deliberate, with a firm grasp on the long view. What you really get with Sid Thomas is character. It's a character born of a lifetime of living in and understanding the great expanse and uniqueness of the west."

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