SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Longtime Northern District Clerk of Court Richard Wieking’s announcement that he will retire on September 1 has brought a strong reaction from judges and colleagues throughout the Northern District.
They praised his 26 years of inventiveness and effective leadership in the post, and said above all they will miss his kindness.
“He is not only innovative, he is thoughtful, he is dedicated to improving the operation of the judiciary. I think though, that one of his unique attributes is that he is extraordinarily humane,” U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer said.
“He always takes into account the human cost of any particular decision, which isn’t always true in the operation of the government, and that puts him in a very special category.”
Wieking said in an interview that the daily interactions with his staff and the public are what he will miss most.
“I feel my strengths are really in working effectively with people and I’m very energized by those interactions. I really love it. I’m going to miss that terribly,” he said.
Chief Judge Phyllis Hamilton wrote in an email: “He is a truly outstanding public servant with a rich and accomplished record of dedication to federal court administration. Our court has benefited greatly from his adroit counsel and steady watch over the daunting array of administrative and managerial issues involved in the operation of a large, metropolitan federal trial court like ours. We will miss him.”
Wieking began his 42-year career in federal government as an administrative law clerk under Judge Robert F. Peckham. But it was at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that Wieking got his start in administration, under the guidance of Chief Judge James R. Browning, a former U.S. Supreme Court clerk.
“He was a huge influence in my life,” Wieking said. “He was acknowledged as a pioneer of modern court administration in the Ninth Circuit. I was with him very early in his career. He really inspired me to think carefully about management issues. Not just being an implementer off static implementer of policy that comes from Washington, but to really proactively manage our affairs through our own efforts and creativity.”
Wieking also looked up to Ninth Circuit Judge Dorothy Nelson, who was a dean at the University of Southern California, where Wieking got his graduate degrees in public administration and law.
“She was a very big advocate of court administration. And that’s how I got into the area after deciding I didn’t want to practice. She was a big mentor of mine.”
Wieking started his 26-year tenure in the Northern District as head clerk in 1989, when the court was still hammering out paper dockets on typewriters. By 2001, the court had moved to electronic case filing, and last year implemented mandatory electronic filing for civil cases.
“We implemented it very quickly and got many, many cases up on it very quickly. I’m sure we were among the fastest courts in the nation,” Wieking said.
“We decided to be on the forefront of implementation and bloody ourselves a bit for the benefits we thought we would obtain, and we did. Our system has been in place from the earliest possible time.”
Wieking praised the attorneys in the Northern District for embracing the move.
“It’s a testament to the bar of our court,” he said. “They didn’t fight it.”
Criminal defense attorney Ed Swanson, with Swanson and McNamara, who has worked with Wieking since he started in the Public Defender’s Office in 1992, said Wieking’s leadership helped everyone adjust.
“There are any number of challenges that come up with e-filing, especially in criminal. Rich is great at grasping what the problem is and directing his staff to make it work,” Swanson said.
“He’s one of those guys who when you raise a new issue or there’s a new challenge, technology related or otherwise that we need help with, he’s always there to try to figure out how to make it work He’s never the guy who says that can’t happen. You never hear Rich say, ‘We can’t do that.’ “
Breyer said Wieking also has a knack for diplomacy with judges.
“Judges frequently resist change,” Breyer said. “They think, especially at the district court level because they operate autonomously, that they have the answers to any number of questions. Rich was able to take these 21 or 22 well-developed egos and shepherd them in a way that would serve the greater good of the district.
“So when it came to innovation like electronic filing, and changes in how lawyers and judges have approached doing the work, for many, many years he was able to innovate.
“At the same time, he maintained the highest office morale that I have ever seen in government.”
Wieking said that assembling a “crack staff” was his greatest achievement.
“I took a court in some disrepair and brought it to a quite highly functioning state. We are looked to by many federal courts for tips on optimal ways to operate a busy trial court.”
Chief Deputy of Operations Kathleen Shambaugh, who works directly under Wieking, credited him with a management style that inspires loyalty.
“It is a joy to work with him. He is just so giving,” she said.
Wieking hired Shambaugh a year ago from Contra Costa County Superior Court, where she worked for 20 years. Shambaugh said it was Wieking’s mentorship that eased her transition into the federal judiciary.
“He made himself available to me every day. The generosity of time, the generosity of knowledge that he has been willing to share with me is just something that in 20 plus years in the judiciary is unprecedented. I have never experienced anybody as knowledgeable, as joyful, and as committed to the judiciary as Rich is,” she said.
“He will go from being my boss to my lifelong friend. That’s really unusual in the court system, that you have people who trust you and inspire you and make you better.”
Wieking is also known for the archive of corny jokes that he unloads on his staff at court functions.
“I’ve tried to put them out of my mind because they’re so awful,” Shambaugh said, laughing. She noted that one question Wieking asked her during their series of interviews was whether she had a sense of humor.
“He’s told these jokes at every court gathering I’ve attended this last year,” Shambaugh said. “You can hear a collective groan when he tells them, but it’s also a way he endears himself to people.”
“They are truly corny jokes,” Wieking acknowledged. “I try to vary them constantly. Sometimes I promise to retire a joke because it’s been heard so many times.”
Wieking said one of his favorites is about the hot dog that walked into a bar.
“The bartender said sorry, the hotdog couldn’t come in, because they didn’t serve food there.”
Wieking attributes his staff’s high morale to the courtesy and respect he’s fostered for the public.
“When I’m going up and down the elevator I will talk to people and ask them, ‘How are they treating you in there? Do they know what they’re doing? Are they friendly?’
“‘These guys are great,’ is the message I typically get. I think that’s extremely important. And then responsiveness, authentically meeting needs that are presented to you. If there’s some oddball question or request that’s out of the ordinary, don’t bureaucratically slough it off. Rather, take it on and see if something can’t be done that’s out of the ordinary to help meet that need. Those principles have served us well.”
Swanson said: “He is one of the most pleasant faces you encounter in the courthouse. The work that goes on in the courthouse is often very hard, and if you have someone who can bring joy to the work, it’s always welcome. We’re going to miss him.”
Wieking plans to spend his newfound leisure time salmon fishing on the Rogue River in Southern Oregon, cultivating old friendships, and spending time with his children, his grandkids and his wife Tania of 38 years, who also just announced her retirement.
An avid student of German, he’s looking forward to leaving on Sept. 2 for a five-week bike trip through the German-speaking countries of Europe with his wife.
“While my court work had been deeply fulfilling, I’ve had to neglect other things I also want to do,” Wieking said. “As I said in a note to my staff, I can’t recapture time lost on pursuing those other parts of my life. But that’s not to say I don’t like my job intensely.
“I don’t have any plans to turn the world upside down,” Wieking said. “I just want time to fish and visit with my family.”
*Photo credit: The Northern District of California
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