Judge Pamela Harris and the Fourth Circuit’s Collaborative Culture

By Derek Stikeleather,

On Friday, I had the pleasure of attending the MSBA/FBA panel discussion on recent impact decisions from the Fourth Circuit. Maryland’s Pamela Harris, the newest addition to the Fourth Circuit, headlined the event at the Greenbelt federal courthouse. Her introductory remarks were predictably gracious, uncontroversial, and eloquent, coming from someone still feeling the glare of the judicial confirmation process. But they were not empty platitudes; she offered some important practice points for the Fourth Circuit bar.

Judge Harris impressed upon the gathered attorneys how collaborative the decision-making process is at the Fourth Circuit. Most practitioners understand that the Fourth Circuit is an uncommonly civil – even genteel – environment for practicing law. The court is well-known for its judges’ practice of descending from the bench to warmly shake hands with the attorneys after every single argument. The judges, despite sometimes profound ideological differences, plainly have a deep respect and true affection for each other and their court. A common refrain of new appointees is how moved they are by the depth of this mutual respect, civility, and collegiality.

Less obvious to practitioners is that the collegiality of the Fourth Circuit in resolving cases extends to the attorneys. Judge Harris stressed how much the judges look to the parties to help them solve complex legal problems and understand their cases. As Judge Harris presented it, it’s almost as if the adversarial process itself fades away and the judges are willing to let the practitioners – through briefing and oral argument – have a proverbial seat at the table as the judges weigh the issues in each case. Given this uncommon dynamic, one needs to appreciate just how much a reasonable, well-researched, and factually supported position can shape a decision when briefing and arguing at the Fourth Circuit. Equally important, practitioners need to realize that any efforts to highlight the other party’s sharp tactics or broken promises during discovery or trial will go over like a lead balloon. Judges will welcome and listen to a skilled, informed, collaborative thinker, not a squabbler.

Judge Harris, by all accounts, appears to be a great fit for the Fourth Circuit’s collaborative culture. A powerful intellect with glittering credentials, she comes across as especially motivated and genuinely excited about the challenges that await her as a federal appellate judge. Although it is somewhat depressing to realize that there are now Fourth Circuit judges who are younger than me, it is nonetheless encouraging to see that the bench continues to attract the best and the brightest.

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