The office of chief judge for any federal court is tricky. It involves a great deal of extra administrative work as well as the expectation—from the title, at least—that one is somehow “in charge” of the court. Yet the chief judge’s vote has no more weight than that of his or her colleagues, and because one assumes the role through seniority, not election, a chief judge lacks even the ability to rely on any kind of perceived mandate. The institution that the chief judge is supposed to lead, moreover, includes lots of colleagues with lifetime appointments!
The recent tenure of R. Guy Cole, Jr. as Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit—a term that he concluded last week—well illustrates one way that a chief judge can influence the court he leads, notwithstanding the challenges inherent in the position: by setting the tone for the court. Anyone who has litigated before Judge Cole or who has met him outside of court knows that, in addition to being a brilliant jurist, he is among the kindest, gentlest, and most courteous, respectful, and down-to-earth people—not just among federal judges, but generally.
His demeanor and approach have benefited the Sixth Circuit immensely during his time as chief judge. Particularly for a court that, as an institution, has sometimes struggled with its internal dynamics, Judge Cole’s tone has been a balm. The job of chief judge is generally pretty thankless, but Judge Cole deserves all of our thanks for his leadership these last nearly seven years.
The court remains fortunate that Judge Cole has now passed the baton to Jeffrey S. Sutton as the new chief judge because Judge Sutton’s kind, thoughtful, and considerate style is well suited to build on the legacy of his predecessor. Perhaps it’s time to add “wise chief judges for the Sixth Circuit” to the lengthy list of things Columbus, Ohio does well.