“Our Kind of Rock Star:” Judge Edward Leavy Receives 2015 Devitt Award
By Adair Law
On November 13, 2015, Judge Edward Leavy, an outstanding son of Oregon and a senior jurist on the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, received the Edward J. Devitt Distinguished Service to Justice Award at the Supreme Court.
The award was created in 1982 when Dwight D. Opperman, former president and chair of West Publishing Company, worked with Chief Justice Warren Burger to craft a high honor for an Article III federal judge for distinguished and exceptional service. The two men chose to name the award after their esteemed friend, Judge Edward J. Devitt, who epitomized the highest standard of the federal bench. The Devitt Award has been likened to a Nobel Prize for the American judiciary and comes with a cash gift of $15,000.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas chaired this year’s selection panel. He stated, “Judge Leavy is truly an outstanding man who is deeply respected and admired by those who know him. He brings great honor and prestige to the tradition of this award.” In his nomination letter for the award, Ninth Circuit Chief Judge Sidney Thomas wrote, “Our colleague Ed Leavy has done it all….He is a great judge, but his true genius is in the role of mediator. He is the judge to whom chief judges and colleagues turn to solve difficult, complex cases of national importance, from recent billion dollar settlements to a plea agreement in a national security case.” On hearing that he had received this honor, Judge Leavy said, “I am overwhelmed and humbled by the kind and generous support of those who supported my nomination. It is a source of great pride to be identified with the distinguished recipients of this award.”
Guests at the Washington, D.C. event included Chief Justice John Roberts, Julie Chrystyn Opperman, Justices Anthony Kennedy, Sonia Sotomayor, and Clarence Thomas. November 13 was also the birthday of Judge Leavy’s wife, Eileen and she was feted with a splendid cake and serenaded by Justice Anthony Kennedy.
Judge Leavy’s longtime clerk Kathy Dodds made after dinner remarks that were well received. Oregon trial attorney William A. Barton entertained guests as Oliver Wendell Holmes and Justice Thomas’s thunderous laughter was noted.
On December 15 there was a special session of the Ninth Circuit in Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse to commemorate Judge Leavy’s receipt of the award. The historic second-floor courtroom was so packed with friends, family and well-wishers that the crowd overflowed into the surrounding rooms.
Ninth Circuit and Court Executive Cathy Catterson called proceedings to order and Chief Judge Sidney Thomas made introductions. In his later remarks, Judge Leavy noted “We have enough 9th Circuit Judges to change a lightbulb if we could just decide on which one to change.” Father Mark L. Poorman, C.S.C, president of Judge Leavy’s alma mater University of Portland, noted that Judge Leavy had been instrumental in the continuity of the university’s annual Red Mass, which is conducted every fall for all those who seek justice. Ninth Circuit Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain described Judge Leavy, who is “the quintessential country lawyer and hops farmer in style and demeanor yet is smarter than all of us. He personally engages with anyone he meets.” He also noted Judge Leavy’s groundbreaking work: “Ed became one of the first federal magistrates to conduct civil trials by consent of the parties in federal court, in large part because judges as well as attorneys trusted his judgment. As I see it, we learned to believe in the magistrate system because we first believed in Ed.”
Judge Anna Brown, who noted that in her position on the bench she sits “in the line of Leavy” composed an 11-stanza limerick on the life of Judge Leavy, rhyming humility with gentility. She took part in the USDCHS annual meeting on November 12, then jetted to Washington, D.C. to attend the Devitt Award Ceremony on what she described as “a very lucky Friday the 13th.”
Richard G. Spier, 2015 Oregon State Bar president, became acquainted with Judge Leavy as a young law clerk for Judge Otto Skopil. Almost certainly, he was the only attorney in the room who had once tuned up a car with Judge Leavy. He told the crowd, “I learned to be a well-prepared lawyer after appearing before a well-prepared judge.” Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum called Judge Leavy “our kind of rock star.” She noted that she had appeared before Judge Leavy in all his judicial capacities, from Lane County district and circuit court judge onward. Attorney General Rosenblum told the audience that whether he was speaking with a troubled juvenile or someone accused of mishandling nuclear secrets, she was sure he addressed them both with the same demeanor.
Judge John Clifford Wallace, a 2006 Devitt award recipient, said “I want to congratulate all of you for being here at this love fest. We are all better off because of Ed’s life.” From his own experience he said, “The award reminds me of how much I can do better.” When the time came for Judge Leavy to share some thoughts, he told the crowd, “You’re all here because of simple friendship.” He noted the presence of Antoinette Hatfield, wife of Senator Mark Hatfield. He recalled his Senate confirmation hearing. “With Senators Packwood and Hatfield sitting on either side of me, I never felt more powerful.” After his confirmation hearing, he was making his way out to the sidewalk when a gentleman prowling about the area walked up to him and said, “Are you anybody?” Judge Leavy responded, “How the hell do I know?” He noted that since receiving the award, he finds himself thinking, “Why do people think I am worthy? What can I do to make them think they are right?” He said his task for the coming year will be setting out to make all that has been said about him true. The U.S. District Court of Oregon Historical Society congratulates Judge Edward Leavy on receiving this award.