Most people know E. Gordon Gee as the bow-tied and spectacled president of West Virginia University, but few know that he worked for two years as the first Judicial Fellow for Chief Justice Warren E. Burger of the United States Supreme Court.
“The judiciary decided to have a Fellows Program for more senior people that competed with the White House Fellows Program, so I was the first,” Gee said. “And as such, I had an opportunity to work very closely with the Chief Justice, and I came for only a year and was there for nearly two years.”
According to the Supreme Court’s website, the Fellows Program is meant to give recent law graduates an opportunity to deepen their knowledge of the courts. Started in 1973, the program selects four individuals to serve with one of four federal agencies. Gee, 28 at the time, was one of the first selected in 1973.
“It was very competitive,” Gee said. “I was interviewed by the Chief Justice before he gave a speech in New Orleans, Louisiana. I even remember the hotel: the Roosevelt.”
Gee said that his time in the Court was exciting and fulfilling. He served during the Watergate period in American politics, when burglars connected to President Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign were caught in the offices of the Democratic National Committee.
“Some of the most important cases in the nation came up — Nixon v. United States,” Gee said. “It was also a time in which they were starting to reform the federal court system, and I ended up being the secretariat [on a] commission to reform the federal courts, so I continued to work even after I left the Supreme Court.”
Gee said that the Chief Justice has a two-pronged job. He or she is both the Chief Justice, the greatest among equals on the court, and is also in charge of the federal judiciary. This means he or she is head of all judges and administrative offices of the United States judicial system.
“[Chief Justice Warren Burger] decided that he wanted to have a major reform of how they did their business, how [officers] were appointed and a variety of other things, and that was called the Debit Commission, of which I was the executive director,” Gee said.
Gee further explained the details of his position at the Supreme Court.
“I went around and visited with a lot of federal judges around the country. It was how cases were heard, speed to trial, a variety of recommendations that came out of that — all of it to make the courts more effective and efficient,” Gee said. “[There were] too many delays and not enough judges to hear some of the cases, so we made recommendations about adding additional judges [and] problems in terms of where cases were being held.” Gee said.
These problems, which Gee helped to fix, most often came up in the form of inefficiently used time.
“It was all about efficiency, effectiveness and access to the courts,” Gee said. “[There were] problems in terms of where cases were being held, particularly at the appeals level, because it was sometimes difficult for some of the advocates to come [to court].”
Since the federal court system is so expansive, Gee’s position took him all over the country in search of solutions to problems.
“I visited a lot of the courts — New Orleans, Denver, San Francisco, Chicago — and of course I would meet with many of the judges,” Gee said. “My job was to go around, get ideas, put together recommendations and then the commission would recruit [judges]... I got to know a number of justices very well because of the role I was playing. I developed some very strong friendships, which I still cherish.”