Roger Gregory already has made history. Now he just has to keep his job. 

The Judge is Waiting

Alone at a table, Roger L. Gregory sits straight in a cordovan leather chair, quietly awaiting his place in history. He folds his hands in front of him. He rests the toes of his polished shoes on the deep-red carpet beneath him. He looks ahead.

It is Thursday, Jan. 18, and Gregory is about to become the first African-American judge on the Richmond-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, one of the 12 regional appeals courts in the country. The appeals courts are outranked only by the U.S. Supreme Court.

At 47 years old, Gregory has seen a little gray creep into his short black hair. But if it weren't for a mustache, his youthful, round face would seem almost boyish. He speaks the way he thinks, his friends say: clearly, carefully, deliberately. He is even-keeled without being a pushover. He is described as a family man, a community-minded leader and a skillful lawyer. He possesses a cerebral sense of humor.

And soon he will be powerful. After he takes the oath, Gregory will be the lone face of color on a court that has always been all-white, a court that serves a five-state area with the country's highest percentage of black residents.

It also could be a victory for President Clinton, who called Gregory "one of Richmond's most respected trial lawyers." For years, Clinton has tried in vain to place someone on the 4th Circuit bench during a time when judicial nominations have grown increasingly stalled and politicized by both parties. As a result, Gregory's nomination has drawn national attention.

Today's ceremony seems far removed from all that. Here, in Room 300 of the U.S. Courthouse in Charlottesville, are gathered fewer than 40 people: judges, court officials, news reporters and several other onlookers.

As for those closest to him, only Gregory's wife, Carla, is here; she sits behind him, holding the family Bible that will be used during the swearing-in. Their three daughters, Adriene, Rachel and Christina, are absent, as is Gregory's former professor and law partner, former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder. And so are most of Gregory's other friends and associates. Gregory prefers this.

Shortly after 10:30 a.m., a court clerk announces Chief Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III. Everyone stands. Wilkinson, wearing a black robe over his slight frame, enters the courtroom, walks up the steps to the bench and takes his seat. The chief judge, who has contended that his court needs no more judges, looks at Gregory through big glasses and smiles.

"Sometimes swearing-ins are not everything we expect," Wilkinson begins. This ceremony, he continues, will be as Gregory has requested, "as informal and as understated as possible."

Gregory is struggling to keep his ascension to the bench as low-key as he can. For example, he is not granting interviews, and the news media were kept out of a recent speech to the Old Dominion Bar Association.

Under the circumstances, say Gregory's friends, such humility is wise. "It's probably the only way to play it," says Richmond lawyer Charles D. Chambliss Jr., who first met Gregory in the early 1970s.

Now, as Gregory begins hearing February's docket of cases as a member of the federal bench, the judge has found himself in a delicate situation.

Although his rise to the 4th Circuit Court is historic, Gregory has no idea whether his position will be permanent. It could end in a year. It could last a lifetime. That depends on a variety of political forces — and the U.S. Senate.

Nobody has criticized Gregory, and his supporters are especially vocal. Gregory is "an intelligent and outstanding litigator," says Marilynn C. Goss, president of the Old Dominion Bar Association. "He does not just bring diversity to the bench, he brings his intellect and all that there is to being a good lawyer. And I think he'll be an excellent judge."

So why is his position tenuous? It starts with the way Gregory was named to the bench.

From the 1980s to the early '90s, Presidents Reagan and Bush filled judicial vacancies with gusto, until the Democrats decided to wage war against Supreme Court nominees Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas.

When Clinton took office, with Republicans in control of Congress, the tide had turned. Now conservatives could fight. In the case of the 4th Circuit, which had five vacancies on a 15-member court, North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms invoked a congressional rule that allowed him to repeatedly block nominees from his state.

Indeed, Clinton had tried sending an African-American nominee for the 4th circuit to three Congresses; none received a committee hearing. (North Carolina Judge James A. Wynn was renominated in January.)

(Scott Elmquist / Style Weekly)
Clinton kept trying, though. On June 30, he nominated Gregory. But with familiar inaction, Congress ended its session without addressing the nominee.

So in late December, Clinton made an extremely rare move. He appointed Gregory during a Senate recess, thus getting around a confirmation. The catch is, such an appointment lasts only a year. When the Senate reconvened in January, Clinton tried again, sending up Gregory's name for a permanent appointment.

Now there's a new president in the White House — and a new Senate at the helm. There is also a debate about how many judges the 4th Circuit needs. The appeals court has 15 seats, and four remain unfilled. Sen. John Warner and other senators have suggested a number of potential nominees to fill the vacancies, while Wilkinson, the court's chief judge, has argued that the court is more effective when it is smaller. Sen. Helms agrees with Wilkinson.

It is in this limbo that Gregory lives.

Meanwhile, Gregory is staying tight-lipped and out of the fray while he waits for the Senate to act. (He declined to talk with Style Weekly, saying only of its interest in him, "I'm very honored and flattered.") As Chambliss sees it, such silence in public improves his chances for a confirmation.

"When there's nothing negative being thrown out about you, about the only thing you can do is come out and say something dumb," Chambliss says. "He's already laid out his credentials and his whole life out there, so [he should] sort of leave it to others to do all of the bantering until it's over."

It's likely Gregory misses offering his own take on the groundbreaking situation. "He's sort of a history nut — to a fault," says Chambliss, a colleague of Gregory's and a fellow member of the Old Dominion Bar Association, a statewide group of black attorneys. "In a conversation of more than five minutes it will be virtually impossible for some historical note not to [come up]," he says.

Though he didn't know him then, Chambliss grew up near the Petersburg neighborhood where Gregory was raised.

The blue-collar neighborhood was somewhat rough, Chambliss says, but Gregory, an only child, studied hard in school, pushed by his parents. Gregory's father was a popular gospel singer; his mother worked as a maid. One of the places she helped clean was Virginia State University, from which Gregory graduated summa cum laude in 1975.

Gregory left Richmond to attend the well-respected law school at the University of Michigan. After he graduated in 1978, he landed a job at a Detroit law firm, where he was its first black lawyer. By 1980, he was ready to return to Richmond. Hunton & Williams snapped him up; Gregory was the firm's second black lawyer.

Robert Brooks, a partner at Hunton & Williams who has practiced law there for nearly 37 years, recalls his first impression of Gregory. "Very engaging, self-effacing, eager to please, a very even temperament," he says. "I remember Roger as a man with a smile, and as a man with a willingness to engage whatever the project might be."

Within that year, he married Carla Lewis, a librarian at Philip Morris.

At work, Gregory was assigned to a three-person litigation team headed by Lewis T. Booker. "Roger just took like a duck to water," Booker recalls. He could think quickly on his feet and elicit frank testimony from witnesses, Booker says — and do it in a low-key way.

"He does not have a confrontational style," Booker says. "He didn't badger witnesses. He would establish his points quietly and effectively and move on. … I never saw Roger when he was discourteous to another lawyer or a witness or anyone."

But Gregory learned early that racial prejudice could overshadow his skills. In a 1990 interview with Style, he described one time when Hunton & Williams assigned him to represent a white woman in federal court:

"I walked in and I said, 'I'm the lawyer that's been appointed to represent you,' and her face went from eye level to the floor in a precipitous drop. It was like, 'Oh my goodness, here I've been appointed a black lawyer to represent me.'

"I thought, Here I am, I went to one of the best law schools in the country, I'm at Hunton & Williams. But it didn't make any difference to her. To her, she saw I was a black person and there was obviously nothing I could do to help her.

"But, at the end of it, she learned so much about herself, she wrote me a beautiful note and thanked me, and it worked out very well. The thing was, I didn't get angry with her. I tried to understand — I mean, that was her perception, that a black person couldn't be a [good] lawyer. But all I can remember, it didn't matter what I had on the ball or where I worked, that perception was so strong."

As Chambliss tells it, during that time, Gregory also learned the secret to winning in court from one of the lawyers he respected.

One of Gregory's first jury trials pitted him against Sam Tucker, an esteemed black lawyer who practiced with the legendary Oliver Hill Sr. Both men were admired by Gregory. But Gregory argued hard. Still, he lost. After the trial, Tucker approached the disappointed young attorney. He told Gregory that he had done an excellent job and even had the law on his side. "But," Tucker added, "I had the jury."

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