Roger Gregory is no stranger to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, having served as one of its judges since 2000. But in July 2016, he took on a new role with significant new responsibility.
Now chief judge of the Richmond-based 4th Circuit, Gregory has inherited a position that he says is challenging but rewarding.
"There are a lot of administrative duties – there's no question about that," Gregory said. "But it's great. It's a great court and staff. ... I'm very humbled to do it."
Gregory, 63, assumed the top job as the seven-year term of Judge William B. Traxler Jr. of South Carolina expired.
Because so few cases are taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court, Gregory is now leader of the federal appeals court that is, for all intents and purposes, the court of last resort for the states of Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and South Carolina.
The 4th Circuit was once considered the most conservative of the country's 12 regional circuit courts of appeal, and it was the last to remain all-white until Gregory joined it in 2000. He is now also the first African-American to serve as the 17-judge court's chief jurist.
Gregory was born in Philadelphia but grew up in Petersburg. He graduated from Petersburg High School in 1971, from Virginia State University in 1975 and from the University of Michigan Law School in 1978. He was a lawyer in Michigan until 1980 and with Hunton & Williams in Richmond until 1982, when he and L. Douglas Wilder, who later became governor, created the firm of Wilder & Gregory.
In late 2000, during a congressional recess, outgoing President Bill Clinton appointed Gregory to the 4th Circuit to fill a newly created seat. Gregory was then nominated to the same position by President George W. Bush in 2001 and confirmed by the U.S. Senate in a 93-1 vote on July 20, 2001. He is the only person to be appointed to a federal appeals court by presidents of two different parties.
From September through May, the court hears arguments at the Richmond courthouse at 1100 E. Main St. for several days one week a month. Gregory completed his first round of arguments as chief judge in September, and the court heard from lawyers in 62 cases. All but one of them were randomly assigned to three-judge panels, with the others heard by the entire court.
As chief judge, Gregory takes on duties that include overseeing court operations, allocating work among the judges and playing a key role in setting policy for the 4th Circuit; he also serves on the judicial conference that sets national court policy. His administrative duties also cover the many lower-court judges in the circuits.
"It's a lot, it's a lot. I had some perspective on our court, but the whole circuit – all of the 160 judges, more or less, in the five states – I can say that you have to be organized and stay on top of it and be ready for the unexpected," Gregory said. "But I enjoy it. It comes with the position."
Even with the elevated duties – and finding time for playwrighting and acting in local theater – he is still an appellate judge.
"I still have my day job," Gregory said. "I'm reminded that after these arguments, I get the same caseload as everybody else. So you definitely have to balance it."
ROGER L. GREGORY
Position: chief judge, 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals
Family: wife Velda; daughters Adriene, Rachel and Christina; three stepsons; two grandchildren and four stepgrandchildren
IN HIS WORDS
Tell us about a setback and what you learned from it.
In elementary school, I always wanted to be a safety patrol officer. I so badly wanted to wear that shoulder sash and badge. Yet year after year, I was never chosen. The same “favored” students were selected.
But I learned valuable lessons from that experience. I learned that bitterness and self-pity would never relieve the pain of slight or disappointment. I learned that I had to keep my head up and continue on with character, courage and competence to show that I deserved the position. But much more importantly, I learned that when I do get a seat in the room, I have an obligation to remember and speak for those who are not at the table, because they never got the opportunity.
Tell us about a small moment in your life with a big impact.
A few weeks after my late wife’s first surgery for removal of a malignant brain tumor, she had to undergo chemotherapy. She was to start that treatment on a Monday. On the preceding Saturday, I went to the pharmacy to fill the prescription for her chemotherapy drugs. I gave the prescription and my insurance information to the woman behind the glass wall, and she immediately placed the order.
But after a few moments, she told me that our insurance did not cover the medication. I was sure that this had to be a mistake, but the woman politely insisted that there was no coverage for the prescribed drugs. I told her that my wife needed to start chemotherapy on Monday. But she said there was nothing she could do.
I asked her what could I do. She said I could pay $4,000 in cash now for the drugs. Needless to say, I did not have the money.
While we were discussing the situation, the medicine came down on a dumbwaiter. As the woman was telling me that there was no coverage, I could see the drugs on the desk. But I could not get to what my wife desperately needed. I had to walk away from the glass wall. I never will forget that moment.
Fortunately, we got it straight on Monday. We confirmed with the insurance company that there was coverage for the drugs, and my wife was able to start her chemotherapy on time.
However, I often think about the many who can’t get it straight on Monday. They stand there in silence or rage and can clearly see what they or their loved ones need. The medicine, housing, assistance, education, rehabilitation or employment they so desperately need is just on the other side of the glass. But they can’t reach it! So they walk away in need.
That image still haunts me. Imagine a world where the glass is broken, and healing and hope are accessible to all.
What is something about you that might surprise others?
I am really a shy person. I would much prefer reading nonfiction and biographies than being in the midst of large social gatherings. Don’t get me wrong, I love people – but I much prefer the role of a servant uplifting the human condition of the disinherited and dispossessed, rather than the limelight. Unless I’m on the stage acting!
What alternate profession or course of study would you choose?
I would be a naval officer. I fell in love with the sea as a young boy when I read Nordhoff and Hall’s "Bounty" trilogy. The clash between Mr. Christian’s moral obligation to relieve the suffering of the mistreated crew and his loyalty to His Majesty’s Ship Bounty and duty to obey Captain Bligh’s command was a riveting story that had a lasting impact on me.
I like sailing and almost wish I hadn’t sold my boat. But thanks to Paul Galanti, a real American hero, I had the opportunity to land on the USS Truman carrier in the North Atlantic. It was the thrill of a lifetime to join a naval ship at sea!
What is your favorite movie, etc.?
"Gone with the Wind." I have always enjoyed reading Civil War history and seeing movies and documentaries depicting major battles of the war. David O. Selznick transformed Margaret Mitchell’s novel into a cinematic masterpiece. The scene of the massive number of wounded soldiers at the Atlanta rail yard and the scene, just before intermission, of Scarlett swearing in the desolated fields of Tara are classic. Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar-winning performance was brilliant.
What is something you'd like to do that you haven't done yet?
I would like to perform at the Arena Stage theater in Washington – that would be my Broadway!
If you could spend a day with a historical or fictional character, who would it be?
Howard Thurman, a noted theologian, prolific author, dean of Rankin Chapel at Howard University and adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I am a student of his writings and teach a class based upon his book "Disciplines of the Spirit" at my church in Petersburg. I would like to discuss his marvelous revelations from the Holy Scriptures and his deep and personal encounters with God.
Who is your role model?
L. Douglas Wilder. He was my professor for two constitutional law classes at Virginia State College (now University). The rigor of his analytical approach to constitutional interpretation and his superb mastery of Socratic teaching inspired me to go to law school. A decade later we became law partners. That’s when his real teaching began. He taught me so much about the legal profession and being a lawyer. I also learned that a lawyer has a responsibility to be a leader in fostering the ideals of equality under the law and social justice in his or her community. I have tried to live up to those noble principles. I learned that if you are too overwhelmed by the stroke of praise, you will not be able to overcome the sting of criticism. He has been a great teacher, mentor and, more importantly, a great friend.
What is your greatest strength and weakness?
My greatest strength is a gift of discernment that gives me insight into the nuances of the human experience and inspires me to care for and serve others.
My greatest weakness is a frequent inability to say no to requests to assist with beneficial programs and projects. It sometimes leaves me tired, but I am always the better for the effort.
If you could deliver a message to a large audience, what would it be?
I would deliver a message of gratitude and hope – thankful for the love and support of my parents, teachers, friends and colleagues; hopeful of the wonderful promise that lies ahead for the nation and world if we embrace the beauty of our oneness and celebrate the blessings of our diversity. I would say that we all have a vital stake in making this world better for all of us.
What is your favorite aspect of the Richmond region?
I love the way the Richmond region was kind enough to give an outsider like me a chance. I have enjoyed contributing my time and energy to organizations and institutions that improve economic development and the lives of families, students and communities. I will always be indebted to the Richmond region for this wonderful opportunity to grow in grace as a caring and contributing human being.