Judge Roger L. Gregory, the former law partner of L. Douglas Wilder, will take over as chief judge of the Richmond-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Saturday.
Gregory, 62, joined the court in 2000. He was the first African-American to serve on what was then widely viewed as the most conservative of the nation’s 12 federal circuit courts. He also will be the first African-American to serve as the court’s chief judge.
Based in Richmond, the 4th Circuit has 15 active and two senior judges and handles appeals from Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.
The federal circuit courts of appeal generally have low public profiles but play powerful roles in the judicial system.
“It’s the court of last resort for the five states in the circuit in 99 percent of the cases,” said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law and an expert on the court.
Few cases from the federal circuit courts are accepted by the U.S. Supreme Court on appeal.
“So really it is your supreme court. ... It has the final say in all but 1 percent of the cases,” he said.
Gregory, a native of Philadelphia, grew up in Petersburg and graduated from Petersburg High School in 1971.
He graduated from Virginia State University in 1975 and from the University of Michigan Law School in 1978.
Gregory, who was not available for an interview last week, was a lawyer in Michigan from 1978 to 1980 and then with Hunton & Williams in Richmond until 1982, when he and Wilder created the firm of Wilder & Gregory.
He joined the appeals court in late 2000, when outgoing President Bill Clinton appointed him during a congressional recess to fill a newly created seat.
Gregory was 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 ever to be appointed to a federal appeals court by presidents of two different parties.
He replaces Chief Judge William B. Traxler Jr. of South Carolina, whose seven-year term as the chief expires Friday. There is no ceremony noting a new chief judge.
Tobias said the active judge with the most seniority — and who is under age 65 — becomes the new chief judge when the prior chief’s term expires.
Of the court’s current 17 judges, six were appointed by Republican presidents and 11 by Democratic ones — seven by President Barack Obama.
The judges of the appeals court usually hear cases in randomly assigned three-judge panels.
One of the most high-profile recent Virginia cases before the court was last year’s 3-0 affirmation of the 2014 corruption convictions of former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen. That decision last month was overturned by a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court, which sent the case back to the 4th Circuit.
Gregory was not on the McDonnell panel but was one of the two judges voting in the majority on the 2014 panel that upheld a lower-court ruling that struck down Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage. He authored the unanimous panel’s opinion that upheld the tax subsidies under the Affordable Care Act.
The court today is quite different from the one Gregory first joined. Obama’s appointees especially have “changed the tenor of the court,” Tobias said.
“It used to be considered the most conservative, politically, in the country. But I don’t think that’s true anymore,” he said.
Tobias said that as chief judge, Gregory will have some new, substantial responsibilities. Among them: serving as the public face of the court; overseeing court operations, including budget and employment matters; allocating work among the judges; heading the court’s judicial council, which sets court policy; representing the 4th Circuit on the judicial conference, the national policymaking arm of the federal judiciary; and fielding initial complaints about judges.
“It’s not a fun job, really. Everybody wants something from you, and you have to make sure the court works,” Tobias said. “I think the most difficult part is if there’s a judge who is not pulling his or her weight,” he added.
Gregory has three daughters and one granddaughter. Carla L. Gregory, his wife of nearly 29 years, died of cancer in 2009. Last November, he married Velda Edwards.
He has served as president of the Old Dominion Bar Association. Gregory also has been rector of the Virginia Commonwealth University board of visitors and served on the VSU board. He has taught, as an adjunct professor, constitutional law.
He currently serves on the board of trustees of the University of Richmond and the John Marshall Foundation.
His awards include the National Bar Association’s Gertrude E. Rush and Equal Justice Awards, the National Conference of Christians and Jews’ Humanitarian Award, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund’s Award of Excellence and the UR School of Law’s William Green Award for Professional Excellence.