Chief Judge Claudia Wilken Takes Over

Chief Judge Claudia Wilken

California’s federal court for the Northern District has a new chief judge.

Chief Judge Claudia Wilken, sitting in the Oakland branch court took over officially on Saturday, Sept. 1.  But Tuesday is the court’s first official working day.

She replaced the retiring Chief Judge James Ware, who had the job less than two years before deciding to leave the court for private judging with JAMS.

Presiding judges are selected based on a combination of seniority and age.  Wilken was the next eligible judge in line for the post.

She may hold the post for a maximum of seven years.

As chief judge her role is largely administrative, presiding over policy decisions made by the judges, a job that has been described as akin to “herding cats.”

“I am honored and excited to have the opportunity to serve this outstanding federal court in this new capacity,” she said in a prepared statement. “I look forward to working with my colleagues and our court staff to maintain and improve the services the court offers to the public even in the face of the significant budget constraints facing the United States courts.”

Wilken, who began her career as a federal public defender in this district in 1975, was nominated to the court in 1993 by President Bill Clinton and confirmed by the Senate a month later.

Following three years as a public defender, she was in private practice from 1978 to 1984 and an adjunct professor at the University of California,s Boalt Hall School of Law at Berkeley during the same period.  She was also a professor at New College School of Law from 1980 to 1985.

She was selected as a U.S. Magistrate Judge by the district court in 1983 and served until her nomination to a judgeship in 1993.


During her tenure, Wilken presided over the 1997 civil rights suit brought by environmental activists Judy Bari and Daryl Cherney that claimed the FBI and police falsely arrested them an tried to frame them as terrorists after a homemade bomb blew up in Bari’s car, injuring them both.

In 2002, after Bari’s death from cancer, a federal jury sided with Bari and Cherney and awarded $4.4 million for FBI and Oakland police violation of their free speech and free assembly rights.

In 2008, she gave the Interior Dept. 16 days to decide if the polar bear should be on the endangered species list, refusing the department’s request for more time to study it.

That same year she upheld a San Francisco law banning the sale of cigarettes in pharmacies.

In May, Wilken held the Defense of Marriage Act and a portion of the tax code unconstitutionally limit same-sex couples and domestic partners from using the long-term care plan offered by the state pension system; the California Public Employees’ Retirement System.  She joined other judges around the country who had come to similar conclusions.

She also kept alive an antitrust lawsuit by college athletes against gamemaker Electronic Arts over allegations the company conspired with college authorities to trick athletes into signing away commercial contract rights to their images and publicity.

Judge Ware

Ware has served on the court since 1990, following two years as a state court judge in Santa Clara County.

He became chief judge in January 2011 with the departure of Chief Judge Vaughn Walker, who also retired to work in private judging.





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