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1 Week to the New Chief: Montana's Sidney Thomas Takes Top Spot

By William Peacock, Esq. on November 25, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

It's been a heck of a ride with Chief Judge Alex Kozinski at the top of the Ninth Circuit, but with his seven-year term coming to a close, prepare for a different, more subdued, albeit equally able chief: Judge Sidney R. Thomas.

The ageist numbers game that comprise the rules of succession mean that Clinton-appointed Thomas will be the next in line, and because he is a young sixty-one years of age, he should hold the spot down for the next seven years. At the end of a chief judge's term, the position goes to the most senior judge under the age of sixty-five who has not previously served as chief. Terms end after seven years or when the chief reaches the age of seventy.

Sidney Thomas is that man, a Montana man since birth and through law school, the third such man to take the top spot in the nation's busiest circuit.

Who is Sidney R. Thomas? Montana.

For all you young'ns who only read the headlines, you may have overlooked Judge Thomas' presence on the court since 1996. The Helena Independent Record says that he is "known for his intellect, work ethic and even-keel demeanor."

He is also pure unadulterated Montana. Born in Bozeman, educated at Montana State University (B.A.) and the University of Montana (J.D.), he worked in private practice in Billings before his nomination to the bench by President Bill Clinton. He is married to a Billings, Montana attorney, and has arranged for 10 special hearings of Ninth Circuit cases in Montana -- only one had been heard in the state previously.

"It's humbling, but I hope I can bring Montana values of common sense and collegiality to the task," Thomas said of his appointment in an interview with the Record. "I hope I can bring some credit to Montana."

He also has his chambers in Billings, Montana and plans to keep them there, commuting to California when necessary.

Big Circuit. Big Task.

One of our favorite things about the Ninth Circuit is its transparency: live streams of oral arguments, preservation of online resources cited in opinions, and posting of judicial misconduct orders online are all steps that increase access to and confidence in the judiciary. One can expect that to continue with Thomas, who is already involved with the court's IT staff.

He's also involved with much of the administrative stuff that will take up more of his time now that he is chief. According to the Record, he has been the En Banc coordinator for 14 years, the death penalty case coordinator for 12 years, and serves on the circuit's judicial council, which handles administration of the circuit.

Finally, he also has the full backing of his predecessor, (Soon to be Former) Chief Judge Alex Kozinski.

"He'll be fabulous," Kozinski told the Record. "He'll be a really epic chief judge. He's already a great judge."

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