For San Jose-based U.S. District Judge James Ware, becoming the Bay Area's next chief federal judge means more than assuming a key leadership role in the judiciary. It is also a return to the spotlight for the first time since a public humiliation 13 years ago almost cost him his career.
The 64-year-old Ware, once considered such a rising star that even a U.S. Supreme Court nomination wasn't out of the question, fell from grace in 1997 when it was revealed that he had lied for years about a civil-rights-era murder in his family. He was rebuked by a federal disciplinary panel and had to abandon a nomination to a federal appeals court.
Since that time, Ware has restored his reputation as one of the region's best trial judges and pushed the past away. In January, he will become Northern California's second African-American chief judge, taking the post held by Vaughn Walker, and the first from the San Jose courthouse in more than two decades.
During a recent visit in his chambers, he pulled out a piece of paper and scrawled five circles in a loosely defined pattern. One of the circles, Ware points out, does not define his entire life. He scribbles that pattern whenever he needs to be reminded of the importance of considering all five of those circles, all parts of his life. Not just the one.
"The fact I had to admit to that mistake -- I consider it like any mistake I've made," Ware said in his first comments in years on the subject. "It's a teaching point."
"I try to look at life as a person who tries diligently to understand the human condition, including my own."
'Paid his dues'
Under federal court procedures, Ware ascends to chief judge based on his seniority as a full-time judge. Although many of his colleagues were once deeply troubled by his ethical lapse, there was no movement within the court to deny him the chance to serve as chief, according to local judges.
As one put it, "I don't think the discomfort is gone, but given the situation, everyone wishes him well and will work with him. It's not like he didn't pay a price. He did."
The legal community likewise believes Ware has earned a chance to serve as chief, noting that he has always been one of the judges most involved in community service, law schools and other programs to raise the visibility of the federal courts.
"He has paid his dues," said Rory Little, a Hastings College of the Law professor and close observer of the local federal courts. "He's performed admirably as a judge for the past 15 years. He's just put his head down and "... kept working."
Former President George H.W. Bush nominated Ware to the federal bench in 1990, after he'd served for two years as a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge. Presiding over a steady diet of major Silicon Valley legal issues, from high-tech feuds to a notorious child pornography ring known as the Orchid Club, Ware earned widespread praise as a judge on the rise.
In 1997, former President Bill Clinton nominated Ware to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. But on the brink of confirmation, Ware's career went off the tracks.
For years, Ware had recounted the compelling story of how his brother had been murdered by white racists in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963. But news of the nomination prompted a revelation: that Ware had appropriated the account of another James Ware from Alabama and made up his own involvement in history.
At the time, Ware said he assumed the story as his own for speeches to underscore the issue of discrimination and illustrate his commitment to civil rights. He has not elaborated on what motivated him to keep using the false account, but he told a discipline panel that he came to believe the actual victim of the murder, Virgil Ware, was related to him.
Ware apologized, retreated somewhat from more public court events and returned to the daily work of a federal trial judge. In recent years, he has re-emerged, handling a host of high-profile cases, including a legal battle over the CIA's "torture flights" and a challenge to the city of San Jose's attempts to limit political contributions from independent political committees.
Carrying the flag
Now, he'll take on the chief judge's duties, including the administrative task of leading the local federal courts. He plans to shift his chambers to the court's center in San Francisco once the Senate, as expected, confirms Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Edward Davila to a federal judgeship sometime next year. Many say Ware is well-suited for the role.
"I think he'll be an amazing chief judge," said Jeff Hayden, one of Ware's former law clerks. "He has the ability of asserting what he needs to assert and at the same time making the other person comfortable."
Ware could serve as long as seven years as chief judge, but he says he'll evaluate his status when he turns 65 next fall, which would allow him to take on semiretired status or just retire with full benefits. In the meantime, he considers it an ideal period to lead the court.
"We have such an active bench that it's not as though I'm going to be calling all the shots," Ware said. "I just think now is an opportunity for the chief judge to set the tone and carry the cultural flag for the court."
Contact Howard Mintz at 408-286-0236.
NAME: James Ware
BORN: Nov. 2, 1946, in Birmingham, Ala.
EXPERIENCE: Takes over in January as chief judge of the Northern District of California. Federal judge since 1990, when he was appointed to the bench by former President George H.W. Bush. Previously served two years as a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge, and as a lawyer in Palo Alto specializing in civil rights and discrimination cases.
EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree in speech and debate from Cal Lutheran University; law degree from Stanford University.
NOTEWORTHY: Nominated to a federal appeals court in 1997, but forced to withdraw when controversy erupted over his false story about family murder during the civil rights era. Has presided over many high-profile Silicon Valley legal battles, including challenge to CIA torture flights, fight over rights to sex.com domain name, challenge to San Jose's limits on political campaign contributions and rare criminal prosecution for economic espionage.