Duties and functions

28-year-old Federal Court clerk humbly ends his tenure

For nearly 28 years, James W. McCormack was responsible for managing the administration of the Federal Courthouse for the Eastern District of Arkansas during a career marked by two unprecedented events.

Shortly after the start of his career, a federal lawsuit was brought against a sitting president, and at the end of his career, a global pandemic killed millions and disrupted their lives for over a year.

On Friday, July 2, McCormack, 64, will leave his office for the last time, retiring after 42 years in the service of the federal judiciary. Next Tuesday his successor and current Deputy Chief Tammy Downs will assume the role of Registrar after being selected by all seven District Judges, her appointment was announced last week in an administrative order issued by U.S. District Chief Justice D . Price Marshall Jr.

“It’s about time,” McCormack said in a recent interview as he reflected on his tenure.

McCormack officially became clerk on January 1, 1994, just four months before Paula Jones filed a federal lawsuit against then-President Bill Clinton, accusing Clinton of sexual harassment, assault and libel. Journalists from around the world converged on Little Rock to follow the story.

[DOCUMENT: Click here to read the order naming Tammy Downs as the new court clerk » arkansasonline.com/620downs/]

“I thought I was arriving in a sleepy little neighborhood and then it all started almost the day I became a clerk,” he said. “It was unprecedented.”

At the other end of his tenure, since March 2020, the task has been devolved on McCormack to keep the federal courthouse operating as fully as possible in the face of a pandemic that has forced the courts to scale back operations, to completely suspend operations. or adopt creative methods. ways to help judges move their cases forward.

“Through it all, we were able to keep the doors of the courthouse open, keep the case moving and keep the public informed,” McCormack said, then added, “There are so many things to justify my leaving now. . To use a sports analogy, I feel like I won five Super Bowls as a player / coach. “

Born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1956, McCormack worked in the federal court system for 42 years. His initial ambition, he said, was to enter law enforcement, but poor eyesight prevented him. While taking an evening class at Rockhurst College (now Rockhurst University) in Kansas City, he attended a lecture on court administration given by the Deputy Chief Clerk of the Western District Court of Missouri.

“I had never heard of that, the clerk’s office, so I was asking questions,” McCormack said. “It’s pretty funny, but I’m like ‘How much money can a guy make doing this?’ because I was married and had a kid on the way. So he said, “Well you start at about $ 10,000 a year and in seven years you can probably make almost $ 28,000 a year. “

“Now that was 1979,” McCormack continued with a laugh. “I say ‘almost $ 30,000 a year in almost seven years? Who could need more money than that?'”

McCormack said he contacted the clerk’s office, took a typing test, and was told that when something opened it would be considered.

“He said he didn’t know when something would open, but I should call him that Friday,” he said. “It started in April and I called him every Friday afternoon from April to November. He would answer the phone and say ‘no news Jim’ and hang up.”

But one day a job opened and McCormack was asked if he could start working the following week.

“He hired me, I think, just to stop calling him but I loved it, I loved it,” he said. “I think the job of a clerk is different, it’s important, it’s history, part of the process, it’s unique.”

From there he went through the federal court system, first in Missouri, then Washington, Wichita, Kan., And in 1993, Little Rock.

McCormack recalled that his appointment as clerk coincided closely with the appointment of Robert Fiske as the first special prosecutor in the Whitewater inquiry that has drawn the Clinton administration into a multi-year controversy.

But it was the lawsuit filed in Little Rock by Jones that drew the world press to McCormack’s door and with it, the need for creative solutions to manage the demand for information.

“You have to remember that this electronic filing came before,” he said. “We had an electronic case management system, but it was not a public system for actual cases. We still had to make copies and distribute them to journalists, so this is where we cut our teeth on the internet and we became one of the very first courts to start posting high-demand documents on scheduled days on the internet. because, remember, this was a high-profile case involving the President of the United States. “

However, the first effort to publish these documents created a deadlock on the courthouse servers, which quickly crashed.

“We didn’t have the capacity so when we first did it I think the whole city went dark because everyone accessed the site at the same time and all the internet servers just went “rrrrrrr” and they had the wheel of death, ”McCormack said.

To get around the problem, he and then-Chief Justice Susan Webber Wright, U.S. District Judge, struck a deal with the Little Rock office of the Associated Press to schedule documents to post to the AP servers, which could then be released. be consulted by other media outlets. .

“This meant that instead of hitting our servers, they would hit the AP servers, which could handle the demand,” he said. “It was really cool because the press was part of the solution.”

Kelly Kissel, then editor-in-chief of the AP, recalled that part of the agreement provided that AP journalists would have access to the documents as well as all other media, with broadcasts being scheduled after the all US media deadlines on release day have expired to prevent West Coast outlets from getting ahead of the East Coast.

“It was weird because it looked like they were federal government documents, but the technology being what it was at the time, they needed an outside source to host this,” McCormack said. “What made it easier was that we didn’t have special treatment, we were just doing Jim and the Federal Court a favor by hosting these documents.”

Thinking back on the steps taken to manage the volume, McCormack smiled with satisfaction.

“The courthouse was full of people. The sidewalks were full of people. The hallways were full of people,” he said. “But through it all, the courthouse never became history.”

McCormack said that a primary concern for him in managing the inner workings of the court has always been for the clerk’s office to handle administrative matters efficiently, but to do so in a way that does not become history.

“We do the recordings, we do the [technology], supply, personnel, space, juries and other assigned tasks, ”he said. “We perform all the administrative functions of the court and let the judges judge. “

“So we are working for the court, but if we are doing our job we are not history,” he continued. “We are background people, we are invisible. The judges don’t even need to know how this case got on this bench, but it is still there. We are servants of justice and we are. are very proud. It’s customer service from the court, the bar, the audience and we love it. “

Marshall praised McCormack’s abilities and dedication, saying his leadership has enabled the Eastern District of Arkansas to maintain its full-fledged operations during the pandemic.

“It was difficult at times but smoothly,” said Marshall. “He led the team that made sure we were open to public affairs every day.

“Jim is a master at problem solving,” the judge continued. “Some of her favorite phrases include ‘Here are some options’, ‘What can I do to help’, ‘Let me work on it’ and ‘I see three possible solutions.’ I can’t remember a single case where our tribunal faced a challenge that Jim couldn’t find a way to help us cope with. ”

U.S. District Judge Brian Miller, who served as chief justice from 2012 to 2019, said McCormack came to see him immediately after Miller was elevated to the federal bench in 2008.

“I didn’t really understand what I needed in federal court, but he showed up to my office and said, ‘Judge, you’re going to need x, y, and z, so here are three options for you and you decide, “Miller said.” It made my life easier. When I became a chef, it was the same. “

Miller said that in addition to managing a full workload, the chief justice is responsible for ensuring that administrative functions are taken care of, although it is the clerk’s office that performs those functions.

“When I was a chef, there were times when we had a problem and by the time it came to me, the problem was almost solved and I just had to say yes or no,” he said. he declares. “I kind of come from the Leon Holmes, Susan Webber Wright wing of chefs where you put good people in place and let them do their jobs. Because that’s how I wanted to be a chef, to have Jim McCormack in. place was invaluable. “

Acting US Attorney Jonathan Ross described McCormack as an excellent public servant who kept the courthouse running smoothly under all circumstances.

“He’s running a tight ship out there,” Ross said. “He has to face a lot of different pressures and he does it professionally and with a smile. If you call him and ask him to do something, it will be done.”

Downs, who will start as the new clerk after the weekend of July 4, said she is in a good position to succeed thanks to McCormack’s tenure. She noted that all but three of the clerk’s office workers were hired by McCormack and trained to his specifications.

“He interviewed and selected us all and worked on our training and development and he’s just a fantastic employee,” she said. “I am delighted to work with the staff and to continue this tradition of excellence in our district.”

McCormack said he and his wife of 25 years, Tamara, a teacher at Little Rock Central High School, plan to stay in Arkansas.

“Ever since I was a kid I always felt like I wanted to be where there are hills and tall pines,” he said. “When I came to Arkansas in 1993, I looked around and thought, ‘yes, that’s it. This is my home.’