Nancy Mayer-Whittington Oral History
Interview Session VI
September 27, 2011
CPAM: 8738423.1
Ms. Woodbury: Nancy, I would like to start the interview today by asking you to talk
about the point at which you actually took over from Jim Davey as Clerk of the
Court, and maybe just as background, could you tell us if you remember talking
to Jim about his decision to retire and then of course what led to your eventual
appointment as Clerk of the Court.
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: I was selected by the judges in June 1990. I was sworn in on February 1,
1991 so that was when I actually took over from Jim. Jim had talked to me at one
point, as he had talked to Marge, about his plans to retire when he turned 55.
That was a well known fact at the courthouse. He wanted to do some other things
with his life and he had been in the workforce since he had gotten out of law
school. Jim made it pretty clear that’s when he wanted to go — when he turned 55
in September of 1990. Jim had also decided that he wanted to pick up health care
coverage to use when he retired. (He had been enrolled in his wife’s health care
plan up until this point but wanted to make the change when he retired.) In order
to have coverage for retirement from the government’s plan, Jim needed to enroll
5 years prior to retirement. Ultimately it turned out he hadn’t signed up for health
insurance timely enough so that he had to stay until February of the next year.
Anyway everybody knew that was the general time frame when he was going to
go. A couple of times in the years prior to Jim’s retirement, he had talked
generally to Marge and I and anybody else that he thought might be interested,
that it would be important for candidates for the position of Clerk of the Court to
have a graduate degree as well as an undergraduate degree when applying for the
position. Jim thought that the court would probably, in some cases, consider
relevant court experience to offset the graduate degree. But he also thought
attaining a graduate degree had a lot of merit in and of itself.
Ms. Woodbury: And by this time had you finished your graduate degree at George
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes. I had started the program, put it on hold, and then started it again.
But yes I had gotten my degree in 1988 so I had finished that part of what he had
thought was probably a pre-requirement for the position. The position though
would be selected by the judges so it wouldn’t be up to Jim to make the selection.
He was clearly going to be a part of the process of interviews and going through
resumes and making recommendations, but the actual selection of the Clerk of
the Court rested with the judges. The court sent out an announcement that they
were looking for a Clerk of Court, I believe in March of 1990, and their plan was
to do interviews in May of 1990 and then discuss the top candidates at their last
Executive Session before the summer. The judges generally did not meet in
Execution Sessions during the summer back in those days. So their last session
would be in June and they wanted to have two or three candidates to discuss at
that point and then make a selection. In that way the new person could make
plans to become Clerk, but have time either to give notice at their current job or,
if it was an in-house candidate, have the benefit of working directly with Jim.
Ms. Woodbury: Nancy, just a point of background, when you talk about Executive Session
of the judges what does that mean?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Each month on the first Tuesday of the month the judges hold what they
call an Executive Session. Back in the 80’s and prior to this, an Executive
Session was a meeting of all the judges on the District Court. (Today’s Executive
Session involves all the judicial officers on the court so that means that
magistrate judges and the bankruptcy judge are also included.) The purpose of
the monthly meetings was to share information with the judges and have
discussions about issues that are generally considered to be administrative in
nature. It’s not intended to be a time to discuss different cases or legal matters.
It’s mostly a time to talk about putting together a committee to plan the next
Judicial Conference or putting together a committee to deal with aspects of court
administration that they thought might need to be addressed. It was a time for the
Chief Judge to brief all the other judges on judicial conference policy changes
that may be on the way, the GSA’s management of the building and various
issues such as these. Before Judge Robinson was Chief Judge, the only people
who attended the Executive Sessions were the judges and the Administrative
Assistant to the Chief Judge who took the minutes of the sessions. During Judge
Robinson’s tenure as Chief Judge, he invited Jim Davey as Clerk of Court to the
sessions since they were primarily administrative in nature and Jim was very
knowledgeable about administrative matters. These sessions gave the judges an
opportunity to candidly discuss administrative matters. It also gave them the
opportunity to develop collegiality and better lines of communication.
Ms. Woodbury: When Jim gave notice of his retirement, the judges had planned to take up
consideration of the applicants for that position at their June 1990 Executive
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes. I think that Jim had talked to the Chief Judge, who was Aubrey
Robinson at the time, and said that he thought the position was a very significant
position and if they were going to end up hiring somebody from the outside they
would want somebody with a lot of really good experience. Such a candidate
would want to give six-month’s notice to their employer of their decision to take
another position. If it was an in-house candidate, it would give the person an
opportunity to spend time working one on one with Jim for at least six months.
So Judge Robinson approached the Executive Session in probably January or
February of that year and discussed that with them and they all agreed it was their
goal to make a selection at the June Executive Session. Thus, the recruitment
process began and I submitted my application. I got letters of recommendation
from two other long time Clerks of Court, one from a senior member of the
Administrative Office and one from a senior member of the Federal Judicial
Center. The court put together an interview panel and they conducted the
interviews in May. The interview panel was Chief Judge Aubrey Robinson,
Judge George Revercomb, and Judge John Penn. Judge Penn was in line to be
the next Chief Judge so it was logical that he should be on the panel. Judge
Revercomb was one of our newer judges so he gave the panel the perspective of
the less senior judges. The time after the position had been posted and before the
interviews had taken place was a bit stressful for me. I felt like every decision I
made as Chief Deputy and every action I took was being examined under a
microscope by the judges to determine if I would be a good Clerk of Court. I
remember one incident in particular that highlighted my stress level and the
impact it was having on my ability to think rationally. About a week before my
interview, Judge Penn, who I knew pretty well since he had been with the court
almost as long as I had, called me up to his chambers. He told me that his son
had come home with a stray dog and that they already had a dog and did I have
any interest in a dog because he knew I was fond of dogs. I told Judge Penn that
I would think about it and let him know. I left his chambers and as I walked back
to my office I was wondering if this was some kind of a test. Would my decision
about taking the dog impact my chance of being selected as Clerk of Court? I
went home that night and I told my husband that I thought we needed to adopt the
dog because it might be important to my career. My husband said: “You have
got to be kidding. They will not hold it against you if you don’t take his stray
dog.” I wasn’t entirely convinced, but I did let Judge Penn know that we couldn’t
add another dog to our household at this time. So, we didn’t get the dog and I
still got the job. Two years later, Judge Penn became Chief Judge and I got the
opportunity to work with him on a regular basis. He was a wonderful Chief
Judge and I shared that story with him at one point and he had such a good laugh
about of it. He said: “It never occurred to me that asking you about a stray dog
would put that kind of pressure on you. So sorry.” But he also had a great sense
of humor. For the next few months after I told him the story, every time he
would call me he would begin by asking me if I was in the market for a stray cat,
bird, hamster and every other kind of animal and that my answer would probably
impact my ability to remain as Clerk. He was so great to work with – he was such
a wonderful, wonderful man. About the interview, I’m not sure if I’ve already
talked about the interview…
Ms. Woodbury: No.
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Well, I spent a lot of time preparing for the interview. I read everything I
could about matters that were before the Judicial Conference. I read all I could
find on innovative practices at other metropolitan District Courts. I knew a lot
about court administration. I went back over all of my notes from my classes at
GW about personnel management, the benefits of team building and the
advantages of team-based management. We were piloting this type of structure
in our Operation Section so the topic might be a relevant question at my
interview. I thought I had a pretty good feel for the pulse of the office and what
was going on. I really thought I had a good idea about the future– we were
getting more involved in electronic filing and electronic remote access and video
presentation equipment. These were programs that I thought were really exciting
and could streamline different practices and procedures at the court.
Then I went for my interview and Judge Revercomb opened it up and
said: “Nancy Mayer-Whittington, Nancy Mayer-Whittington, and Nancy MayerWhittington. (Changing the emphasis on my name each time he said it.) Do
you use that on your driver’s license?” And I said, “Yes.” Judge Revercomb
continued, “And on your bank accounts”? Again, I said “Yes. It’s on my bank
account.” He paused then asked “Is it even on your credit cards?” Before I
could answer, Chief Judge Robinson said, “For God’s sake George, I think we’ve
established that that is her name. Now do you have anything substantive to ask or
should we go on?” Judge Revercomb just could not understand the hyphenated
Ms. Woodbury: That was new to him.
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Well my name wasn’t new to him as I had that name since my marriage
three years earlier. I think the concept of a hyphenated name was puzzling to him
and he wanted to know why I chose to hyphenate. He didn’t know how to ask
me, so he just kept saying my name. I guess he was hoping I would explain it to
him. That was the beginning of a rather disappointing interview. I was really
disappointed because of the nature of most of the questions. Judge Penn was
primarily interested in the morale of the courtroom deputies and how I thought
things might change under my leadership. Did I think some of these problems
were really deep-seated? We did have problems with what we called the
Courtroom Division which was where all the courtroom deputies were located. A
lot of them took their influence and power from the judges they worked for and
held that up as their kind of armor so that they believed they were untouchable.
As a result, there were issues in our Courtroom Division. I tried to address these
issues at the interview without divulging confidential information. I
acknowledged that we did have some long-standing challenges that would benefit
from some open discussions, and that we needed to be more open about sharing
information. I said that I believed the more information we share the better we
could communicate and solve problems. I was really into sharing information.
For too long we had a management culture that operated on the theory that
employees only needed to know job specific information. Other types of
information such as long-term objectives for the judiciary as a whole and
procedures that were being discussed and developed for future use were not
thought to be things that employees would be interested in learning. As a result,
when judges shared this type of information with their courtroom deputy the
courtroom deputy would then share bits and pieces of that information with other
courtroom deputies, but put their own spin on the information. This, of course,
led to a lot of misinformation. I felt that the more accurate information we made
available to our staff – as long as it wasn’t confidential – the better informed our
staff would be. Then we wouldn’t be dealing with so many rumors and questions
about what was really going on in the organization. I had discussed this in depth
with Jim and convinced him that we needed to do a better job of changing the
management culture. I told Judge Penn that we would continue to share
information as we had been doing for the last six months. We had set up a
system for sharing all memos from the AO that were not of a confidential nature.
We made copies of these memos and put them in an area that was accessible to
all employees so that they could retrieve the memos and read them and thus have
the same information that the management staff was receiving. The staff had
reacted positively to having access to these memos. This was just one way we
were working to improve the flow of information. We had also worked to
improve the monthly Clerk’s Office meetings by inviting employees to submit
questions for open discussion at the meetings. So I talked a little about that and
Judge Robinson talked a little bit more about the global areas of the court
administration, but I think my interview lasted 15 minutes. I’m not sure if Judge
Revercomb asked me anything other than about my name.
Ms. Woodbury: He was still mulling the hyphenated name.
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: At the end of the interview, he asked, “Does your husband hyphenate his
name”? Judge Robinson just rolled his eyes at him and then concluded the
interview by saying, “Well Nancy we know you pretty well and we shouldn’t be
wasting anymore of your time. Why don’t you just go back and do that great job
you’re doing.” I left the room thinking, “What happened?”
Ms. Woodbury: You were over prepared?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes, I was over prepared. I was ready to talk about so many important
issues facing the judiciary presently and in the future. I kept thinking I don’t
know if they see me as a serious candidate. I wondered whether they just saw me
as the person that came up through the ranks and that they were going to look for
somebody who had a more stellar background or more star appeal or something
along those lines. It was really disconcerting. The judges met in an Executive
Session about two weeks after my interview. I waited in my office to hear the
decision. Jim was there and my friend LeeAnn who was the Administrative
Assistant to the Chief Judge also waited with me. Normally both Jim and
LeeAnn would attend Executive sessions but the judges decided on a closed
session so they could all talk about what they were thinking and it would be ….
Ms. Woodbury: Confidential.
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes, confidential. I think the meeting started, they usually started about
4:30. And at 5:15 Judge Robinson appeared at the end of the hallway… we could
see him coming down the long hallway towards my office – where it used to be –
and I felt like he was moving in slow motion. He must have been a good poker
player because there was no obvious sign about what he was going to say. Then
he walked into the room and by then a couple other people who were friends and
also worked at the Court had joined us. Chief Judge Robinson paused and he
looked around and he said: “I want to shake the hand of the next Clerk of Court
for the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.”
Ms. Woodbury: Oh wow!
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: He smiled and said, “It was a very fair discussion of all the candidates, but
it was clear who the favorite was and so you have the support of all the judges.”
That of course was very thrilling and exciting to hear. I was so relieved and so
happy! Over the course of the next week I made an appointment and visited with
each judge wanting to thank them for their support and also to say “I am
interested in what you want to see happen and I’m interested in having ongoing
communication.” I wanted to let them know that I valued their input and that I
was going to be more available to them as Clerk than I had been as Chief Deputy.
I just wanted to get off on the right foot….
Ms. Woodbury: Yes.
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: But when I visited Judge Hogan I got a bit of a surprise. I always had a
lot of interactions with Judge Hogan. He made it a point to stop by my office on
a regular basis to find out what I was up to and to get better informed as to what
projects the office was working on. He always liked to be in the know because
he had some influence. All the judges respected him because he was privy to a
lot of information and he was very discrete as to how he shared that information.
He was not in any way a gossip. There were a couple of our judges who were.
That’s all they were interested in, but Judge Hogan liked to be able to say to the
judges at the lunch table when they were discussing something about the Clerk’s
Office and it was clear to him that they did not have accurate information: “Well I
think this is happening because of “x” project in the Clerk’s Office. They are
working out the bugs in a new electronic system.” He liked to correct any
misinformation that was circulating among the judges. Anyway, when I went to
visit Judge Hogan in his office to thank him for his support, he said
congratulations and then he said: “What did you do to tick Royce off? He’s the
only one who raised some concerns about you.” I was shocked! I told Judge
Hogan that I didn’t know why Judge Lamberth had any concerns. I said “I’ve got
a really good relationship with him and I’m surprised.” Judge Hogan said that
Judge Lamberth was not too fond of Jim Davey for a variety of reasons but that a
lot of the reasons were not Jim’s fault. As background on this, when Judge
Lamberth first came on the bench in 1985 the courts were going through a really
tough budget freeze and we were told that we could not spend any money on a
new judge for furniture and furnishings. We had to outfit the chambers with
excess furniture and extra supplies. But Judge Lamberth had a friend on our
Court of Appeals who came on the bench at the same time as he did and this
appellate judge was able to get new furniture and furnishings despite the budget
freeze. When we at the District Court level found out that the Court of Appeals
was getting money for new judges, but that we were not getting the funding, we
called the AO. The answer, after several phone calls and several memos, was that
we hadn’t used the correct justification on our original requisition. The budget
freeze had generated new guidelines that had not been widely shared at the
District Court level. It took us about six months to figure all that out and in the
meantime Judge Lamberth felt like he had not been treated fairly when he came
to the Court. In addition, he had waited an extremely long time for his
confirmation hearing after being nominated by the President. Senator Ted
Kennedy, who was on the Judiciary Committee, had held up Judge Lamberth’s
hearing because he felt that the Committee shouldn’t put “another white male on
the bench.” Senator Kennedy wanted the President’s nominations to reflect more
accurately the diversity of the country. Senator Kennedy had nothing against
Judge Lamberth – he was just trying to make a point – but the result was that
Judge Lamberth waited far longer for his hearing than he should have. And so he
came to our Court feeling like he had already been treated unfairly.
So anyway, what Judge Hogan shared with me about Judge Lamberth was
kind of interesting. I remember leaving Judge Hogan and going wow!
Judge Hogan and Judge Lamberth were very good friends at the time and
still are. Judge Hogan offered to intervene on my behalf. He said to me: “If it
will help I’ll talk to him. I’ll let him know that you are your own person.” Judge
Hogan said that Judge Lamberth told the other judges that he was worried that as
Clerk I was going “to be a clone of Jim Davey and nothing was going to change
and everything was going to be awful”. I guess Judge Lamberth felt like he
needed to say his piece. When Judge Lamberth was finished, all the judges
looked around and said “Let’s vote.” And they voted for me.
Ms. Woodbury: Did you know who else had applied for the job?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes.
Ms. Woodbury: Did anybody from outside of the court apply?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes. Off the top of my head I don’t remember the names. I believe that
the person who was at the local court, Superior Court, not the Clerk of the Court
at the time, but somebody in his office had applied and I believe a couple other
people, some people from the Administrative Office applied for sure. A couple
attorneys from the Administrative Office, but no other clerks from any other
court applied. The judges I think had thought that someone in a small court
might be interested in coming to D.C.. And quite frankly I think that Jim, who
was well known– he traveled a lot to all the courts because he was a really strong
in court administration; he went to help new courts out– I think he kept telling
them that they shouldn’t apply. I think the word kind of went around that there
was a strong in-house candidate so I think people who may have been interested
in applying, just didn’t apply.
I went to see Judge Lamberth to thank him for his support after Judge
Hogan had told me about Judge Lamberth’s concerns. I thought well I’m going to
proceed like I don’t know what happened. And when I went in he shook my
hand and he said: “You should be very proud of yourself it was unanimous.” He
and I never talked about that afterwards. We talked about a lot of other things but
not about my selection. But it wasn’t hard to tell that he had his doubts about me.
My first year as Clerk– I was selected in June, but I didn’t actually get sworn in
until February and Jim traveled a lot in his last six months so I felt as if I was
already doing the job – was rather interesting. During the course of that first
year, from June until at least the following June, maybe a little bit longer Judge
Lamberth made it a habit to send me some really awful memos. They would start
like this: “Well, the Clerk’s Office has screwed up again” or “Does anyone in
your office have a brain?” I would pick up the phone and call him and while I
was waiting for his secretary to put him on the line I would take a deep breath
and when he answered I would say, “Hi Judge, I got your memo.”
Ms. Woodbury: “Good idea, Your Honor.”
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes. I would say “Tell me exactly what happened.” I would listen and try
not to get defensive. If one of my staff had indeed done something off the wall, I
would agree with him that we had made a mistake and we would correct it. In
some cases, Judge Lamberth did not have accurate information and so I would
give him the facts as I knew them and he would calm down and say he was glad I
cleared things up. He always ended the conversation by saying he appreciated
that I got back to him so quickly. But the memos blasting our office continued.
Then, I guess it was in December and I had officially been Clerk for about 11
months, I got yet another memo from Judge Lamberth. It was the end of the day
and I hesitated to open it. I was packing up to go home for the day and I was not
up for another “blasting memo”. But then I decided it was better to end my day
with the memo rather than start the next day on such a negative note. Imagine
my surprise when I read something to the tune of: “My Courtroom Deputy did
not like the whole idea of a team-based management system when your
predecessor introduced the idea – she thought it was a terrible idea – and so did I.
Today she came to me and told me she wants to apply to be one of the team
leaders. So, if you got her to come around, you must be able to make this whole
thing work. Congratulations and have a great Christmas” or something like that.
From that time forward he was my best friend and strongest supporter. I don’t
know if he remembers how we started out, but after that December memo, Judge
Lamberth would, on a regular basis, stop by my office to see me and to ask how
things were going. And, he would always say: “What can I do to help you?”
More often than not, he would ask, “Is there anybody you want me to beat up on
because I’m good at that.” He was the last Chief Judge I worked for before I
retired and we had a great relationship.
As I mentioned before, when I started in the position as Clerk I went
around and talked with all the judges, and for the most part they would say
“Things are going very well”. Some judges mentioned their concern that the
criminal docket was always behind and they didn’t know why that was
happening. I told them we had a really complicated docketing system and it was
difficult to keep it current and that was part of the problem. They had little
issues, but they didn’t have major issues. But all of them appreciated the
opportunity to tell me what was on their minds. So many of their concerns were
cleared up just by giving the judges more information. It was amazing to me how
simple it was to listen to the judges and appreciate their perspectives. Jim Davey,
I think, had gotten frustrated with the fact that he had to explain his actions to
them when he made a decision. Jim thought that the judges should just know that
he had an administrative and management background and they should just let
him do his job and not ask questions. I think Jim, sometimes, let his ego get in
the way. As a result, at the end of his career he got more satisfaction out of his
global work for judiciary– going out and working with other courts and being a
spokesperson for conference policies and being called upon to do that sort of
thing– than he got out of his work at our courthouse. So when I went to the
judges and talked to all of them they said, “It’s so nice to talk with you. So nice
to have you come up here. So nice to see you. So nice for you to answer my
Ms. Woodbury: You made personal contact?
Ms. Mayer-Whittington: Yes and it wasn’t rocket science. I mean I wasn’t coming in and doing
anything other than saying: “What’s up and what would you like the Clerk’s
Office to do?” And sometimes I had to come back to them and say we can’t do
what you want us to do. Either Judicial Conference policy didn’t allow it or we
didn’t have the funding available in the budget. For the most part, the judges
where happy I had looked into what they were asking for and satisfied that the
concern had been addressed. It was very basic. I learned early on that most
judges have strong personalities and strong egos. If I kept my ego out of the
interactions and just focused on what they were trying to accomplish we could
work really well together. A lot of the judges had good ideas to share. And they
had some legitimate issues they wanted to resolve and they liked being a part of
the solution – they did want to help. They did want to work with you. They were
interested in things. Judge Robinson was the Chief Judge for my first year, and
that was nice because he was in his tenth year of being a Chief Judge and he
knew the court quite well and he knew how to communicate with the judges. He
was not grandfatherly – that would come much later. But he was smart and
stayed on top of things so he helped run interference. He was a strong personality
and strong leader and had no problem reminding a judge who was out of control
that there was only one Chief Judge. It was really nice to have that first year with
him as Chief Judge and to have had the benefit of watching him run the Court
when I was Chief Deputy. I got to learn from him and that was really helpful to
me in the beginning.