Lessons on Leading With Grace

Chief Judge Procter Hug held the 9th Circuit together through a remarkable demonstration of earnest leadership.

Headshot of Judge Procter R. Hug.
Judge Procter R. Hug. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo courtesy of the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals Archives.*

It borders on impossible to write an obituary for a great man who genuinely believed that he was ordinary. Judge Procter R. Hug, who served as chief judge of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals from 1996 to 2000, was such a man. He died on Thursday at the age of 88. His beloved wife, Barbara, his high school sweetheart, predeceased him by a few months. They were married for 65 years.

Hug was a Nevada institution. I served as a law clerk for him in 1996–97, immediately after he was elevated to chief judge of the 9th Circuit. So impoverished are our ideas of leadership in this era that we often fail to recognize what ineffable kindness and decency means in a national political figure and how effective it can be. Hug was that. In a tribute to him delivered in 2002, Sen. Harry Reid, D-N.V., described Hug as “the most effective advocate and defender that the 9th Circuit has known in Washington. He can truly be described as the man who saved the 9th Circuit.”

Hug devoted the years of my clerkship to fighting to keep the sprawling federal circuit court from being broken up, as mostly conservative critics have attempted to do for decades on the theory that the circuit was too liberal (the effort that peaked in the 1990s but has resurfaced under President Donald Trump when he began to lose in that court). Time and again that effort has been stymied because breaking up the massive court won’t solve its underlying efficiency problems and would create new political ones. Hug pushed back on circuit-split efforts by offering tireless testimony before congressional panels, speeches, op-eds, articles, and meetings, in addition to his formidable responsibilities wrangling the court itself. As Reid concluded in his tribute, “the fact that the 9th Circuit continues to exist as we have known it is attributable to Chief Judge Hug’s tireless work and persuasive abilities.”

For some of that period, I served as the most useless speechwriter and op-ed drafter in legal history: I would deliver him incendiary and polemical drafts. I would get back gentle but comprehensive rewrites, in plain English, stripped of hyperbole, straightforward and earnest. An ideal law clerk melts rhetorically into her judge, learning to channel the judge’s voice until the two writing styles merge. It took me a long time to understand that Hug’s uncomplicated, unadorned style of legal and political writing was his gift to a polarized Congress fighting to polarize the courts. The major effort to split the circuit ultimately failed on his watch.

Born in Tonopah, Nevada, in 1931, where his family ran the local telephone company, Hug was an exceptional student, varsity athlete, and champion debater. He met his wife, Barbara, at Sparks High School when he was a senior and she was a junior. He was selected as the school’s “Most Outstanding Boy” in 1949, and Barbara was selected “Most Outstanding Girl” in 1950. He excelled in sports and civic activities, then attended the University of Nevada, Reno, where he was student body president, graduating in 1953. Barbara served as student body secretary.

Hug served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy (1954–55) and then started Stanford Law School (1958), where he was on the law review and graduated in 2½ years. He took and passed the Nevada bar exam before he even completed law school. His stories of his early years in private practice from 1959 through the 1960s in Reno were the stuff of legend, but from the hodgepodge of family law battles, contract disputes, and his work representing UNR, he developed a reputation as a gifted and successful advocate. In 1977, he was elevated by President Jimmy Carter to a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. He loved being a judge, and he was doggedly fair and understated. There was no room for ego or theatrics or posturing in his opinions. His lodestar was understanding the story and getting it right. Efforts by puffed-up clerks (like me) to have him take bold political positions against the death penalty were gently rebuffed. The death penalty was the law. And it was not his job to disturb that.

The 9th Circuit is a massive court system spanning 15 federal judicial districts, 29 circuit court judgeships, and 112 district judgeships. In addition to going to battle to keep it from being split up, Hug was a gentle steward of a court full of big personalities with divergent ideological agendas. Whenever drama flared up within his court, he unerringly jujitsu’d the angry parties, usually with humor and the gentle admonition that everyone was better than that. His superpower was that the people around him, including life-tenured judges, actually strove to be better than that, because it was what Hug seemed to expect from everyone. The gentle joke he would use to defuse mounting tension was always perfectly timed, perfectly written, and never deployed at the expense of anyone. Most everything I learned about leadership I learned because Hug’s boundless humility made space for the vast talents, odd quirks, occasional egos, and frequent brilliance of the jurists around him to crackle and thrive. It took me years to understand that this was perfectly intentional on Hug’s part.

His clerks revered him. He taught us to unlearn the cobwebby jargon of law school and to use nouns and verbs as the writing gods had intended. His firm pen removed any hint of pyrotechnics (he once struck my hellish footnote “Appellant is trying here to both suck and blow”). Any hint of derision toward another jurist on the court in a dissent was not permitted. When my parents visited Reno, he greeted them like family. When my baby niece came to town, he let her play in his yard. I was his only female clerk that year, and yet he guessed, correctly and in my first week, that I’d end up being the one with the potty mouth.

Ryan Cobb, who clerked for Hug in 2007–08, said this in an email: “I learned the importance of respect and integrity, especially in public service. He taught me that to be truly successful in life (both professional and personal), you must live with integrity. You can see it in his love of family and his profession, and how he made everyone around him better people.”

In a tribute offered when Hug assumed senior status a few years ago, the current chief judge of the 9th Circuit, Sidney Thomas, who has known him since the late 1970s, said this: “One of the questions posed concerning John Adams was how he would fare as a modern leader. I don’t know the answer to that question, but I can state with a fair degree of certainty that Procter Hug would be a great leader in any generation.” Thomas then went on to add, “Proc is the kind of person, and the kind of leader, who makes everyone around him better. His warmth, optimism, vision, intelligence, eloquence, quiet perseverance, and sense of humor made him one of the most effective chief judges that we have known.”

Above all things, including his cherished Nevada, Hug loved his family. Conferences in his chambers in which we went over the day’s current events—and ample caseloads—included loving updates on the activities of his grandchildren. Procter and Barbara Hug are survived by three children, Cheryl Hug English (and spouse Harry), Procter Hug (and Sue), and Elyse Hug Pasha (and George); eight grandchildren, Christopher English (and Karah), Ashley English, Alysha English, Procter Hug IV (and Julie), Julianne Hug, Cherylann Pasha (and Brendan), Savannah Pasha, and Mary Kate Hug Pasha; and four great-grandchildren, Jackson Procter Hug, Colin English, Chloe Hug, and Charlotte Hug.

Hug proved that it is possible to be a leader who is universally beloved and respected, in part because he started from the presumption that everyone is worthy of regard and respect. As Sidney Thomas concluded in his remarks about Hug, “Proc and Barbara are the people we all hope to be, and, in a greater sense, what we hope America is. They are not only among the best of their generation, but among the best of any generation.” Hug taught us to be better people, better leaders, and better occupants of a country that I believe still just wants to be better and isn’t quite sure how.

Correction, Oct. 22, 2019: Due to a production error, the photo was originally misattributed to the Ninth Judicial Circuit Historical Society. It is from the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals Archives.