James Browning, nation’s longest-serving appeals judge, dies at 93

SAN FRANCISCO — James Browning, the nation’s longest-serving federal appellate judge, died more than a half-century after his appointment by President John F. Kennedy. He was 93.

Browning served on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals from 1961 until 2000, when he went on semi-retired status until his death Saturday in a Marin County hospital.

During his tenure, the court grew from nine judges to 28.

Browning served as chief judge of the San Francisco-based court from 1976 to 1988 during a tumultuous time.

Browning spearheaded a successful effort against mounting pressure to split the 9th Circuit into smaller courts. He helped persuade lawmakers to create several new judgeships instead, nearly doubling the size of the court.

“He loved the 9th Circuit and was devoted to maintaining its cohesion, its collegiality, and its judicial excellence,” said U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who served on the 9th Circuit from 1975 to 1988.

Browning also is credited with modernizing the court’s technology, including computerizing its docketing system, which helped ease a backlog of cases that drove the call for a circuit split.

“On the bench, Judge Browning was a distinguished jurist who cared deeply about achieving justice,” 9th Circuit Chief Judge Alex Kozinski said. “In judicial governance, he was an innovative administrator, who cajoled the court into the computer age.”

The 9th Circuit’s massive Beaux Arts courthouse, which survived the city’s 1906 earthquake, was named after Browning in 2005.

Browning was born in Great Falls, Mont., and raised in Belt. He was nicknamed “Tiny” as a child and stood 5-feet, two-inches as an adult.

He received his law degree from the University of Montana law school in 1941 and served in the U.S. Army during World War II, rising to the rank of first lieutenant and winning a Bronze Star.

After the war, he worked in the U.S. Department of Justice until leaving for private practice in 1953.

In 1958, Chief Justice Earl Warren appointed Browning to serve as clerk of the Supreme Court of the United States.

President Kennedy first met Browning during the president’s inauguration, when Browning held the Bible while the president swore the oath of office. Browning was the last clerk to do so; the honor now goes to the president’s spouse.

Browning is survived by his wife of 70 years, Marie Rose, whom he met in high school. He is also survived by a daughter and three grandchildren.

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