RICHMOND, Va. — For Roger Gregory, serving as the first African-American chief judge of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond takes on even greater meaning when he thinks of who else has walked the halls of the building he now oversees. During the Civil War, the building that is now the appeals court housed the offices of Confederate President Jefferson Davis while he fought to maintain slavery.
“It’s a proud moment about how far our nation has come,” Gregory said in an interview with The Associated Press. “We have a ways to go, but we have come a long ways too.”
The 63-year-old, who was given a recess appointment to the court by President Bill Clinton and was reappointed by George W. Bush, took over this summer as chief judge of the powerful court, which hears cases from Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and South Carolina. His ascension to chief judges comes as the court weighs several high-profile cases, including a challenge to Virginia’s voter identification law.
Gregory recently sat down for an interview with the AP in his office. His answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You attended segregated schools through the 11th grade. How did that experience shape your life?
A: I remember we had old textbooks … You realized that there were some differences (between black schools and white schools). But those differences weren’t staring you in the face every day. It was a parallel universe … It was very commonplace to be involved in the study and be inspired by African-Americans who forged the way and made the history of this nation.
Q: Did that experience prompt you to pursue a career in the law?
A: Really it was L. Douglas Wilder, who then later became governor, and taught me undergrad at Virginia State (University)… He taught me constitutional law and then civil liberties, two classes that were just inspiring. And I thought, wow it would be great to be a lawyer. So he inspired me as a teacher and then 10 years later, we became law partners.
Q: How has the 4th Circuit changed during your tenure?
A: With new judges, there’s always some change because they have different perspectives, different backgrounds. But it’s like the river, water passes by all the time but the river remains … Obviously, there’s more diversity. For example, I was the first African-American to come on the court, and now there are three other African Americans and a Latino on the court. That can’t do anything but make for richer, more diverse perspectives.
Q: To what degree do you believe partisan politics affects the judicial process today?
A: I think not a lot, really. I think the judges here try very hard to look at the cases and see it the way they understand the law … We have different backgrounds and perspectives. I think it’s more of our perspectives and those kinds of things that factor into it more than partisan politics.
Q: If you weren’t a judge, what do you think you would be doing?
A: I love acting. I do some professional acting. I’ve done “To Kill A Mockingbird” a couple times … And I’m probably too old now, but I think I would have loved to have been a naval officer.
Follow Alanna Durkin Richer on Twitter at twitter.com/aedurkinricher. Her work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/journalist/alanna-durkin-richer.