Senior District Judge Charles R. Breyer Selected for Prestigious Devitt Award

Judge Charles R. Breyer of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California was notified on the morning of Friday, September 21, via a personal call from Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, that he will be the recipient of the prestigious 34th Annual Devitt Award, our nation's highest honor bestowed upon a Article III federal judge. The ceremony and celebration will take place on November 7, 2018 at the Supreme Court of the United States in the presence of the Supreme Court Justices and 100 invited guests. As brother of Justice Stephen Breyer, this is the first time that a relation of any Justice of the Supreme Court will receive the Devitt.

Of Judge Breyer's selection for the Devitt Award, Chief Judge Phyllis J. Hamilton notes:

I and the other judges of the Northern District are delighted that Judge Breyer's amazing body of work as a federal judge has been recognized by the Devitt Award selection committee this year. Judge Breyer's remarkable judicial achievements, combined with his tireless efforts on behalf of the United States Courts and the Northern District, have earned the boundless admiration of the Court and the community; we are so pleased that he will now receive this prestigious national honor. Our Court, and indeed the Northern District as a whole, is a better place because of Judge Breyer.

The Northern District is pleased to highlight the following selected accomplishments from Judge Breyer's two-plus decades of service to the federal judicial system and to the Northern District since taking the bench in 1997.

Service to the Federal Judicial System

Judge Breyer was appointed as a district judge in the Northern District of California in 1997. Soon after taking the bench, he began to serve not just his district but the federal judiciary as a whole. He regularly taught courses at a program sponsored by the Federal Judicial Center for the education of newly-appointed federal judges. In 2005, following a vote by all district and circuit judges in the Ninth Circuit, he was appointed to be the circuit's District Judge Representative on the United States Judicial Conference. Chief Justice Roberts then selected him to serve on the Executive Committee of the Conference.

Judge Breyer played a key role in several important initiatives during his five years of service on the Executive Committee. For example, in response to press reports that federal judges were occasionally deciding cases without realizing they had a financial interest in the outcome, Judge Breyer and his colleagues obtained agreement from judicial districts across the country to install conflict-checking software that would prevent these inadvertent lapses.

From his post on the Executive Committee, Judge Breyer became the Chair of the Advisory Committee on Long Range Planning for the Judiciary. In this capacity he assembled a diverse group of people (judges, court clerks, circuit executives) to create a Strategic Plan for the Federal Judiciary. The plan set long-term goals designed to advance the rule of law, judicial independence, accountability, and public confidence in the courts.

Judge Breyer's tenure with the Judicial Conference ended in 2010. The following year, Chief Justice Roberts appointed him to the Judicial Panel on Multi-District Litigation, where he continues to serve today. The MDL Panel consists of seven federal judges who meet every two months around the country to hear oral argument and decide whether cases filed in different districts should be assigned for pretrial purposes to one federal judge. The work performed by Judge Breyer and the other Panel members ensures that the federal judiciary responds fairly and efficiently to some of our nation's most complicated and widespread legal disputes.

One reason Judge Breyer has served so ably on the MDL Panel is his vast experience with MDL matters, having agreed to handle so many of them himself. Most recently, the MDL Panel entrusted Judge Breyer with pretrial proceedings in the cases arising out of Volkswagen's installation of an emissions control defeat device in thousands of its diesel vehicles. Due to his active management, including his admonishments about the importance of removing the polluting cars from the road as soon as possible, Volkswagen, the EPA, the FCC, and the consumers who purchased these vehicles reached a settlement just a few months after the MDL's creation. Judge Breyer's final approval of the settlement was recently affirmed by the Ninth Circuit. This settlement is the largest of its kind; that it came together so quickly, despite involving a foreign defendant, consumer class actions, and federal and state regulators, is a testament to Judge Breyer's case management skills and dedication.

In 2013, President Obama appointed Judge Breyer to be a member of the United States Sentencing Commission. As with the MDL Panel, Judge Breyer has brought his considerable practical experience to bear – experience he developed both as a district judge and as a long-time criminal law practitioner. Judge Breyer has brought valuable perspective, helping ensure that the Commission's policy decisions are informed by the practical realities and current practices in sentencing throughout the country. Judge Breyer served as Vice-Chair during his first term on the Commission; he was recently renominated by President Trump and confirmed by the Senate for his second term.

These many responsibilities do not tell the whole story of Judge Breyer's service to the national judicial system. Time and again, when judges from other districts put out the call for help, Judge Breyer has responded. When the Southern District of California sought assistance after being inundated with immigration matters, Judge Breyer sat by designation and handled a number of criminal cases there. He volunteered to handle trials in the District of Idaho when it was experiencing a judge shortage, as well as a trial in the District of Hawaii when all the local judges were conflicted from the case. He volunteered to be assigned numerous prisoner cases from the Eastern District of California, which is one of the most overworked federal judicial districts in the country. He regularly sits by designation on the Ninth Circuit. And now he serves on the newly-formed Ninth Circuit Workplace Environment Committee.

Service to the Northern District of California

Judge Breyer's service to the Northern District has mirrored his service to the national judiciary, beginning shortly after he took the bench. His initial focus in our district (and one that has persisted throughout his tenure) was improving the courthouse experience for attorneys, witnesses, litigants, jurors, and the media. Judge Breyer knew from his time in practice that our courthouses were relatively inhospitable to attorneys, so he led a project to create attorney lounges in our three primary locations (San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose). Knowing too that most people in a courthouse are not particularly happy to be there, Judge Breyer installed educational photography displays that highlight the history of our judicial district. Upon learning that members of the media were having logistical difficulties conducting interviews on site, he took the lead in establishing a media room where members of the press can watch proceedings on closed-circuit television and conduct interviews with attorneys and litigants. More recently, when our previous courthouse in Eureka was condemned, Judge Breyer took the lead on getting a new one built. He worked closely with the Clerk's Office and the General Services Administration during the developmental stage of the project, and ensured the preservation of five historic murals that went into the courtroom. As chair of our Committee on Space and Facilities, Judge Breyer's constant focus is on making our court more hospitable to the public.

He recently presided over the biggest public corruption case San Francisco has seen in decades. United States v. Chow, et al., No. 14-cr-196. The case, which involved 29 defendants, resulted in numerous guilty pleas, including that of a former California State Senator. It also involved a lengthy jury trial of purported Chinatown gang leader Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow. During the trial, Judge Breyer was confronted with the question of how to protect the defendant's right to a fair trial while at the same time protecting the identity of an undercover agent. He balanced the defendant’s rights with the safety of the witness by having the witness testify in a sealed courtroom. The jury was able to observe the witness and evaluate his credibility, while the press and public were able to hear the testimony through a video feed that hid the witness.

In United States v. FedEx Corp., No. 14-cr-380, after just a few days of trial, the U.S. Attorney dismissed novel criminal charges against Federal Express after Judge Breyer ordered the presentation of the government’s evidence in a sequence that focused first on the elements of the crime that were most in dispute, which ultimately caused the government to conclude it did not have the evidence to prove its case. Judge Breyer also presided over a jury trial involving two San Francisco police officers who were convicted in 2015 of charges related to a scheme to steal money and property during police searches and arrests. United States v. Furminger, No. 14-cr-102. In another recent criminal matter, in a hearing on a motion to suppress, an officer’s testimony was contradicted by videotape of the incident. Newspaper articles quoted Judge Breyer as declaring in open court upon granting the motion: "The worst thing in the world is the prosecution and conviction of an innocent person, or a conviction based on perjured testimony." These cases are examples of the way Judge Breyer manages his courtroom with moral clarity and fairness to all parties.

Judge Breyer has issued a number of influential decisions in civil cases also. Among them are:

  • His opinion allowing the victims of Iran-sponsored terrorist attacks to collect on their unsatisfied money judgments from a bank that is an instrumentality of Iran. Bennett v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 927 F. Supp. 2d 833 (N.D. Cal. 2013), aff’d, 817 F.3d 1131 (9th Cir. 2016), as amended, 2016 WL 3257780 (9th Cir. June 14, 2016).
  • His ruling that an airline was responsible for the death of a passenger under the Warsaw Convention due to the crew's refusal to honor a passenger’s request to move to an open seat for medical reasons. Husain v. Olympic Airways, 116 F. Supp. 2d 1121 (N.D. Cal. 2000). His opinion was ultimately affirmed by the United States Supreme Court. Olympic Airways v. Husain, 540 U.S. 644 (2003).
  • An order enjoining the federal government from using mismatched Social Security data to investigate undocumented immigrants and punish their employers, on the ground that the government’s policy was causing irreparable harm to innocent workers and employers. AFL-CIO v. Chertoff, 552 F. Supp. 2d 999 (N.D. Cal. 2007). Rather than appeal, the government issued new regulations to address Judge Breyer’s concerns.
  • A decision that the National Park Service was likely violating the National Environmental Policy Act in connection with a major construction project in Yosemite National Park. Sierra Club v. United States, 23 F. Supp. 2d 1132 (N.D. Cal. 1998). The Park Service made major substantive and procedural changes to the project in response to the legal concerns identified in his opinion.
  • A decision granting the habeas petition of a 17-year-old mentally challenged youth convicted of murder, finding that the admission of the teenager's confession violated Miranda. Holguin v. Harrison, 399 F. Supp. 2d 1052 (N.D. Cal. 2005).
  • In 2014, the Northern District received more than 200 asbestos product liability cases on remand following pretrial MDL proceedings in Pennsylvania. They were assigned to judges throughout the Northern District. Knowing that these aging cases would resolve more quickly if they were in front of one judge, Judge Breyer volunteered to take them all. He, with the assistance of several magistrate judge colleagues, systematically managed the cases and issued prompt pretrial rulings. The result is that every one of the cases was resolved by early 2016.