A Good View, Judging from the Plains
JANUARY 27, 2016
Twelve years into her tenure as a U.S. district judge for the Northern District of Oklahoma, Hon. Claire Eagan ’76 had already put her signature to many controversial decisions: a November 2003 ruling to shut down Rx Depot, which acted as a middleman between U.S. customers and Canadian pharmacies; a September 2006 civil rights judgment against an Oklahoma manufacturer for human trafficking; and a $5.1 million labor suit settlement against Wal-Mart for designating itself the beneficiary of several employees’ life insurance policies.
None, however, compared to the 29-page opinion Eagan issued on August 2013 as a new judge on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The opinion upheld the constitutionality of the National Security Agency’s collection of “all call detail records” from Americans’ phones. In the immediate wake of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s leak of this same type of surveillance to several newspapers, Eagan found that, as long as the government could show relevance to an authorized counterterrorism investigation, the collection of metadata records remained justified.
“To me, the logical culmination of a successful career was government service—to contribute to the country and judicial system based on knowledge and experience and in appreciation for the opportunities given me.”
Eagan then took an uncommon next step: She asked the court to make her own opinion public. “This court is mindful that this matter comes before it at a time when unprecedented disclosures have been made about this and other highly sensitive programs,” she wrote, explaining that the bulk collection was used to identify “connections between known—and unknown—international terrorist operatives.”
Eagan added that Congress provided for judicial review of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act orders, ultimately to the U.S. Supreme Court, which provided a “substantial and engaging adversarial process to test (their) legality.”
For critics of the NSA program, Eagan’s ruling—and her decision to publicize it— illustrated a hasty effort to justify an ill-conceived program. However, for those who have known Eagan as an attorney and then a federal judge in Oklahoma, the 2013 FISA ruling proved another example of her “absolute neutrality—no predisposition in any sense—and superb written opinions,” according to Joel Wohlgemuth, a Tulsa trial attorney who has appeared before Eagan for the past 13 years.
Friends and foes of Judge Eagan, both in and out of the courtroom for her past 40 years in Tulsa, tend to acknowledge two things about her: 1) She readily introduces herself as a native New Yorker and 2) She is a prompt, dignified, no-nonsense practitioner of the law. She keeps her docket as current as the cases before her allow; she addresses every person before her court—plaintiff or prisoner—with respect; and everything she writes, whether a key decision or answers to a journalist’s questions, comes in brief format, 1.5-spaced, justified.
“The practice of law provides meaningful employment, a sense of pride and satisfaction in helping others, and oftentimes substantial income. To me, the logical culmination of a successful career was government service—to contribute to the country and judicial system based on knowledge and experience and in appreciation for the opportunities given me,” Eagan said. “Being a litigator is very hard, and after a while, you ask yourself ‘What kind of an impact am I having?’ Most cases involve large, corporate clients where you’re attempting to protect their patents or enforce their contracts. Whatever talents I had, I wanted to use them to solve the issues that are most pressing to society today.”
On the bench since 1998 (and the first and still only woman appointed to the Northern District of Oklahoma), Eagan has staked a claim to the title federal judge for her entire career. Born and raised in the Bronx, she attended Trinity University in Washington, D.C., before enrolling at Fordham Law. She accepted a summer clerkship after her 1L year with Allen Edward Barrow, the chief judge of the Northern District, on the recommendation of a “friend from Tulsa who touted the city and its oil and gas industries.
“Tulsa is a fairly progressive place; the only thing I had to get used to was chicken fried steak—and being called ‘Ma’am.’”
After law school, she had a choice: stay put in New York City as an associate attorney at a law firm where she had worked following her second year, or go West, where a yearlong federal clerkship with Barrow awaited. She felicitously chose the latter. After the clerkship, she joined Hall Estill, one of Oklahoma’s largest corporate law firms, determining that a “large Tulsa practice offered the same challenges as, but quicker advancement than, a large New York practice.” She stayed in Tulsa and practiced litigation for 20 years before the dream of a federal judgeship came within reach.
Selection for the federal bench does not occur overnight, and neither does appointment. For 10 years before her nomination, Eagan applied for openings regardless of the party in power. On September 4, 2001, President George W. Bush—on the recommendation of Republican senators Don Nickles and Jim Inhofe—chose her for the post vacated by Thomas R. Brett. She was confirmed by Congress on October 23, appointed by Bush on October 24, and sworn in on October 25.
“Claire’s judicial demeanor is not only a breath of fresh air but also highly sophisticated from the standpoint of the judge/lawyer/party/witness/juror dynamics,” Wohlgemuth said. “She maintains absolute decorum in the courtroom, observes the rule of law notwithstanding any extraneous issues or media attention, and respects the judicial system while seeking improvements in several issues.”
Eagan’s reputation for fairness could have played into Supreme Court Justice John Roberts’ decision to appoint her to the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court in 2013. Known for its secrecy, the court hears applications for orders for physical search, electronic surveillance, pen registers, and trap and trace devices as well as the production of tangible things related to foreign intelligence. Other than confirming her travel to Washington, D.C., four or five times per year, neither Eagan nor her staff can say much more about the job.
Prior to FISC, Eagan chaired the Committee on Defender Services of the Judicial Conference of the United States, which acts as the equivalent of a board of directors for the administrators of the federal public defender system and also provides indigent representation for more than 90 percent of all federal criminal defendants. On her volunteerism—and her candor with criminal offenders—her long-term clerk, Nick Haugen, said Eagan “takes a lot of care to know the defendants and treats them as equals. She’ll often go lower than the recommendations, and if people violate their probation or supervised release, especially with drugs, she’ll consider sending them to treatment. She doesn’t necessarily send them back to prison.”
According to Haugen, Eagan sees a little of everything in the Northern District, but last summer proved one of the most intense. Nine members of the United Aryan Brotherhood, a violent, “whites only” prison-based gang, pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy, racketeering, and possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine. One member admitted to coordinating the firebombing of a car belonging to a person he believed had stolen from UAB’s meth enterprise, while three pleaded guilty to participating in the May 2013 maiming of a former UAB member—an act that involved the perpetrator restraining the victim while additional gang members used a heated knife to burn off the victim’s UAB neck tattoo.
“You cannot make up the fact patterns in some of our cases. Still you’re dealing with liberty and lives, and all of a person’s Constitutional rights,” said Eagan, who recently sentenced one of the UAB members to nearly five years in prison for violence committed in aid of racketeering.
“Post-Booker, [United States v. Booker] it’s a more pleasant task to sentence, now that we can take into account motions to vary from the advisory guidelines,” she said. “But we still have mandatory minimum sentences, and sometimes I have to look at the defendant and say ‘I’m sorry, there’s a reason for this, and I don’t have the flexibility to change it.’”
As an Easterner who found a life in the West, Eagan urges any Fordham Law graduate with whom she comes into contact to give it a try.
“One of my disappointments is that more qualified Fordham students do not apply for the clerkship. I receive more than 300 applications each year for the one-year term position, so I am able to select the cream of the law school crop—top 10 percent and law review,” Eagan said, mentioning that her 2017–18 clerk will be a Fordham alumnus.
“I realize that Oklahoma is beyond the Hudson River, and some may not be able to find it on a map, but a federal clerkship anywhere in the country is worth a one-year sabbatical from the East Coast,” she said. “Plus, more Fordham grads will make the West a better place!”