This article originally appeared in the summer 2014 Harker Quarterly.
Life for John Owens ’85 has changed significantly ever since President Barack Obama nominated him to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, the nation’s largest appeals court, which shapes federal law from districts in California and eight other Western states.
Owens’ historic appointment as a judge was confirmed on March 31 with a vote from the U.S. Senate. On April 25 he was officially sworn in as a circuit judge during an investiture ceremony held in the jury assembly room of the Courthouse Annex in San Diego.
“Professionally, for more than 15 years, my primary concern was obtaining the best outcome for a client, either the United States or a private person or company. I really cared about the outcome of a case. Now as a judge, I no longer care who wins or loses. I only care that my decision was correct under the pertinent facts and law,” said Owens, a former partner with the Los Angeles-based law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson. “On a personal level, my life is a little less hectic now, which is nice for my wife and daughters,” he added.
Judges on the 9th Circuit review the decisions of federal trial courts in Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and certain islands in the Pacific. “This requires us to apply a wide variety of law (civil, criminal, immigration, administrative). After we have reviewed the decision of the trial court and heard arguments from the parties, we set out to write an opinion explaining our decision to uphold or reverse the trial court’s decision. We work with law clerks (usually recent law school graduates) to help make these decisions,” explained Owens, who graduated first in his class from Stanford Law School in 1996.
He then served as a law clerk for Judge J. Clifford Wallace of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the U.S. Supreme Court. Prior to that Owens was a federal prosecutor and served as chief of the criminal division in the San Diego U.S. attorney’s office. At the age of 19, he worked in the publicity department of the Golden State Warriors basketball team.
Owens’ current judicial appointment filled one of the most prolonged vacancies in 9th Circuit history. Judge Stephen Trott stepped down in 2004, leaving unresolved political feuding over whether his seat should be considered a California judgeship or an Idaho judgeship.
Reflecting back on his experience clerking for Ginsburg, Owens said she had an extremely high level of dedication to our justice system.
While working with her, Owens helped set up a visit to the Supreme Court for a group of grade 8 Harker students who were in Washington, D.C., on their class trip in 1998. “Justice Ginsburg addressed the students in the courtroom, and answered their questions. I was very proud of my fellow Harker Eagles that day,” he recalled.
Of his time at Harker, he said that the school remains “the most significant professional and personal influence on me.” He went on to say that Harker provided him with the study skills necessary to succeed in school, and more important, the ethics and values to succeed in life.
Owens started out as a Harker student in 1979, graduated from grade 8 in 1985, and worked as a summer camp counselor/coach at the school from 1985 until 1991. Today, he remains active with the school in his capacity as a member of Harker’s distinguished board of fellows.
“It was the least I could do to say thanks to the school,” he said.
An advisory group to the school’s board of trustees, the board of fellows comprises a dedicated contingent of current parents, alumni parents and alumni who meet regularly to exchange ideas on strategic planning for the school. During a spring board of fellows meeting, Owens was applauded for his recent judicial appointment.
When asked to offer words of wisdom to fellow Harker alumni about pursuing their chosen careers, Owens said he would offer two pieces of advice. “First, make sure that you enjoy your work … you will probably spend more time working than anything else in your life, so you don’t want to be stuck in a miserable job. Second, there is no substitute for hard work, especially when you are in high school and college. Hard work now makes the rest of your life much easier,” he said.