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Keep Takes Over at District Court

January 23, 1991|ALAN ABRAHAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Judith N. Keep, a judge widely regarded as even-tempered, organized and efficient, takes over today as chief judge of the U.S. District Court in San Diego, becoming the first woman to take over the San Diego federal court's top administrative post.

Keep, 46, assumes the job from Gordon Thompson Jr., who has been chief judge since 1984. The post primarily involves being a liaison--among the court's judges, between the court and its clerks and between the court and Congress, among others--and being a spokesman for the San Diego federal bench.

The top job marks a significant career step for Keep, who has been a federal judge since 1980 and who earned national acclaim last year for her work on a blue-ribbon federal court study panel. "I don't know what you'd call her except a rising star," Thompson said.

Her appointment as chief judge, earned solely on seniority, was welcomed by local lawyers. Calling her a "stickler" for efficiency and details, U.S. Atty. William Braniff said Keep is likely to run the court in the "most conscientious manner."

But Keep's organizational skills--for years, she has adhered to the same routine on the bench, proceeding through each day's rulings according to a carefully scripted order--are almost certainly due to be tried severely during the initial months of her seven-year term as chief. Even Thompson said "tough times" have arrived for the San Diego court.

Now short three full-time judges, the court is besieged by criminal cases, many of them low-level smuggling and drug cases stemming from arrests at the U.S.-Mexico border. Each of the court's five remaining full-time judges hears about 85% criminal cases, and Keep will not hear any new criminal cases for months as she adjusts to the heavy administrative load.

A parade of judges from federal courts around the nation has been lined up to pitch in for the next few months, each judge staying in San Diego for a few weeks' worth of cases, Thompson said.

Local lawyers Marilyn Huff and Jim McIntyre are believed to be in line for two of the three full-time openings. But, in part because of the Gulf War, neither is expected to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate for months, and no candidate has even been suggested for the third opening, Thompson said.

Yet, despite the shortage of judges and the heavy criminal load, officials in Washington have tentatively tabbed the court to take part in a pilot program that aims to speedily resolve civil cases--but have not allocated funding for the project, scheduled to begin April 1.

"It's a somewhat awesome time to take it over because of all the problems in the court," Keep said in a recent interview. She added a few moments later, "This court is definitely in a crisis."

She said, however, that her only goal has nothing to do with the crises in caseloads or policy. She said she has come to appreciate the collegiality among the San Diego court's judges, and wants primarily to keep the judges close.

"The (San Diego) court is a unique court" because the judges have a good working relationship, she said. "That sounds so platitudinous, but it is true. And that is such a concern, to keep us close."

Keep said she has always been a believer in diversity on the bench. But she acknowledged that she has never been considered a crusader on behalf of women's issues.

After President Carter appointed Keep to the federal bench in 1980, she told a legal newspaper in 1981 that the appointment was "just a product of the times." She said, "It's obvious I got the position because I'm a woman"; the court had no female judges until she was appointed.

But Keep said recently that becoming the chief judge is meaningful because it shows that women are in line for leading roles in the federal judiciary. With Thompson's term expiring, Keep was first in line because she has the most seniority of the four other full-time judges who are under age 65.

Keep is a 1970 graduate of the University of San Diego law school. She was born in 1944 in Omaha, Neb., grew up near there and came to California to attend Scripps College in Claremont.

After teaching high school English for a year at a private girls school in San Diego, she went to law school, where she graduated as valedictorian.

After law school, she worked for three years for Defenders Inc., which then handled most of the county's indigent criminal defense.

She was in private practice from 1973 to 1976 and spent four days working for the U.S. attorney's office before she was appointed in March, 1976, to the San Diego Municipal Court.

In 1978, Keep was voted the county's best Municipal Court judge in a poll run by the San Diego County Bar Assn. Two years later, she was appointed to the federal court.

Despite her methodical, line-by-line, issue-by-issue approach in the daily scripts, Keep tries to keep her courtroom as relaxed as possible, particularly when juries are present. She has been known to step down from the bench and climb into the jury box herself to listen to a witness.

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