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Ninth Circuit Contender Is Exposed As Pretender
The collapse of Bill Clinton's nomination of James Ware
The judicial-confirmation process often produces surprises. No matter how smoothly a nomination is going, no confirmation should ever be taken for granted. Even a seemingly safe judicial nomination can suddenly run into trouble.
Bill Clinton’s nomination of James Ware to the Ninth Circuit provides an especially stark example.
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In June 1997, Clinton nominated federal district judge James Ware to a seat on the Ninth Circuit in California. Ware seemed to be a shoo-in for a prompt unanimous confirmation. President George H.W. Bush had appointed him to the Northern District of California in 1990, and before that another Republican, California governor George Deukmejian, had named him to a state court. California’s two Democratic senators were strongly on board. The two black judges on the Ninth Circuit had recently taken senior status, so Ware would become the only black judge in active service on that court.
Ware also had a compelling personal history.
Born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, Ware had long recounted (as this New York Times article put it) the “tragedy that made him ‘hungry for justice’: the murder of his teen-age brother, Virgil, in a racist shooting in Birmingham . . . at the height of the civil rights struggle in 1963.” James was pedaling his bicycle, with 13-year-old Virgil on the handlebars, when two white teenagers shot and killed Virgil, on “the same day that four little black girls were killed in the Ku Klux Klan bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church across town.”
In the years since his appointment to the federal bench, Ware had told the story “over and over at judicial conferences and in newspaper interviews” and had “held audiences . . . spellbound with his account.”
Except it turned out that Ware’s story was a fiction. More precisely, the horrific incident that Ware described did occur, but it was a different James Ware who was Virgil’s brother and who was riding the bicycle. Judge Ware was pretending to be that other James Ware.
The man who discovered and exposed Ware’s lie was a federal district judge in Alabama, U. W. Clemon. Judge Clemon, who became Alabama’s first black federal judge in 1980, had often heard Ware tell his story. In early August 1997, he read a Birmingham newspaper article that recounted the murder of Virgil Ware. The article quoted his brother James at length and stated that he continued to live in Birmingham and “has worked for Drummond/ABC Coke for 20 years.” It also included pictures of Virgil Ware’s family.
As the Washington Post reported:
Clemon immediately called Judge Ware, left him a message and then pursued the brother James Ware, who was mentioned in the news story. “When I arrived at the Ware home,” Clemon said yesterday, "I was impressed that he was the genuine James Ware," Virgil's brother.
Soon after, Clemon said, he connected with Judge Ware and told him about the story. Clemon said Ware replied, “Oh, you mean the one with the wrong picture,” and did not back down from his story. [Emphasis added.]
Based on Clemon’s timeline, Ware would have known that Clemon was on to his duplicity well in advance of his confirmation hearing in early October 1997. But Ware went ahead with the hearing, which was uneventful. A month later, the Judiciary Committee was on the verge of reporting his nomination to the Senate floor when word of Ware’s deception reached the Capitol. A day later, Ware wrote a letter to Clinton in which he admitted that his story was “not the truth” and asked Clinton to withdraw his nomination.
The other James Ware, Virgil’s real brother, was astonished by Judge Ware’s misappropriation and exploitation of Virgil’s death. As he said to the New York Times:
Why would he do something like that? I have no idea. I'd like to talk to him, and ask him why. I didn't think it was true. I couldn't picture a man being that hard up, doing that. You see stuff like that in pictures, but you never think of things like that in real life. It's bad enough what happened, then to have somebody else trying to prosper from it.
A year later, a judicial disciplinary committee publicly reprimanded Ware. In the meantime, Ware traveled to Birmingham to apologize to Virgil Ware’s family.
Notwithstanding his years of brazen deception, Ware continued in his district judgeship. In 2010 he became chief judge of the Northern District of California, and in 2012 he retired with his full judicial pension.