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Front Page - Friday, December 28, 2018

Client list of 1: An invisible hand helping shape federal decisions

Career law clerk Katharine Gardner loves sinking her teeth into a thorny legal conundrum. Instead of provoking her to madness, these prickly challenges bring out her ability to uncover the deep, hidden nuances of the law and to see the small details in a case and apply them to the larger matter.

“I enjoy untying a strong Gordian knot,” she says. “I’ll start by looking at the relevant legal theories and case law, and how they relate to each other and the facts. Then I’ll look at the problem from one angle, and then I’ll turn it over in my mind and look at it from another angle.”

As Gardner, 56, unravels the tangled threads, she gathers all the information she needs and then dives into the case law. Once she’s convinced she’s turned over every rock and excavated every relevant piece of authority, she begins to draft an opinion.

As Gardner converts her findings into legal prose, she stands at an adjustable desk, facing three monitors and the solid white wall at the back of her office. Located in the nucleus of the U.S. Courthouse in downtown Chattanooga, there are no windows in this space, although a red Amaryllis resides on Gardner’s other desk as a reminder of the outside world. What’s more, the dimensions of this room are tight and appear to be better suited for a mop and bucket.

But Gardner barely notices her snug surroundings because she has disappeared into the vast, measureless realm of the law.

After Gardner finishes her draft, she’ll walk the short distance to the far more spacious chambers of U.S. Magistrate Judge Christopher Steger, the justice for whom she currently clerks, and present her work.

Judge Steger is essentially Gardner’s sole client as an attorney. Instead of serving the needs of various clients, as her colleagues in private practice generally do, Gardner assists and counsels only him.

Although a humble servant of Judge Steger, Gardner plays a vital role in his court. Without her help, the crushing scope of the law would simply overwhelm the magistrate.

“It’s impossible for a judge to know every bit of federal law,” Gardner says. “Judges are very busy, and they need someone to research the legal issues that come before them and put them in a form they can digest quickly and use to reach a verdict.

“Essentially, my job is to help the judge make the best decision possible.”

Judge Steger echoes Gardner, saying he’d be unable to make just rulings without the information she provides. He adds that he’s fortunate to have an attorney of Gardner’s caliber working in his court, as the decisions he makes have a profound impact on people’s lives.

“Judges have to surround themselves with smart people,” he says. “Any judge who’s not operating that way is making a big mistake. These are not decisions to be made impulsively.”

“I’m just honored to be part of the sausage-making that goes on in this court,” Gardner says. “Judge Steger has been very gracious to listen to me, but he’s the one who makes the decisions.”

When Gardner presents an opinion she’s composed, she and Judge Steger often debate how the law applies to the facts in the case. The judge says these challenges to his position are an important part of his decision-making process and bring him to the center.

“Everyone is shaped by their experiences. When I was in private practice, I normally represented the defendant,” he says. “Judges like to think of themselves as objective, but I might tend to align too closely with that perspective without thinking hard enough about the other perspective. Kathy brings me to the center, which is where all judges need to be.”

While Gardner is always ready to share her views on a case with the judge, she likes that working as a law clerk excuses her from having to advocate for a particular position.

“That’s a blessing for me,” she says. “I believe everyone is equal in the eyes of the law. It doesn’t matter if you have a pile of money or no money or are prominent in the community or not – the law applies to each person equally.”

Gardner is clearly passionate about the law and her work. But she says some aspects of her job are less appealing than others.

As a federal law clerk, Gardner is unable to campaign for a political candidate, make a contrition to a campaign, or express her political views publicly. She sometimes envies her fellow attorneys in private practice, who are not subject to the same rules.

These rules exist for a reason, Gardner says, though they can occasionally be frustrating.

“The judiciary needs to be fair and neutral, and because I work at the elbow of the judge, an expression of my political views could reflect on him,” she says. “I wouldn’t want that. I’m committed to the neutrality of the court.”

Gardner is also not as connected to the local bar as she’d like to be. It’s not that she’s shy; she simply feels her job with the federal judiciary requires her to maintain some distance from other attorneys.

That said, Gardner has served as the president of the local chapter of the Federal Bar Association and is a member of the local American Inn of Court, which she says allows her to break free of her office and socialize with other lawyers. “That’s good for me because I can get a little insular on this job,” she admits.

All that said, Gardner would not leave her job to be able to place a bumper sticker on her car. “I like what I do; I feel like I’m serving my country,” she says. “It’s an honor.”

McCallie lineage

Long before Gardner became a law clerk, she was a campus urchin at McCallie School. Her father is Spencer McCallie, grandson of Spencer McCallie Sr., a co-founder of the school, giving her a deep pedigree in the community.

Growing up, Gardner joined her parents and siblings for dinner nearly every night in the McCallie dining hall, played cops and robbers in the school buildings and swam in the school’s lake-like pool every summer day.

“It was a great place to be a kid,” Gardner remembers. “It was like a 100-acre playground.”

Gardner was inspired to someday become an attorney when the elementary school she was attending, Missionary Ridge Elementary School, was integrated by court order. As kids from Glenwood Elementary School were bussed to Missionary Ridge, she experienced diversity for the first time, and the experience impacted her embryonic views.

“We did a unit on the Constitution and civil rights, and I felt that being a lawyer was one way I could help people and ensure their rights weren’t trampled,” she says.

Although Gardner’s family moved three times as she was growing up, these transfers always took place on campus as her father was promoted from teacher to administrator to headmaster. By the time Gardner was a teenager, she felt like she was living in a fishbowl.

After graduating from Girls Preparatory School, Gardner expanded her horizons at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she earned a degree in English. She says the major was an ideal training ground for her current career, which involves a lot of reading and writing.

“I read and I write and then I read and I write and then I read and write,” she says. “Which explains the glasses.”

Although Gardner applied to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville College of Law and was accepted, the next few years of her life involved a brief detour. Weary of being apart after years of going to different colleges, she and her high school heartthrob, Ellis Gardner, married. She then followed him as he pursued a career as a player in the National Football League, first with the Kansas City Chiefs, then with the Houston Oilers, and finally with the Indianapolis Colts.

Each time they moved, Gardner would apply to the local law school, only for her husband to then be cut from the team. When she wondered out loud of Indianapolis had a law school, he said that was the kiss of death in each city in which he played and begged her to not apply.

Although he was joking, Gardner complied. “It made sense to let Ellis play out the pro football thing,” she says.

After two seasons with the Colts, her husband put the gridiron behind him and began working as an engineer. Knowing they wouldn’t be moving on the whim of a football team, Gardner resumed her education, earning her Juris Doctorate, summa cum laude, at Indiana University.

Gardner and her husband then returned to Chattanooga where she took a term law clerk position with the Hon. Ted Milburn, a federal judge on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

After completing her clerkship, Gardner followed the common blueprint for new attorneys and joined a law firm as an associate. While practicing labor and employment law at Miller & Martin, she met and worked with Steger, who also was in the early stages of his legal career.

Gardner and her husband also started a family. By the time she had one baby and another one on the way, she took a sabbatical after deciding she’d rather spend more time with her children than her practice would allow.

“My priorities changed,” she says. “I didn’t want to miss those milestones.”

Then came the day U.S. Magistrate Judge John Powers asked her to be his career law clerk. Gardner believed the position would allow her to have a better work-life balance than working for a law firm, so she seized the opportunity.

The work was not only a pleasure, it played to Gardner’s strengths. So, when Judge Powers took senior status, his successor, U.S. Magistrate Judge William Carter, kept her. Gardner was still Judge Carter’s law clerk when he retired 16 years later.

“Then I was very fortunate when Judge Steger was willing to keep me,” Gardner says.

“I never considered not keeping Kathy because I knew who she was and the quality of lawyer she is,” Judge Steger says. “She was indispensable to me as I started this job because I didn’t know how to be a judge.”

Although Gardner is not as engaged with the local bar as she’d like to be, she comes from a family with a renowned legacy of service in the community. Gardner is carrying this long-burning torch forward in ways that revolve around issues that are important to her.

Most significantly, Gardner and her husband are part of the leadership team of Chattanooga Connected, an organization that promotes discussions between blacks and whites about race relations.

Although Gardner has always believed that the rights imparted by the U.S. Constitution belong to every citizen, regardless of their ethnicity, even she was surprised by some of the conversations she’s had with black people.

For example, Gardner has previously been involved with The Ed Johnson Project, a local effort to promote awareness of the 1906 lynching of Johnson, a black man, on the Walnut Street Bridge after he’d been falsely accused of raping a white woman.

Through a memorial near the bridge, college scholarships, and a documentary film, The Ed Johnson Project also hopes to promote healing in the local community.

Gardner learned just how important the work the organization is doing when an African-American friend told her there are local blacks still will not cross the Walnut Street Bridge because of what happened there. Gardner was astonished.

“How could I have grown up a fifth-generation Chattanoogan and not have known about what took place on the bridge I crossed for seven years, five days a week, during the school year?” she asks.

For her part, Gardner and her husband visited various churches and community organizations to educate them about what happened to Johnson. Although she stepped back from the project when it entered the fund-raising phase due to her ties to the court, she continues to hope for healing, and is doing her part through Chattanooga Connected.

Now that Gardner’s two children are grown, she also has time to pursue diversions from her daily routine. On the safe end of the scale, she planted a cutting garden in her yard this past summer so she could keep her desk supplied with flowers. On the other end of the scale, she’s continuing her pursuit of an activity she started exploring over three years ago – kayaking.

Although Gardner says her level of risk is minimal compared to the “young guns who get out there and do amazing things,” she’s progressed from paddle school with the Tennessee Valley Canoe Club to kayaking on the Hiwassee – she calls it a whitewater river for beginners – to sharpening her skills on the more adventurous Nantahala and Pigeon rivers along the North Carolina-Tennessee border.

“I did my first combat roll on the Pigeon,” she says. “It was great fun.”

As much as Gardner enjoys her kayaking exploits on the Nantahala and Pigeon, she credits the waters of the Hiwassee for giving her a place to refresh her spirit and prepare for the many hours she’ll spend in the nucleus of the U.S. Courthouse.

“When I get on the Hiwassee, I don’t think about work or worry about my problems; I just focus on what’s coming next and how I’ll handle it so I don’t end up upside-down in the water,” she says.

“And wow, is it gorgeous there. The Hiwassee is one of the most beautiful Appalachian rivers you could ever see. There are mountains on either side of it, the water is clear and clean and, in places, there are fields of what I call grass under the surface. It’s a balm for my soul.”

Eventually, Gardner returns home and to the job that’s been waiting for her for nearly 21 years. Although she hopes to stay for many more years, she does have a contingency plan in place in case she needs one.

“One option would be to join a small firm and take cases in which I could be useful to people who need legal advice at reasonable prices,” she says. “If I didn’t need to make a lot of money, I could help people that way.”

For now, however, Gardner is expecting to enjoy many more years at the elbow of Judge Steger. She’s also looking forward to unraveling the next Gordian knot he lays on her desk.

As her nimble fingers work the tangled threads, even the four walls that enclose her will disappear as she plunges into the vast, measureless realms of the law.