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Rising near the top of U.S. judicial hierarchy Supreme Court goal in Easterbrook reach

When Frank H. Easterbrook was a teenager, winning awards for playing the French horn and acting in plays at Kenmore West High School, his father could tell there was something special about him.

"You could see he was brilliant and exceptional," George Easterbrook recently recalled of his son. "Frank was the kind of kid who could set his mind to something and always accomplish it."

So the elder Easterbrook is not surprised that his son is now one of the most quoted federal judges in America or that he was recently named chief judge of the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago -- one step below the U.S. Supreme Court.

"From the day Frank graduated from law school, his goal was to be appointed to the Supreme Court one day," said George Easterbrook, 88, a retired dentist now living in Lewiston. "I hope he makes it."

Several major publications -- including the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune -- have mentioned the 57-year-old judge as a possible future candidate for the Supreme Court.

Interviewed from his vacation home in Glacier Valley, Alaska, the judge told The Buffalo News that "of course" he would jump at the chance to join the Supreme Court one day.

"Most appellate judges have thought about that. . . . The Supreme Court gets the most interesting issues in the land," Easterbrook said. "But there's only one thing that counts, and that is the name that the president sends on to the Senate, when he nominates someone."

For now, Easterbrook said he is "not looking forward" to the new challenge of his legal career, heading one of the busiest federal appeals courts in the country.

While he considers it an honor to lead the 7th Circuit Court, Easterbrook said the position of chief judge adds all kinds of "administrative headaches," including the role of disciplinarian, to the work he really enjoys -- examining complex legal issues and writing about them.

Legal publications have called Easterbrook one of the most frequently cited federal judges of his generation. A poll conducted two years ago by Legal Affairs magazine called him one of the 20 best legal minds in America.

A federal judge since 1985, Easterbrook also teaches a course at the University of Chicago Law School. A hiker and an outdoorsman who never married, he spends three months each year -- in two-week increments -- at his Alaskan vacation home, where he uses the Internet to do legal work.

Easterbrook said he never gave much thought to a legal career when he was growing up on Irving Terrace in the Town of Tonawanda. When he graduated from Kenmore West in 1966, a good friend and classmate was Wolf Blitzer, who would later find fame as a CNN newsman.

"Wolf lived a couple blocks away, and we appeared in plays together. One of them was 'The Diary of Anne Frank,' " Easterbrook recalled.

Easterbrook majored in political science and economics at Swarthmore College and then moved on to law school at the University of Chicago. At age 29, he landed a job in the U.S. solicitor general's office. As deputy solicitor general, he argued many cases before the Supreme Court.

He spent six years as a full-time law professor at his alma mater in Chicago before President Ronald Reagan named him a federal appeals judge.

Easterbrook has a reputation as a prolific writer of influential court decisions and a tough questioner of lawyers. He said he was only half-joking when he wished that his courtroom had a trap door he could use to dispatch unprepared lawyers and send them hurtling to the street.

"It's not really practical, though, because my court is on the 27th floor," he said.

Easterbrook said he prides himself as being a "textualist" who closely follows the literal meaning of laws, rather than being a "philosopher king" who uses his judgeship to "try to change the world."

He attributes part of his success to his education in the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District. He noted that his two brothers are also successful. Gregg Easterbrook is an author, a contributing editor at New Republic magazine and a football columnist for ESPN.com. Neil Easterbrook is a professor of English at Texas Christian University.

All three sons are Bills fans. They were in Orchard Park to watch Buffalo beat Green Bay on Nov. 5, when the three of them were guests in the box of Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr.

George Easterbrook believes that plenty of reading at an early age put his sons on the right path. He said he and his late first wife, Vimy Easterbrook, always encouraged their sons to read and research.

"We had books all over the house. I read to them every night," the elder Easterbrook said. "My sons have all done very well, and it means a lot to me."

e-mail: dherbeck@buffnews.com

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