All in the Family

Judge Jane Stranch '78, the newest member of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, brings 30 years of complex litigation experience to the bench.

by Grace Renshaw Jane Stranch '78

When Jane Stranch '78 appeared before the Senate Judicial Committee for her confirmation hearing for a seat on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on October 14, 2009, Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) asked that she introduce family members who had accompanied her. Three of them—her husband, Jim Stranch; her brother, Dewey Branstetter '81; and her son Gerard Stranch '03—were also her lifelong law partners at what is now Branstetter Stranch & Jennings. "If you could practice all those years with your family, you can get along with anybody," quipped Senator Amy Klochubar (D-Minnesota).

The newest judge on the Sixth Circuit Court not only practiced for more than 30 years at the family firm founded by her father, Cecil D. Branstetter '49, but she also thrived there for reasons readily apparent at the hearing. "My father will be 89 in December and does not travel as much as he did previously," she told members of the committee, "but he would tell you how grateful he is for this opportunity for me. He served in the Tennessee Legislature for one term and sponsored the bill that allowed women to serve on juries, because they had not done so before, and it's an honor and in a way coming full circle that he has a daughter who might be able to serve a judge." In fact, Stranch, who has four children and two grandchildren, frankly acknowledges that practicing law with her father, husband and brother opened up opportunities that weren't available to many women in the 1970s and 1980s. "I was able, when our children were very young, to move in and out and have a limited schedule," she said. "Most women at that time did not have that option, and it was truly a blessing for me. Of course, the flip side of working with your family is that the tendency is that you're never off. You find yourself discussing cases at 10 p.m. or all weekend. We had to make a real effort to carve out time that wasn't family and work, but just family."

More than a year elapsed between Stranch's nomination by President Obama, announced in August 2009, and her confirmation by the Senate Judicial Committee in September 2010. After her nomination, Judge Stranch worked overtime to bring her partners up to speed on her clients and cases while remaining active in the firm, which she served as managing partner. "After the confirmation hearing last October, I didn't get the notice that I was on the calendar for approval until the end of August, and the vote was September 13," she said. "It was a year in limbo. I had to go forward and presume my practice would just continue. I had no idea when or if I would be confirmed, and I had promised my partners I would take care of certain things before I left my practice. It's been a race at the end to complete certain matters." Finally spurred to action by the solid endorsement of Tennessee Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, the Senate voted by a hefty majority to approve Stranch's appointment on September 13.

Judge Stranch was appointed to fill the seat on the Sixth Circuit vacated when Judge Martha Craig Daughtrey '68 took senior status in 2009. One important qualification cited by the Obama administration when announcing her nomination was Stranch's expertise in the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, better known as ERISA. Enacted the year before Stranch started law school, ERISA is a complex set of laws that established minimum standards that must be met by most employee pension and medical benefit plans voluntarily established by private employers. ERISA cases had become a significant focus of Stranch's practice as a result of timing, aptitude and destiny. Labor law dealing with pension and health funds was a significant niche at her father's firm when Stranch began working there during law school, and she took a class in ERISA to gain an understanding of the new law. Stranch earned her undergraduate degree at Vanderbilt summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, and graduated from law school Order of the Coif, and her aptitude for complex cases quickly manifested itself after she joined the family firm. "As my practice developed, when ERISA cases got complex and convoluted enough, they somehow found their way to my desk," she recalled. "I also had an extensive labor law practice, and I'm proud to have represented working people."

By the end of the 1990s, Stranch's complex litigation practice encompassed class action work across the nation. She had become particularly skilled in addressing fiduciary issues related to the funds companies established to provide pension benefits to their employees. "I've done a variety of complex litigation," she said, "but my primary emphasis was representing classes of plan participants who lost their individual pension accounts due to fiduciary breaches, which were often connected with corporate scandals. In some of these plans, employees' contributions were matched in company stock or the company's stock was one of the main offerings published by the employer. The scholarly literature has said that having your income and your retirement both invested in a single company is unwise, and that's exactly what happened throughout the 1980s and 90s, even into the 2000s. Employees were working for an employer in trouble; their retirement savings were invested in their employer's stock, and they were barred by the plan's provisions from selling. Many employees lost their jobs and their retirement accounts."

Although her practice focused on ERISA, she found that no case was exactly the same. "Every plan is so different, and so are the situations that arise," Stranch said. "Several cases addressing the right of employees to protection under ERISA have been decided in the Supreme Court, and it's been most interesting to follow the development of this law."

Before her nomination, Stranch had anticipated that she would continue litigating complex cases—work she found extremely rewarding—until she retired. "When several friends approached me and asked if a seat on the Sixth Circuit Court was something I was interested in, it was a bit of a surprise," she said. "I loved being an advocate. But when I thought about joining the Sixth Circuit Court, I very much felt a calling to the job. I've done a great deal of research and writing, and I recognized how much I enjoyed the thought process involved in the appellate process."

Again, a combination of timing, training and aptitude had brought Stranch an opportunity for which she was well-prepared, this time by her long experience as a litigator addressing complex cases in federal courts. "The broad range of complex litigation work I did, representing health funds and pension funds as entities and representing individuals in pension matters, took me into many different courts, where I had an opportunity to see many different judging styles and to draw from those," she said. Stranch also taught a general introductory course in labor law at Belmont College, and her pro bono work includes work on behalf of the Invisible Children and Child Mothers of Uganda Project. She and her husband made a conscious choice to send their four children to public schools, and Stranch also logged years of service on PTA boards as well as with church and advocacy organizations.

"As governor, I appointed 50 judges," Senator Lamar Alexander told the Senate Judiciary Committee in endorsing Stranch's nomination. "I didn't ask them their politics; I didn't ask them how they felt about issues. I tried to determine if they had the character, the intelligence and the temperament to be a judge, whether they would treat people before the bench with courtesy, and most important, whether they were determined to be impartial to litigants before the court. I am convinced that Jane Stranch will be, and I'm pleased to recommend her to the committee."

Judge Stranch was sworn in November 8. In addition to her former law partners, among the supporters present at her swearing in ceremony in Nashville were her proud father, Cecil Branstetter, and George Barrett '57, an old family friend who had also joined her family at Stranch's nomination hearing in Washington, D.C., more than a year before.

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