Harker alum John B. Owens (‘85) discusses his experiences in becoming a federal judge of the ninth circuit


Vijay Bharadwaj

Judge John B. Owens speaks about his childhood as it affected his career as a judge. The honor council reached out to Owens to speak about his experiences after Harker.

by Vijay Bharadwaj, Wingspan Copy Editor

Federal judge for the ninth circuit and Harker alum John B. Owens (‘85) talked to upper school students today at an assembly on behalf of the Honor Council.

Judge Owens is from the U.S court of appeals for the ninth circuit, which is one level below the Supreme Court. Owens graduated first from his class at Stanford Law School and worked as an attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice, as well as an assistant to a law firm. In 2013, he was nominated to the ninth circuit by President Obama, and the full Senate confirmed his appointment in the next year.

“I was talking with Joe Rosenthal at the beginning of the school year, and I mentioned that I was interested in organizing a talk for the Honor council,” Millie Lin (10) said. “He was super helpful in recommending Judge Owens, a Harker alum who he knew very well, and introduced me to him through email.”

Owens talked about his life as as a child first, then discussed his job. He then took questions from the audience.

In search of a school for Owens to attend when he was a child, his mother found Harker to be most convenient for her commute to work, next to 280 freeway and offering afterschool care. Compared to the Berkeley Unified school district, the Harker environment was different. He had to wear a uniform everyday, but each student provided stability and a place to be accepted for him and his interests.

At age 13, he became an employee at Harker to watch over first graders, through which he learned responsibility.

“Opportunity might not have presented itself,” Owens said. “Harker made sure I was going on the right path, and it made the difference in my career.”

After serving as a prosecutor for 11 years, Judge Ruth Ginsburg offered Owens to be a judge of the 9th circuit, as he was in search of a justice who could represent San Diego. He underwent the application process and filled

Owen’s job consists of meeting with his fellow judges seven times a year for a week. They hold conferences to preside over several judicial cases at a time and afterwards write explanations and opinions regarding the cases. After presenting his talk, Owens answered several questions from the audience regarding Harker’s impact on his career and his job as a justice.

Honor council junior representative Chetana Kalidindi inquired about the involvement of the Harker honor code in his life after graduating.

“The Honor Code was not enumerated back then, but people generally knew what it was,” Owens said. “The challenge was to make people actually do it.”

Alex Youn (11) asked about the most difficult ethical decision Owens had to make as a justice.

“Probably the hardest part is delivery of sentences,” Owens said. “I personally, don’t deal with the pain as much as other judges because I don’t see their faces. At the end of the day, however, the defendant did something bad and will be punished for his actions.”

Student response varied widely with respect to Owens’ speech

“I thought it was very interesting and different from previous speakers,” Maile Chung (11) said. “It’s great that he’s an alum because he understands our point of view, being a previous Harker student.”

With regards to the overall student response, Andy Wicklund, a faculty advisor for the honor council, reflected on Owen’s presentation.

“It wasn’t the idea of bringing somebody in to speak so much about law in a right versus wrong way,” Wicklund said. “He talked about the ethical dilemmas that turn up with respect to doing the right thing. We didn’t ask him to deliver that message, but it’s really wonderful that he did.”

Owens is currently on the Harker board of trustees. In the future, Honor Council plans to invite more speakers to the Upper School to share their experiences.