James R. Spencer

  • Lecturer

Retired Judge James R. Spencer of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia was the first African-American chief judge in the court’s 215-year history. In 1986, he became the first African-American federal judge in the commonwealth of Virginia.

Spencer retired from the federal bench on June 2, 2017. He teaches Appellate Practice at the Law School.

A native of Florence, South Carolina, Spencer is a 1971 magna cum laude graduate of Atlanta’s Clark College. Spencer was later selected to the Clark College Hall of Fame for being an excellent student and an outstanding athlete. He was a member of the Beta Psi Chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Incorporated (Basileus, 1970) and Alpha Kappa Mu Honor Society. In his junior year, he was selected for inclusion in Who’s Who in American Colleges and Universities. 

Spencer graduated cum laude from Harvard Law School in 1974. He was admitted to the bars of Georgia in 1974, the District of Columbia in 1977 and Virginia in 1982.  Following graduation from law school, Spencer served one year as a staff attorney at the highly respected Atlanta Legal Aid Society, and for three years in the U.S. Army’s Judge Advocate General Corp. In 1978, he joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of Columbia, where he was a member of the elite Major Crimes division.  In 1983, he joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Richmond, Virginia, and remained there until he was appointed a U.S. district judge by President Ronald Reagan on October 14, 1986. Spencer has been active in the leadership and administration of the federal judiciary.

Spencer was appointed by Chief Justice William Rehnquist to the Defender Services Committee of the Judicial Conference and was chairman of its subcommittees on federal death penalty prosecutions and budget. He was also a member of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals Judicial Counsel. He has taught his fellow judges case management and budget, with emphasis on patent cases, federal death penalty prosecution, mass torts and multi-district litigation.

Spencer is also an ordained minister, renowned preacher, lecturer and motivational speaker. He is affiliated with many professional, social and civic organizations, including the Executive Committee of the Virginia Bar Association’s Judicial Section, the Special Issues Committee of the Virginia Bar Association, the Federal Judges Association, the American Judicature Society, the Federal Bar Association, the National Bar Association - Judicial Counsel, the American Bar Association, Omega Psi Phi fraternity, Sigma Pi Phi fraternity, the U.S. Golf Association and the U.S. Tennis Association.

He is married to Judge Margaret Poles Spencer, a retired judge of the Circuit Court of Richmond, Virginia.  He has three children; Kristi, a physician in Maryland; Benjamin, a law professor in Charlottesville, Virginia; and Stephen, a physician in Morgantown, West Virginia.



  • J.D.
    Harvard Law School
  • B.A.
    Clark College

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