He succeeds U.S. District Judge Curtis L. Collier of Chattanooga, who has served as chief judge for the past seven years. The chief judgeship rotates every seven years to the next judge in seniority who is under the age of 65.
The Eastern District is the largest federal district in Tennessee, composed of 41 counties, serving 2.5 million people.
In addition to Judge Varlan and Judge Collier, there are three other active U.S. district judges in the Eastern District, Thomas W. Phillips, Knoxville; J. Ronnie Greer, Greeneville; and Harry S. Mattice Jr., Chattanooga, and one senior judge, Leon Jordan, Knoxville.
The chief judge serves as the administrative judge for the district. Judge Varlan becomes the fourth district judge based in Knoxville to hold the chief judgeship since that position was established in 1948.
The Judicial Conference of the United States, the policy-making body of the federal judiciary, adopted the chief judgeship program to address the increasing judicial administrative duties in each district.
Judge Varlan has been a member of the Judicial Conference since 2010. Because of the method by which the appointments to the conference are rotated through the district courts within the 12 geographic circuits, Judge Varlan became the first Eastern District of Tennessee district judge to be appointed to the Judicial Conference in more than 30 years. He has been on the federal bench since 2003, and he is the first person of Greek descent to be appointed to the federal judiciary in Tennessee.
Although the federal district court in East Tennessee has been in existence for 215 years, Judge Varlan is only the 21st person to hold a U.S. District Court judgeship in this district. President George Washington appointed the first federal judge for this region.