- Judge Ann Claire Williams talks with David F. Levi about her life, growing up in Detroit, and her journey to becoming the first Black woman to serve as a judge on the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois and on the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.
- Judge Williams was a pathbreaking lawyer and judge at every turn of her career. “To me, when a door is closed, you find a way to open it, or you move to a new door,” she says in this episode.
- She discusses her work in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois, particularly the challenges of serving as chief of Organized Task Force on Drug Enforcement during the height of the war on drugs.
- Judge Williams also mentions several key judges who influenced her as a young lawyer, including Judge Bob Sprecher, Judge Marianne Jackson, Justice John Paul Stevens, and Judge Ilana Diamond Rovner, among many others.
- Judge Williams’ biography (Jones Day) (HistoryMakers)
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Levi: Hello and welcome to Judgment Calls. I’m David Levi, director of the Bolch Judicial Institute at Duke Law School. Our guest today is Judge Ann Claire Williams. Judge Williams served as a federal judge for more than 30 years, first on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois in Chicago, and then on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit covering Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana. She was the first Black woman and the first person of color to be appointed to serve on the Seventh Circuit and the first Black woman on the U.S. District Court [in the Seventh Circuit].
Judge Williams has received just about every honor a judge can earn, including the Edward J. Devitt award for distinguished service, which recognizes some extraordinary judges in the federal judiciary. I was present that day in the Supreme Court when the award was made to you, and it was a very wonderful and moving ceremony presided over by Justice Sotomayor. After such a wonderfully distinguished career, Judge Williams stepped down from the bench in 2018 and is now of counsel at Jones Day, leading the firm’s efforts to advance the rule of law in Africa.
Judge Williams, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s really an honor to have you with us. I thought we could start at the beginning and take you through your amazing life in the law. You grew up in Detroit, Michigan, which is not in the Seventh Circuit. What was your childhood like? Was there anything about it that was remarkable or that we would say, “Aha — that was the beginning of the greatness that came to Ann Williams?”
Williams: Well, first, David. Thank you. It’s an honor to be on this program and to be sharing this platform with you. We served together for a period of time. Our careers intersected, and it’s a pleasure to be here with you.
So I grew up in Detroit. I had very loving parents. My dad, when he moved to Detroit, was a bus driver and my mother worked in a school for delinquent children. They both had degrees from historically Black colleges, but being Black, when they got to Detroit they couldn’t find work in their fields. We had a childhood where we were supported and nurtured. I didn’t want for anything. We weren’t wealthy by any means, but my parents certainly believed in education and the value of education and how important it was for me and my two sisters. And they shared the American dream. They also told me that I had to work twice as hard because I was Black to achieve whatever it was I wanted in life.
Fortunately, my dad quit driving the bus after 20 years. He had enough money in his pension. He had applied to be a supervisor, and the white supervisor told him he was not qualified even though he had been a staff sergeant in the army. And Daddy decided to go back to school to become a teacher. As fate would have it, Daddy and I were in classes together at Wayne State University. I’ll tell you more about that later as we move on to what happened and how that happened.
Levi: Well, two remarkable parents, both educators, eventually. As you say, you then got two education degrees. You have a bachelor’s in science from Wayne State University in elementary education. Then you also have a master’s of arts in guidance and counseling from the University of Michigan. Then you taught in the Detroit Public School system before you went to law school. I think I’ve got that right. So that was a big commitment by you. You were on the path to be a teacher.
Williams: Absolutely. My mother, when Blacks could get full-time positions at the board of education, she worked 17 years — well 12 years at the home for delinquent kids then five years as a substitute teacher — then finally she could sign a contract full time because Blacks were admitted to the system.
My dad went back to school. We were in classes together, and he wanted to be a teacher. Originally, he had wanted to be a preacher, and it was really when we were in classes together that it hit me: bus driver… college degree… college degree… bus driver. And tears started rolling down my cheeks, and I went home and said, “Daddy, how could you stand it? You had a college degree and you drove a bus for 20 years?”
And he said, “First, no one could take my education away from me. I will always have that. Two, being a bus driver is good, honest, decent work.” There were a lot of Black accountants and lawyers driving buses with Daddy, and he knew that it was noble work.
“Three,” he said, “I did what I had to do because I wanted to make it better for you and your sisters. I wanted you to be able to achieve more than we have achieved, and that was important. That was the most important thing for our family.”
So they were influential in terms of teaching, and I actually started helping with kids in high school tutoring. I was a camp counselor in the summertime. I always loved kids and teaching, and I think it was the impact that my teachers had on me. They were so influential in my life, and I worked with inner-city kids, and I saw the difference that teachers made. They were primarily Black students that I taught, and I saw so many bright kids with potential who had dreams but didn’t have people who believed in them. So one of the things I did was I taught music and homeroom, and I knew the kids had the potential.
I’ll tell you one story. We had a program for Martin Luther King, and there were several songs the kids had to sing, and one of the kids learned the “I Have a Dream” speech. One of the teachers said, “Well, the kids will never be able to, you’re going to have to give them the music, they’ll never be able to do it without looking at the words.” Well, all the kids memorized the words. Just like I was taught when I was in choir, you memorize the words. I also knew that how you view students whether you believe in them makes a difference and that teachers can have a real impact. Teaching is really in my heart. After teaching there, I ultimately taught trial advocacy and teaching has just been throughout my life, so I know teachers make a difference.
Levi: You have mentored a lot of people over your long career in the law. I know that’s really been important to you to help people, women, minorities, and others come along and get the self-confidence that they need to get over the hurdles that we all have to get over eventually. But it really helps to have somebody give you a little push.
Williams: It does. There were a lot of people that helped me. Part of what my parents taught me was that you have to pay back. To those to whom much is given, much is expected. So, they expected me to never forget those that helped me along the way and that I had an obligation to help others.
Levi: You know, I’m thinking of your father sitting in that classroom with you and just how filled his heart must have been with pride and love for you. While you were disappointed for him that he was there, he probably felt like this is the most wonderful thing that here I am with my daughter and we’re both studying together to become something really special.
Williams: He loved that. But, of course, what brought tears to both of their eyes was — I was blessed. Both of my parents were there for both of my investitures…
Levi: You know that is really something.
Williams: …the district court and the court of appeals, and there was no one prouder. You know, it was amazing.
Levi: I’m sure that’s right. So a big career switch and you went off to Notre Dame for law school. So, why did you decide to do that? And then let’s talk about your experience at Notre Dame, which is on everybody’s lips right now because of our new justice.
Williams: Right, right. So actually, I went to law school on a dare. I had never thought about law school. Didn’t know a lawyer. Didn’t know a judge. Of course, I knew about Perry Mason because we watched him every weekend. He won every case, and I knew about Thurgood Marshall and the Civil Rights movement because my parents were very active, but I didn’t know a lawyer — hadn’t touched a lawyer — and a friend of mine from high school who was getting his master’s in social work came by my house one day when I was getting my master’s and said, “You know, what are you going to do next year?”
I said, “Oh, I don’t know.”
He said, “Well, I’m going to law school.”
We were kind of competitive, so I said, “So am I.”
And he said, “You know we need to take a test.”
I said, “You’re kidding.”
So he went and got the forms. We took the test. I had no anxiety, no prep. Thank God, did well, but applied very late. So, Harvard, Yale, Notre Dame, Michigan, Wayne State said great score, great grade point, but too late, try next year.
At that point, as I thought about it more, I said, “Well, you know, teachers teach and lawyers teach. Lawyers have to teach judges, opposing counsel, clients. Teachers counsel. Lawyers counsel. Teachers have to persuade. Lawyers have to persuade.” So as time went on, that summer I started thinking, you know, I could be a lawyer. This has prepared me to be a lawyer, and as fate would have it, a friend of mine, Willie Lipscomb, who later became a judge in Detroit, was taking a course at Notre Dame, a pre-law course, and became friends with someone on the admissions council. And that friend said at some point someone canceled out of the class, and my friend Willie said, “Well, Ann Williams qualified, but she was late.” I actually have my letter from Notre Dame — the rejection letter and the acceptance letter.
I rolled into Notre Dame the night before school started, called Willie, and said “Willie, I’m in, I’m so happy, I’m in graduate housing, and can’t wait till tomorrow.”
And he said, and I quote, “Ann Claire, have you done the reading?”
To which I said, “Willie, tomorrow’s the first day of class. I will buy my books. I will get my assignment. I will do my reading.”
He said, “No, Ann Claire, we’re in the same section.”
So I got my little Volkswagen, drove to Willie’s without GPS or a navigation system, and Willie had to actually explain to me what the terms appellee meant, remand, all the various terms totally foreign to me. That’s how I started law school.
I like to tell that story because look at where I ended up, David. And so I say to students that I’m talking to, and I tell that story, and I share with them the tips I’ve learned through the years that they can go far beyond what I did, because for a little Black girl from Detroit to come to law school totally unprepared and to end up where I ended up — there is no limit. That’s how I started.
Now, Notre Dame was not easy because Wayne State and the University of Michigan were both public schools. Notre Dame was not. And so it was, it was an adjustment. There were parietal hours in the women’s dorm, men couldn’t visit. In my class, I was the only African American woman and there had only been a Black woman admitted the year before I went to school. There were about 20 women in the class. So I hadn’t been in that kind of environment before. So that was an adjustment. But we had an incredible president, Father Ted Hesburgh, who was the right hand, he actually led the Civil Rights Commission. His counsel Howard Glickstein came to Notre Dame to start the Civil Rights Center at Notre Dame. So I worked as a research assistant for Howard and learned a lot more about civil rights, and then one of my summers was an intern for the law school’s civil rights project, the Lawyers Committee. So the experience at Notre Dame was a very good experience. I also served as deputy director of the Legal Aid Society and worked in the Indiana prison teaching legal writing. But it wasn’t easy. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t easy.
Levi: Law school’s not easy.
Williams: No, it’s not. And I was an assistant dorm director at Notre Dame. So I had the experience of going to the football games and everything, but it was very good training. One of the positives about Notre Dame was the message of serving because that’s always been behind the philosophy of Notre Dame that our lawyers make a difference. So that was a philosophy I had anyway and Notre Dame helped me. Also, Notre Dame was critical in terms of my next job move.
Levi: And that was to become a law clerk on the Seventh Circuit where you would eventually be a judge. Of course, you didn’t know that at the time.
Williams: No, I didn’t. But it was the dean of the law school who told me that the chief judge of the circuit court, Luther Swygert, was in his last year. There only been two or three women law clerks to any judge, and he wanted to make a statement. He wanted to hire all women and he hoped to get hire a Black woman. So he called the dean, David Link, who had gone to Notre Dame and was our dean. David recommended me for the position. Swygert wanted to hire three women, but he only had two spots. So he called his friend Bob Sprecher and said, “Would you consider Ann Williams as your second law clerk?” He did, and I then clerked for Bob Sprecher. He had always hired the editor in chief of the law review at Northwestern because he was the editor in chief of the law review at Northwestern.
He opened his door to me. I had a wonderful, wonderful clerkship with him. He loved to write. I love to write. We had an incredible time, and from then on, Sprecher always hired the editor in chief of the law review from Northwestern because he was editor in chief. But he always held the spot for someone who was not from Northwestern. So he had an open mind.
Levi: So you opened that door.
Williams: And I opened that door.
Levi: What year was that?
Williams: That was 1975 that I clerked for Sprecher, ’75 to ’76. In that time, since Bob Sprecher loved to write so much, he said if I had any spare time, I could also work as a staff attorney for the Seventh Circuit. That also was an incredible experience. So about 15% of my time I wrote bench memos for panels of judges in cases that would not be argued orally. So I got to meet all the judges on the circuit and got to get feedback on my writing from all the judges. That really served me well as a district judge because they knew who I was, and then later on some were colleagues. Judges who were there when I was a baby, a law clerk and an AUSA [assistant U.S. attorney], were still on the court when I joined the court.
Levi: There is such a thing as a court family. You know, people say the “court family.” I think to outsiders, that probably just sounds like some sort of motivational talk, but it’s actually true. There is such a thing as a court family, and it has that feeling. Might you have been there the year that Justice Stevens was elevated to the Supreme Court?
Williams: Absolutely. So my judge’s other best friend was John Paul Stevens. In fact, when Justice Stevens, because it was between Phil Tone and John Paul Stevens, and when John Paul Stevens got the nod, he actually came to my judge. My judge had the second Black woman secretary — full secretary — in the circuit, Nellie Pitts. So he came down to ask my judge if Nellie could come with him to the Supreme Court, and Nellie went to D.C. and was with Justice Stevens over 25 years. Finally, she said, well, the Justice was never going to retire, but she wanted to spend time with her grandchildren. So she left before he retired. We moved from our chambers to Justice Stevens’ chambers, so I’ve had had a relationship with him all through those years.
I had an opportunity to have a conversation with him like we’re having here. I won the John Paul Stevens Award and always visited him when I was in D.C. In fact, when I was a young AUSA, and we were doing training at the Department of Justice, Nellie would help me get tickets so I could go to arguments in the Supreme Court. Five of us were there for training and two supervisors were there doing the trial advocacy training so I asked my mates, “You know, I’ve got tickets to go hear the Williams case in the Supreme Court. You want to come?” And they said yes. So we ducked out of class that day and went to the Supreme Court, and they got to meet the Justice. When we got back to class, my supervisors were highly irritated that I had not included them. But I said, “Look, you are the ones teaching. How could you leave to go to the Supreme Court?” But anyway, he became a mentor to me and was a big supporter of mine. As I moved through the ranks, my judge sadly passed before I went on the district court. But Justice Stevens was there for me, and I met with him and chatted with him all through the years. Yes.
Levi: That is so great. I had, you know, this is not about me but I had a somewhat special relationship with him as well partly because my father was the Attorney General who in effect pulled him. At that time, the Attorney General really had a big, big say in who would be presented to the president. And they knew each other. Justice Stevens occasionally taught at the University of Chicago, but he also went to the laboratory school where I went and also your family also has a tie to the laboratory schools at the University of Chicago. You were president of the board there, and you have children who went there. So there were a lot of different connections, and I didn’t know about that, but I’ve always understood that all the judges of the Seventh Circuit were always very proud of Justice Stevens and of course he loved the circuit.
Williams: Yes he did, and by the way, I wasn’t chair of the school board. I was just a member of the school board.
Levi: You were a member of the school board. So, when you left as a law clerk, you’d had this wonderful experience, and then I don’t know whether you went directly into the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago or if there was any sort of interlude there. But this would have been in the mid-’70s, and you had a great career there. I think you and I may have met at some point during this time before you went on the bench. You were chief of the criminal division and you were chief of the organized crime and drug enforcement task force. I think we used to call that OCDETF, right?
Tell us about that experience because I think people now don’t really… It’s hard to capture what was happening in the ’70s, particularly the ’70s, I think with the influx of drugs and all of a sudden the United States was experiencing a surge in organized drug activity coming in from Colombia and Venezuela and all sorts of places. We had this drug enforcement administration that was feeling quite overwhelmed by it but also feeling like maybe we can get control of this because there have been times when they had control of it. But we didn’t really succeed in doing it, I don’t think. I’m interested in why you went there to the U.S. attorney’s office and you have these management roles, you know, let’s talk about that.
Williams: Well, first I got exposure to the U.S. attorney’s office clerking for Judge Sprecher. I admired the work that they did. They were always prepared. They wrote well. They argued the cases well, so that impressed me, but I was planning, because I go back to Thurgood Marshall and Perry Mason, I wanted to be that lawyer that cross-examined someone on the stand and they confessed, or I turn to the audience and cross-examine them in the pew and they confess. So being a defense attorney and also being a Black woman coming out of Detroit and seeing the unfairness, to me, in the criminal justice system particularly in terms of representation — for people to get great representation on the federal defender or the public defender side, not that we don’t have incredible public defenders and federal defenders, but most of those offices then and today are severely overworked. Their caseloads are incredible. They can’t handle the volume, and they’ve always been underfunded and underpaid.
So I applied to the federal defender’s office. There was a Black assistant U.S. attorney, the first woman, Marianne Jackson, who heard that I had applied to the federal defender’s office and called me out of the blue. She didn’t know me and said, “Hey, would you go to lunch with me?”
And I’m like, “Yeah, okay.”
We went to lunch, and she said, “You know Ann, it’s the prosecutor that has the power because the prosecutor evaluates the evidence makes decisions about who to charge. It’s a prosecutor who meets with the agents and the police and gets a window and actually is obligated to find out how the police investigated. Was the search valid? Help issue an arrest warrant, make sure the rules and the protections that were guaranteed under Constitution are there,” and she said, “We need that kind of representation all up and down the food chain — the criminal justice food chain — not just with defenders who basically get what the prosecutor hands them but those who actually have the ability to bring charges or not bring charges to make sure things are done in a fair way.”
After that conversation with Marianne Jackson, I applied to the U.S. attorney’s office. Fortunately, I was hired. I wanted to go into the division for the young lawyers, criminal receiving and appellate, where I would do appeals and learn about search warrants and issue arrest warrants and do the baby cases. I was assigned to another section in criminal, civil rights, and public protection. I was assigned there with three other women and one Black man. In the division I wanted to go to it was basically all men, all white men, I think, with the exception of one woman. We were told there weren’t spots in that division, but I knew I needed that kind of training. Look, a civil rights criminal case is very hard to prove and a sophisticated crime, but I wanted to get my foot in the door, which of course, is one of the lessons I tell young lawyers and even not so young lawyers, sometimes you take what you have to do. You take what you can to get your foot in the door to open things up. And so, I took that position, and about three months in, I could see I wasn’t going to get the experience. The best thing about that position was that my supervisor was Ilana Diamond Rovner.
Levi: Oh, yeah — became a colleague.
Williams: She was one of my mentors. Right. And so, working for her was wonderful. She shortly left to become deputy governor for Jim Thompson. So I tried to move to the division I thought I belonged to and was told no by the chief. So I went to my deputy chief and said, “Look I have five lawyers, we would love to do appeals. We know you’re overworked. We know that all these appeals — you’re not able to handle it with the lawyers in the division we wanted to go to.” I said, “So we’d all be happy to do it.” So we volunteered, and that’s how I got to argue in the Seventh Circuit.
And then I had him go down to the chief and say they need duty days. They need to learn how to do arrest warrants, and search warrants, and so he came back, he got us duty days. And after about a year, I got transferred to that division. So, I guess I would say here to those listening and who perhaps are not where they want to be, that it’s not just getting your foot in the door, but it’s standing up and speaking up for yourself — being strategic, learning the game, seeing where you see a void, and figuring out a way to fill that void. I’m not a Pollyanna, so I don’t think that strategy works all the time. But to me, when a door is closed, you find a way to open it, or you move to a new door. That’s always been my philosophy. I think that’s helped me in my career, but it’s part of what my parents taught me to never give up.
Levi: So, that office always had some really great trial lawyers in it. And I’m wondering did you try cases yourself and did you enjoy that? You had the Perry Mason idea in your mind. That might have been a little different than what normally happens. Not too many defendants are put up on the stand to confess, but it does happen.
Williams: Right, right. Well, no. When I decided I would be a lawyer, and I mentioned, lawyers have to persuade, teachers persuade. That’s what I want to be — a trial lawyer, and so I started trying cases. Once I got those other assignments, I was able to try cases, and that’s what I love doing. I love being in front of the jury. I love people. I think I’m good at interacting with people because, I think, the other thing my parents taught me was always humility. So, I never forgot where I came from. And so I think I could relate to the everyday regular jurors. I love trying cases.
This training I mentioned at the Department of Justice was trial advocacy training, and I took Trial Ad in law school. I learned from some of the best trial lawyers in the U.S. attorney’s office. We always put two lawyers on a case and on the really big cases three lawyers, and you always got to try, you got to put witnesses on, you got to prep witnesses, go to the grand jury. So I loved it. I took the NITA course at Northwestern and went up to one of the professors, Jim Seckinger, and said one day when I’ve tried enough cases I really want to teach a NITA [National Institute of Trial Advocacy] course. The next year, I was asked to be an assistant team leader in NITA. I’ve been with NITA every since. I’ve taught hundreds, hundreds of NITA Trial Ad programs, motions programs, deposition programs. I’ll do a lot of that kind of work in Africa.
I then taught Trial Ad at Northwestern for about seven years. I taught at the Harvard Trial Ad program with Judge Prentice Marshall, who was also one of my heroes. And Pren invited me to join his team. So I am a teacher and I am a trial lawyer at heart. So yes, those skills were really, really important and it was important to be there as a Black person, as I mentioned, and a Black woman to be a role model. It was a great experience. And a lot of those people in the office are still very dear friends.
The other thing I would say is Marianne Jackson was right because at the time I was there, there was a gearing up of prosecution of quote “welfare mothers.” You might remember that, David, and so that was coming out of main Justice. And so it was one thing to me to prosecute for a felony, someone who was working a job and getting welfare benefits and driving like a Cadillac, and, you know, diamonds, and all that, but many of the women and the men who were double-dipping — had a job and were getting a check — were people who were really just trying to feed their families. It wasn’t a situation where they were putting money on luxuries. So I was able to be a voice for people like that to say those people should be deferred because if you stick them with a felony, then they’re going to have a felony conviction and what’s going to happen then? Even if they pick up a probation sentence, they are not going to be able to work. And so they have no income. Better let’s have a deferral so they can continue their jobs or they could at least get a job. They would have to comply with certain rules and conditions for a year. So I felt my voice made a difference at the various levels of prosecution. It made a difference when agents came to me and I knew they had done something they shouldn’t have done because then I would know I can’t use that evidence, and I meant that.
It made a difference when I went to the grand jury instead of just rotely advising people of their rights. I would say, you know, you have a right to a lawyer. If a lawyer can’t be in here with you, we have lawyers on duty right now in the federal defender’s office that you don’t have to pay for that would represent you. Do you want to stop this proceeding and go get a lawyer? Well, a lot of the people who showed up in the grand jury, if they were sophisticated criminals or sophisticated period, they would always take the fifth. They would say, “I want to remain silent. I’m not going to discuss anything about this event.” But poor people tended to want to explain. Big mistake. But I wanted to make sure when they did that, they understood that everything they said was being written down and could be used against them in trial, to break it down in a way so that I never had any suppression. I had never had a guilty plea turned back. I never had anything I did in the grand jury to come back and haunt me because I was so careful about making sure people understood their rights. So there is a very strong role — prosecutors have to play fair. It’s a fair win, not a win at every cost.
Levi: You know with going back. That was my experience as well. I want to say I always felt that the wonderful thing about being an assistant U.S. attorney was that every day you could make what you considered to be the right decision and you had no reason not to. You weren’t under pressure. Really, people trusted in you to use your very best judgment and always said you could sleep well at night. I mean sometimes you make difficult decisions and sometimes maybe you come to think you made the wrong decision, but you could usually fix it, and you were always acting in good faith and what you took to be the best interests of the overall system in the society.
Williams: But yes, and on the whole drug issue, because you and we started out this conversation — of course, we know about the act that was passed in the ’80s, particularly when this whole war on drugs started, and it was also a time when all these mandatory minimums started which… just not a good idea then, not a good idea now. And of course, we see the consequence of the war on drugs. The prisons, the, I don’t know, I want to say it’s doubled, quadrupled, whatever, it’s a huge number of Black and brown people in jail because of drug crimes. Part of the problem in the whole drug area was that like when I was chief of the OCADETF we were supposed to dismantle large drug trafficking organizations across five states working with U.S. attorneys in five states, working with the IRS DEA and local agents, FBI, to do a coordinated effort, and so, in that sense, it was successful. The problem, though, was that we never got to the big, big fish. So you got the organizations that were selling drugs on the ground and you could seize, you know, some of these shipments. But in terms of who was responsible for bringing the shipments in, I’m talking the people at the top of the food chain, it was a very, very difficult thing. So you ended up often with a lot of the people that were at the low end of the pole.
Then the other thing that happened in the effort to try to get to the higher end, or to try to find the distributors, a lot of the people who are more senior in the organization and more sophisticated would get lawyers would come in and would cut good deals. “I will… I yes… and I will flip, and I will tell you about X, Y, and Z.” A lot of the people at the lower end of the food chain only just knew the people that they knew, and they couldn’t do anything. So we actually had situations where the people who were less culpable got higher sentences then the people who were more culpable because of that. There were so many people who were addicted. You know, to me, the recognition that people who are addicts should be treated for their addiction, should get skills, should get an education, rather than being prosecuted. When you looked at it in the crack cocaine disparity 100 to 1, to the powder, to the crack cocaine was just outrageous and really decimated the Black and brown community. I would say the war on drugs has been a failure, really a failure.
Levi: You know, so many things have good intentions and end up with bad results, you know, the Sentencing Guidelines might be one of those places where we’ve seen this. It’s just so vexing and disappointing. One of the big efforts was to make sure that like cases were treated in like fashion, no matter who the defendant was, what race, gender, whatever. And that we would have these guidelines and then judges said, “Well, these guidelines are so unfair. I can’t treat the person, the whole person.” So then, eventually, the Supreme Court said there should be more discretion and now we have more discretion, but we have racial disparity as a result. You can’t win it seems.
Williams: No, no. The thing is, like you said, they were designed like when I was first an assistant U.S. attorney, we used to get what’s called Rule 20. I don’t know what the number is now. But I didn’t understand why so many people from the South or so many people from, I don’t know maybe Nevada or some of the smaller states, would come to Chicago to plead guilty. But finally one of the defense attorneys said, “Look Ann, for these five checks that they stole in Mississippi, they would get three years. Up here, automatic probation.” The disparity was there and that was the intention of the guidelines, but it did not play out that way.
The other thing is there were times when I was on the bench, it was just horrible. Sentencing was the worst because I was bound by the guidelines. I couldn’t figure out a way to depart for people who were worthy, for people who I actually felt really were remorseful who, if they had just been given a shorter sentence or they had been given probation with tight restrictions, would have done just fine. We were required to send them to jail. The other thing with the guidelines it vested even more power in the prosecutors. In addition to vesting more power, they allowed conduct that was not included in the indictment, uncharged conduct, to be put into the guideline mix the guideline formula. It was just very problematic, and then when they became not mandatory, there was a whole generation of judges who grew up under the guidelines, and when you look at the data, they sentence the same way that they would have if it had been mandatory because there’s a whole generation of judges, unlike me, who never had the discretion. Because when I started, I had total discretion. So you still see the same disparity. You still have the issue of prosecutorial discretion as well as judges sort of being locked into that formula and giving the same sentences. It’s still unfair. It still affects Black and brown people more than any other group in our society.
Levi: Well, it affects poor people. I think.
Williams: Poor people. Right.
Levi: And, you know, Americans just may want to consider that the criminal justice system can’t solve a lot of these problems, and we tend to talk that way. Like we want more prosecutions and where are the prosecutions, but you know, that’s sort of an American tendency, but it’s not one that’s worked out all that well.
Williams: I would just say because the root of the problem in this country [is] we have to grapple with what we’re grappling with now. The whole systemic institutional racism — we have to deal with that as a country. We have to deal with the inequities of poor people, the way poor people are treated. You mentioned the public defender and not having a lawyer. Housing matters. Education matters. Job skills matter, and we haven’t been equitable and fair in the way those things have been meted out in our society. And so, it’s all a consequence and now you’re seeing it come to the surface and so many people, I mean I was familiar with it all my life, but now other people are familiar with it. We have more allies across all racial groups and all ages that see what the impact of racial oppression in so many areas has meant, but in the bottom line is, you’re right, the criminal justice system can’t solve all of these problems. We as a society have to grapple with them on an entirely different level.
Levi: But I just want people to know when they write this history that when they look at David Levi and Ann Williams and they say, “What were you doing in the 1980s?” We thought we were protecting vulnerable communities from predators. That’s what we thought we were doing.
Williams: That’s true.
Levi: That’s what we hope to do.
Williams: And in fact, the Congressional Black Caucus was in favor of the legislation. You know everybody signed off on this legislation, and so — unintended consequences here.
Levi: That’s the name of the game here. Yeah, it’s been sad. Well in 1985, a little bolt of lightning found you and President Reagan appointed you to the district court and tell us about that. It was probably very exciting, I’m sure. How did that happen?
Williams: Well, part of it was this drug task force — a job I did not want. I was deputy chief of criminal receiving and appellate, the division I wanted to be in originally. I love supervising the young lawyers. I loved editing their briefs and going to trial with them and prepping them for their arguments in the court of appeals, and I was very happy. I was on maternity leave and I found out that the chief of the division I was in was moving to a different position. And I had worked very hard in that division and I felt I was the heir apparent. Well, one of my lawyers called me and said, “Hey, I heard that someone else is getting that position.” So, I met with the U.S. attorney that next day wanting to know why I didn’t get it. And he said, “Well, I have something else in mind for you — chief of the drug task force.” Well, I had already spent some time in the drug unit, and I didn’t want to do any more time there. And he said, “Well, just hold on. It’s a five-state region, you will work with all these U.S. attorneys, all these agencies, and you have to report to main Justice as well.” It was a raise, and I would be chief. So I said yes, because I said you never know who you’re going to meet in D.C. and along the way.
Well, it turned out that each of those U.S. attorneys became judges. Joe Stadtmueller in Milwaukee that I worked with, Sarah Barker in Indianapolis, Jim Rosenbaum in Minnesota, and the judge in Iowa became a bankruptcy judge. Anyway, my name came up. President Reagan didn’t have a long track record of appointing Blacks to the bench, and I was the first Black woman and I think the only Black woman he nominated, and Senator Chuck Percy was my senator. He was a Republican senator, and he was very open in terms of his nominations. He did not have a judicial nomination committee, but he had an advisory group and they advised him on people. He nominated both Democrats and Republicans, and Independents. I was an Independent, and I was considered a Justice pick and having served in the U.S. attorney’s office and having had interactions with all of these U.S. attorneys plus main Justice, because at main Justice Giuliani was the chief of the criminal division and followed by Lowell Jensen out of California. So Lowell is who I worked with the most. So when my name came up, came to Senator Percy, he checked me out. I had these strong recommendations from all the people that I mentioned, who happened to be appointed by Republicans. And it turned out Sarah Barker actually worked for Senator Chuck Percy. So when my name came up, I was known in the White House, but I was an Independent.
The other thing is, because of the NITA ties, because the only thing they really said because I had tried more cases than most of the judges on the bench was she hasn’t had a civil background, but of course, I clerked for a year and all that teaching I did. We were teaching civil files. We were teaching discovery, so it was a lightning strike moment because it was very unusual. I had never seen myself as a judge. My name had come up the year before when Ilana Rovner got the district court spot that was really the first time I started thinking about it. I didn’t think it was really realistic. Here I was a little Black girl from Detroit with no political ties. It turned out a lot of what I had done provided the foundation, and I’ll never forget the question I was asked at the Chicago Bar Association. There were about 25 lawyers surrounding me in a big “U,” and I was at one end by myself. Finally, because I was just 35, one of the lawyers said, “Well, Miss Williams, if you get this, you will be 35, the youngest one, and you will be Black and you’ll be a woman, how will you handle it?” I said, “Well, I’ve been Black and a woman all my life, and I’ve been able to handle that so far, and as to age that, too, will change.”
And fortunately, I was approved by that group as well as six others because at that time you didn’t just fill out the form for the Senate Judiciary Committee. Now, in every state, whatever the process is you fill out that form, you fill out one form, that takes care of it. I had to fill out seven. At the time the paperwork came to me, I was two or three days from the birth of my second child, and I was told to get it done really fast because they were trying to get me done in ’84, so when I went in for the baby, I told my husband, bring the paperwork. So in the early hours of labor one of the nurses heard him, you know, asking questions. You know, he was asking “What year did you graduate from law school?” and well, it sounded like the questionnaire for the hospital. So she said, “Oh, dear. You’ve already pre-registered, you don’t have to do any of that.” And I was like, “Oh, well thank you, but this is something else.” So I stopped when the labor got too bad. I had her, and I had to go right back to filling out all the paperwork.
Now the thing about President Reagan, which to me, I wish all the presidents did this. People see the Supreme Court and they’re like, thinking, well, maybe everybody goes to the White House when they get nominated. As you know, that is not true. Usually, well all the justices do, but an occasional controversial judge will go to the White House. But most of us, you don’t meet the President. It’s none of that. But what Reagan did when he wanted to nominate you, he called you. He made a personal phone call. So I had heard that. I ran out and got a phone recorder, which back in the day that’s what you could do. I got a phone recorder, so when Reagan called, you know, the operators said, “Please hold for the President.” I was nursing Claire, my second born. I literally threw her over to my mother, ran up the steps because that’s where the recorder was, hit the button, and was breathless when the President said, “Miss Williams, I’d like to nominate you,” and I was, “Yes, Mr. President. Thank you. It’s a great honor.” But I tell you this. Anybody nominated by Reagan remembers that moment.
Levi: Judge Williams has had a wonderfully varied and distinguished legal career, and there is so much more to talk about — her tenure on the bench, from the US District Court to the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, and her more recent efforts to strengthen the rule of law in Africa.
We will get to all of that, as well as her observations about the federal justice system and her judicial heroes in part two of this podcast, please stay tuned. Thanks for joining me today for Judgment Calls. I’m David Levi.