Honoring Judge William H. Pauley III, a legendary judge and loyal alum

Jul 19, 2021Latest News

Judge William H. Pauley at an official court celebration

Judge William H. Pauley III of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, a loyal Duke Law graduate, dedicated alumni leader, and friend of the Bolch Judicial Institute, passed away in early July after an illness.

A double-Duke graduate (A.B. History ’74 and J.D. ’77), Judge Pauley had served on Duke Law School’s Board of Visitors since 2004, was an active participant in his class reunions, and served many times as a moot court judge. He also hired numerous Duke Law clerks — at least one in nearly every term he served on the district court.

“Bill was remarkable and so multi-faceted,” said David F. Levi, director of the Bolch Judicial Institute and former dean of Duke Law School. “He was a superbly helpful and loyal alumnus who deeply cared about future generations of Duke Law students, faculty, and staff. He was a curious person with a lively mind. He was also a lovely person, a loving father and husband, a loyal and steadfast friend, a mentor to so many younger lawyers. There was so much more that Bill had to give and would have given to all of us. It is a heavy loss.”

“Judge Pauley was just wonderfully kind in all his interactions with me, and so very interested in helping and supporting Duke Law School and its students,” said Peter Kahn (Duke Law JD’76), a partner at Williams & Connolly and chair of the Bolch Judicial Institute’s Advisory Board. “I knew Bill for his entire tenure on the Board of Visitors. He was not only a great jurist but also a wonderful colleague on the Board, always interested in how he could better the law school and improve the experience for Duke Law students. He welcomed me to his chambers whenever I was in the SDNY on business, a treat I always enjoyed.”

“Judge Pauley’s passing is a huge loss not only for the Bar — as I can say as a lawyer who appeared before him on multiple occasions — but for the greater Duke community,” said David W. Ichel (Duke Law JD’78), a mediator and arbitrator who has served as chair of Duke Law’s BOV and now chairs the Bolch Judicial Institute’s Leadership Council. “He attended every Law School Board of Visitors meeting he possibly could and tried to schedule his docket around them because they were so important to him. His sharp intellect, warm humanity, and keen sense of humor were such a bright point of every meeting. He loved interacting with all the other judges, lawyers, members of the academy, and businesspeople that make up our Board. He was also a stellar Duke undergraduate student and supporter, including support of the Duke Pep Band in which he played as a student (and even, from time to time, as an alumnus).”

“Bill Pauley was a smart and diligent judge, whose tenure on the bench made a real difference,” said John Hardiman (Duke Law JD’82), a partner at Sullivan & Cromwell and member of Duke Law’s Board of Visitors. “And he was an even better guy. He was serious but could always laugh at himself.”

A legendary judge

Nominated to the district court in 1998 by President Bill Clinton, Judge Pauley presided over many high-profile cases in his Manhattan courtroom, including that of Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer, and key national security cases. He was known as a tough but fair-minded judge who took every case seriously and treated all who appeared in his courtroom with respect. He was also a leader within the court, serving on committees and leading efforts to improve court administration and court security.

At the time of his death, Judge Pauley was working with the Bolch Judicial Institute and other judges to organize a law and technology program for the Second Circuit’s annual conference in 2022. “Working with him over the last year to develop a program for the Second Circuit judges on artificial intelligence and related topics, I was struck again and again by Bill’s interest in new ideas and innovation,” Levi said. “He had an appreciation of academic learning and academic excellence; he admired law faculty and academics in other fields who could explain and explore their research with judicial audiences.”

He was known as a tough but fair-minded judge who took every case seriously and treated all who appeared in his courtroom with respect.

A former judge himself, Levi added that “Bill was the classic ‘judge’s judge’ — he had mastered the skills and attributes of the judicial craft at the highest level, and it was widely recognized by colleagues and those who appeared before him that he was made for the office and dedicated to excellence in his own work and performance.”

“Bill Pauley served twice as chair of [our] court’s security committee, including during the last year of his life as we dealt with the COVID crisis,” said Judge Colleen McMahon, who was nominated to the district court alongside Judge Pauley in 1998 and served as chief judge of the Southern District of New York from 2016 until she assumed senior status earlier this year. “His was a steady hand at the helm. He was on top of every security threat to the court and used his strong relationships with members of the law enforcement community — especially the United States Marshals Service — to be sure that every threat was appropriately evaluated and addressed. His attention to the court’s physical facilities and clever ideas for dealing with public access to the building ultimately led to the construction of the Preska Security Pavilion that is now the gateway to the Moynihan Courthouse in Lower Manhattan. He was a thoughtful and wise adviser to four chief judges as well as a valued colleague, a thoughtful jurist, a dedicated mentor and an all-around great guy. He will be greatly missed.”

“Judge Pauley was a terrific judge and a wise counselor, well liked and universally respected,” echoed Judge Richard Berman, who also was nominated and served alongside Judge Pauley in the Southern District of New York. “We had our Senate hearing at the same time. We started at SDNY together in 1998 and became close colleagues and great friends immediately. His passing is a great loss to the court and an even greater loss to me.”

Judge William H. Pauley III (Duke A.B. History ’74 and J.D. ’77), Judge Gerald Tjoflat (Duke LLB’57), and Judge Garrett Brown (Duke J.D.’74) pictured at a reception hosted by Duke Law in 2012.

Judge Gerald Tjoflat (Duke LLB’57) of the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit became friends with Judge Pauley after Pauley’s confirmation in 1998. “We got together every year after that, most of the time at Duke during Board of Visitors sessions,” said Judge Tjoflat, who asked Judge Pauley to sit on a three-judge panel for the 11th Circuit in 2019. “We had lots of discussions about enhancing the efficiency of the federal courts, especially the district courts. His insights were always on the mark, drawn from his experience in lots of controversial and highly complicated cases on the district court. They came to him in a blind draw, but he seemed to get far more than his share. He took them on with relish.

“What a terrible loss,” Judge Tjoflat added. “A perfect gentleman in the old-fashioned sense, a class act, and an extremely capable judge whose contributions to the bench and the legal profession will be his legacy. He was an institution.”

Judge Mary Ellen Williams with Judge Pauley, both members of the Duke Law class of 1977, are pictured at the 30th class reunion in 2007.

“I remember Bill at our judicial training conferences, taking over the room with his thoughtful comments on thorny complex issues. He was always passionate in his views and was not afraid to call it as he saw it,” said Judge Mary Ellen Williams (Duke Law JD’77), a senior judge of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims and another colleague of Judge Pauley’s on the Duke Law BOV. “What a joy when Judge Pauley took the mic! I often thought I learned as much from our dialogues as from any lecture.”

“Judge Pauley was shy and quiet in some sense but very involved and concerned about the cases and the parties in front of him,” said Judge Andrew Peck (Duke Law JD’77), a former magistrate judge of the Southern District of New York, now senior counsel at DLA Piper. Thanks to the tradition of alphabetical seating, Judge Peck and Judge Pauley sat next to each other in most of their first-year classes, though they really got to know each other as BOV members and SDNY judges. “He presided over many high-profile cases, but there were other cases, too, in which maybe no one but the parties had an interest. He gave them the very same concern and interest he gave the bigger cases.”

“If something of importance was placed in Judge Pauley’s hands, you knew it would be taken to completion with care. He had a profound sense of humanity and the human impact of law,” said Chief Judge Debra Livingston of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Judge Livingston noted that she has used one of Judge Pauley’s opinions in a Fourth Amendment class she teaches at Columbia Law School. “The opinion is such a model of judicial diligence and judicial care. I use it because the clarity with which he wrote makes a thorny legal problem immediately apparent to students. Judge Pauley was a model of what a good judge should be, in terms of the craft of how to write an opinion, in his demeanor and respect for the attorneys, and in his willingness to be attentive and absorb all sides of a controversy.”

Devoted to Duke and students

“On the Duke Board of Visitors, two things about Bill became evident: his love for Duke as an institution and his concern for the students, especially how Duke could train them in the practicalities of the law as well as the academics,” said Judge Williams. “The last time I saw Bill he was in DC to observe a Supreme Court argument in one of his cases. He asked me to take one of his former law clerks who had just been appointed to my court under my wing. We joked about how getting old had its benefits, especially seeing our beloved clerks entering the federal judiciary. What a pleasure it has been to get to know that former clerk and hear what a tremendous mentor Bill had been.”

Judge Pauley hired and mentored Duke Law clerks with zeal, starting in his very first year on the bench, when he hired George Donnini, a 1998 Duke Law graduate. “One of my classmates had a pro bono case in front of Judge Pauley while I was clerking,” recalled Donnini, now a shareholder with Butzel Long in Michigan. “He always let us observe, as he thought it was important for us clerks to learn from the lawyers who appeared in federal court. But the judge wouldn’t let me into the courtroom while that case was going on. He wanted the lawyer to be at his best, and he didn’t want one of his classmates to be in there making him nervous. He cared deeply about the cases in front of him.”

Judge William Pauley at a celebration in 2018

Judge Pauley (front row, fifth from left) at a celebration honoring his 20th year as a judge on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in 2018.

A careful and attentive mentor, Judge Pauley took seriously the opportunity to work with and shape the young legal professionals who clerked for him. Several clerks recall working side-by-side with Judge Pauley to edit and perfect an opinion. “When he swore his clerks in, we read the traditional oath to ‘support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,’ and so on, and then he would add a line to us: ‘You also swear to make sure that I leave some of my ideas on the cutting room floor,’” recalled Leigh Llewelyn (Duke Law JD’12), who clerked for Judge Pauley in 2012 and is now counsel with Point 72. “He worked so closely with us in drafting opinions. He might send a first draft back to you with high-level comments if you missed the mark, but once it took shape he’d call you into his office and sit next to you at the computer as you worked. He’d hit your elbow and say, ‘change this word.’

“Some people thought Judge Pauley was brusque, but it was all in the service of something,” Llewelyn added. “Litigants were always on time, always prepared. He held litigants to a high standard, but he held himself to a higher standard. He’s really one of the unsung heroes. You don’t usually make a hero of yourself in the quiet administration of justice, but that’s just what he did. He was quiet, but he was also brave. He wasn’t afraid to be the only person in the room thinking something. If he thought the law came out a certain way, he’d follow his convictions even if there was tremendous pressure to go the other way. It informed the kind of lawyer I want to be, helped me set internal expectations that were separate and apart from what the civil rules require, or what my client requires. You want to surpass those things.”

A careful and attentive mentor, Judge Pauley took seriously the opportunity to work with and shape the young legal professionals who clerked for him.

Pauley took care to build relationships both with and among his clerks. Several clerks recall eating lunch together, with the judge, nearly every day at work. “Judge Pauley actively discouraged an atmosphere of competition or ‘me first’ among his clerks, but rather encouraged collaboration and open feedback on one another’s work. There was a warmth and a feeling of family in his chambers that was unique,” said Vincent Tortorella (Duke Law JD’00), who clerked for Judge Pauley from 2002 to 2004.

“My time with him was the single most gratifying and rewarding professional role I’ve had, and I carry with me every day the lessons I learned during that time,” added Tortorella, now general counsel and chief compliance officer at Point 72. “One of the things I reflect on most often when I think about what I learned from Judge Pauley was his deep and abiding respect not only for the law, but for the court and the institutions of justice.  As he has said publicly, ‘a courtroom is a formal place. Serious things happen here.’ He recognized that his decisions deeply affected people’s lives, whether it was a criminal defendant, a civil litigant, or a constitutional question affecting all of us — and he expected everyone else involved in the process to treat their role with the same respect.”