“You can have all the rules of what law you want, but until it’s applied to people in cases, there’s no rule of law functioning.”
Chief Judge Emeritus J. Clifford Wallace of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit talks to David F. Levi about his work with chief justices and judiciaries from around the world to strengthen the rule of law.
Judge Wallace is among the longest-serving federal court of appeals judges in history, and at age 93, he still maintains an active caseload. Judge Wallace is the 2022 recipient of the Bolch Prize for the Rule of Law.
This transcript has been lightly edited for style and clarity.
David F. Levi: Hello, and welcome to Judgment Calls. I’m David Levi. I’m so pleased to welcome today a very distinguished federal judge, my good friend and former colleague, and the recipient of the 2022 Bolch prize for the Rule of Law, Judge J. Clifford Wallace of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
Judge Wallace is one of the very few judges who have actively served on the bench for more than 50 years. Born in 1928, he attended San Diego State College and served three years in the US Navy before attending law school at the University of California at Berkeley. After 15 years in private practice in San Diego, when he was just 42 years old, he was appointed by President Nixon to serve as a judge on the US District Court for the District of Southern California, that happened in 1970. Two years later, the president appointed him to serve on the United States Court of Appeals. He served as chief judge of that circuit from 1991 to 1996. You were my chief judge, and today at the age of 93, he is a senior judge who still hears cases and is still going strong. Judge Wallace, what an honor it is to talk with you today. Thank you so much for joining us.
Judge Clifford Wallace: You’re welcome.
Levi: You’ve been a judge for a long time, and we certainly can’t cover every highlight in your career in just an hour, but it would be great to go back a bit to the beginning and talk for a few minutes about your childhood and your path to the law and to the bench. You have said that you had a tough beginning, that you were not a good student. Can you talk about how you ended up becoming a good student at Berkeley and then sort of what happened thereafter?
Wallace: Yes. Well, it was one of those things that happened. It’s nothing I did. It’s where I’m born, who my parents are. My father was an immigrant with a third-grade education and an alcoholic. He served in World War I, he got gassed, and he had some challenges, both mental and physical. And so, he was not able to provide for us well. So I grew up in a poor neighborhood, and my mother didn’t graduate from high school. Neither of them appeared too interested in my schoolwork. No one ever asked me if I had homework or anything like that. And if I did, I didn’t do it. In those days, of course, my attitude was just to get along. And as long as I got a C minus or a D plus, why I considered that fine.
I literally never read a book all the time I was in school. I read my first book in the Navy. In high school, I found you could just read the dust cover and make a report which would be accepted. They won’t fail you. They may give you a D. And so grades one through 12 are just kind of a blur. I just ran with the wrong people. You ran with the people who covered your back. Towards the end of high school, I changed, but that was because I became acquainted with people who were religious, and they were kind and thoughtful to me. And I ended up being baptized and became a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That was a turning point for me because I then had a focus on where I should be doing. And so, as soon as I was out of school, like everybody else in the 40s, I joined the Navy.
And for some reason, I was able to pass a test that got me down to Corpus Christi to learn how to become an aviation electronic technician. And I read my first book, and I didn’t go anyplace without a book. I was just shocked at how much I’d missed, and I was going to catch up. I did very well in my studies there and was appointed to be a second-class petty officer rather than a third class. I then, pursuant to a request and suggestion by one of my bosses, a Navy Lieutenant, I took a test to get into the Naval Academy Preparatory School. The secretary of the Navy has so many enlisted men he can appoint, and I passed the test, and they sent me off to Maryland for a year of so-called refreshment of our high school education. I learned the first time what I had missed out before and passed my examination, and received an appointment to the Naval Academy.
At that time, I had been thinking for some years that I wanted to be a lawyer. My mother wanted me to stay in the Navy. She thought there’d be another depression, so I should have something more stable than being a lawyer. I chose law at that time, so I resigned from my appointment. I came back and went to school. I ended up at San Diego State College because no one else would take me with my grade point average out of high school. I had all rejects. San Diego State had a one-semester trial if you were a veteran, which I was. If you had a high school diploma, they would give you one semester as a trial. So I was a C minus D student in high school, and I was a straight-A student at San Diego State and was able to qualify to be admitted to the University of California at Berkeley. So it was just happenstance, sort of a few bumps along the road, but it worked out very nicely for me. And I’m very grateful for that.
Levi: So did you actually get your undergrad at Berkeley as well as your law degree?
Wallace: No. I stayed at San Diego State because I could use my state GI bill at San Diego State. And then I could save my federal GI bill for Berkeley.
Wallace: And Berkeley would not have taken me as an undergraduate anyway.
Levi: This is a side of you I had not known. What’s interesting to me is that you, particularly with coming from the environment that you came from, that you were so focused on becoming a lawyer. Where do you think that came?
Wallace: You know, I wondered about that myself because no lawyer would live where we lived, but something I read or something that people talked about, I just sort of grabbed on that. And I thought there may have been a program I was interested in the FBI for some reason, and I was told you had to be a lawyer to be in the FBI. So there were little events leading me in that direction but no one took me seriously. When my counselor at Hoover High School said, “What do you want to do?” And I said, “I want to be a lawyer.” And she looked at the grades and said, “You better go out to the shops and learn a trade.”
Wallace: It was just something I focused on, stayed with, and fortunately for me, it fell into place.
Levi: Well, you went to Berkeley. I think we called it Boalt in those days.
Levi: And you did well, you did well. And you went to a wonderful firm, one of the top firms in San Diego, and you were there for 15 years, and you obviously distinguished yourself as a lawyer. I think you enjoyed the practice of law.
Wallace: I really enjoyed the practice of law. It was challenging. It was exciting. I did only civil trial work, and I loved to go to trial. I enjoyed helping people with their problems, and I knew when to fight and when to capitulate. I had a heavy workload at my law firm, which was the largest law firm in San Diego. However, I was asked at one time by the state if I wanted to go on the bench. And I said, “Absolutely not.” So it was a real turn for me to leave the law to go on the bench because that was not what I had in mind doing long term.
Levi: So what was your thinking about that because I’m sure you were approached by somebody, and would you be interested if the president who was so inclined or the senator was so inclined to recommend you? It’s a big decision.
Wallace: It is a big decision. A well-known lawyer from another firm came to me and said, “Are you interested?” And I’d never even thought about it. And frankly, I wasn’t interested. I was interested in becoming as good a trial lawyer as I could to serve my clients. And I said, “Maybe sometime in the future.” And he said, “Well, that gold ring doesn’t come around all the time.”
And so my wife and I were very concerned, and we gave consideration to it. We were trying to raise our family at that time. And if you go on the bench and you’re doing very well in practice, it’s like taking the oath of poverty, and we knew we’d have to give that up, but we thought about it. We talked about it. We prayed about it and decided it was the thing to do. It was a little difficult making that change in income. And so I got a part-time job teaching. I taught at two law schools here in San Diego for a good deal of time when I was a district court judge.
Levi: When you said that he approached you, I don’t think we identified who the “he” was. Who was that?
Wallace: The he was a senior partner in the second largest firm. And people, later on, accused him of trying to get me on the bench so that his firm could get some of my clients.
Levi: A competitor.
Wallace: And he was known, he was the one that President Nixon used to recommend a person in the area. That’s how President Nixon worked.
Levi: So you were on the district court, but just for two years. And I mean, that would’ve been a place where I imagine you were extremely happy because you knew trial work, and you were so good at that. Did it seem too early to you to go up to the Court of Appeals, or were you just happy to do it?
Wallace: No. No. I was pleased to be a district court judge, and you know, there are a lot of similarities between being a trial judge and a trial lawyer. I was just taking another place in the theater. And instead of asking for things, I was making the decisions. I really enjoyed being a district court judge. You give up the interactivity if you’re going to go to the Court of Appeals, and you’re removed. You take a step back from what is really the excitement and become more of a theologian or something. I think once more, we just thought about it, prayed about it, and thought maybe it was a good thing for me to do.
So I had to learn a new skill. I did write a lot, of course. I wrote briefs, but writing opinions was really a very different skill, but I picked it up, and I enjoyed it. I began thinking about the rule of law and that the law was to serve people to make the legal system more effective and efficient, and it got up to a different level of thinking about it. And it gave me broad avenues. In addition to thinking about a particular case in front of me, I became very interested in the function of the court, that is, how the machine works. And that was one of the reasons it got me to the district court because I saw I was not interested at all in doing this when I was with the firm. But as soon as I got into the district court, I moved towards that as an interest and put some time together as a judge so I could go to the Kennedy Institute in Washington DC for a couple of months and did my first study and it was on judicial conferences of the circuit. And I wrote my first paper and gave my first lecture on judicial administration.
And since then, from that time on, I’ve been most interested in how the machine works. I went ahead and did my work on the law, but my greater interest was how to make the machine function so it could be more efficient, more effective, fewer backlogs, get the law out more promptly, and you don’t have a rule of law until you have a machine that can produce it. And so that got me into an interest in the circuit and district courts, and then that moved out to international, which I started 50 years ago, working with foreign courts with them, helping them with the machine. And so it’s turned out to be something that where I could really make, I think, make a difference because no one else was doing it.
Levi: I think it should be said, you are a wonderful appellate judge. I’ve sat with you, and it was a great experience. You’re very thoughtful. And you have a marvelous reputation for being just a tremendously insightful judge. But you were one of the very few people on the bench, on the federal bench anyway, who had this keen interest in judicial administration. There have been some others, Jon Newman, and there are others that may come to mind, but you distinguished yourself really in two kinds of different aspects of the judicial craft, we might say, and most judges probably are not that interested in kind of what makes the thing work. Although I think in the state system, I don’t know if you’d agree with this, certainly the chief justices are very involved in really the mechanics of the justice system. They have to be. Somebody has to be minding the store because otherwise, the product, which is justice, doesn’t get delivered to the people.
And you know, that’s really, as you say, that becomes a rule of law issue. You did a lot to train yourself and to put yourself in a position where you could make a significant contribution as you have as a scholar and practitioner of judicial administration. I’d just like to pause for a second because since it is so unusual where you think that interest came from. Were you inspired by a colleague, or was it just something you gravitated to because that’s who you are? How do you see that?
Wallace: When I was in the law firm, it just worked on its own, and there were plenty of partners that wanted to be on the executive committee. But as soon as I got into the court, I found there was, and I was in a good court of southern California, there were good judges, but there was sort of a tendency we’ve always done it this way. Now we, judges, get into that because we believe in stare decisis. We’ve always done it this way because that’s the rule. And we have difficulty transferring that over to how the machine actually works. And so there was very little competition in the area, and many people wish, let’s not bring this up. I remember when I was chief judge, we really made major changes in the ninth circuit, which we still use, but we did very major changes in how we do our work. And I remember Steve Reinhardt made a comment one time in the court meeting, he asked, “Can’t we have this one court meeting where you don’t have a new idea of what we ought to do?
Levi: That’s funny.
Wallace: My experience in the court of appeals helped me to understand how I could work on judicial administration. I had a good experience because my chief judges used me a lot in this area because of my interest. James Browning, for example, Dick Chambers, they had me going on all sorts of committees, but then really, the important was the five years I spent as a chief judge, where I had an opportunity to make a difference in how we do that and prepare me for this overseas work, where I’ve worked in 72 countries.
Levi: It’s really amazing. When you came to the court in the 70s, the chief justice was Warren Burger. His reputation as a judicial thinker is not as high as his reputation as a judicial administrator. Let us just say, as a judicial administrator, he was really admired. He created kind of the modern administrative office in his courts and…
Wallace: No one since Taft has done as much.
Levi: Yeah. He was really effective at that and did a lot of good for the court, and I know you had the opportunity to work with him. He must have spotted a fellow judicial administration traveler, and he had, you might talk about this, he, at some point he asked you to kind of study the system and make some recommendations.
Wallace: Yes, that’s exactly what happened. He liked to talk with me because I spoke his language, and he liked to use me because I was very intense about judicial administration. He would accomplish much through others. At the time that this was going on, Warren Burger was able to get United States senators and leading congressmen dealing with the judiciary committees to meet once a year at a nice place. He included me in that process of thinking through what we should be discussing and leading some of the discussions. That particular project you described came out of one of those conferences, and he asked me to turn my mind to that issue, which I did and then just reported back to him. But it was an interesting experience when you try not only to think only about what’s needed but in what order is their importance.
This is helpful because if you do that, then you’d always meet the most critical person, the critical problem, first. But he had an open ear. I think there’s only one place that we disagreed, and that was the division of the ninth circuit. At one time, he had me in Washington for some meetings. After our meeting he said, “You might as well stay here. There will be some newspaper people who will ask questions.” They did. Then someone asked, “I’d like to direct a question to Judge Wallace. Do you think that the ninth circuit should be divided?” And Warren Burger leaped for the microphone. “Take the fifth amendment.”
Aside from that one area, I think we saw eye to eye on everything.
Levi: See if I have this right. You prepared a sort of a think piece for him on the future of the courts. And eventually, that became the predicate for what we now know as the Federal Court Study Committee. I think that was headed by Judge Weis from the third circuit. It took some years to kind of get the funding and the organization for that, but I think you had the predecessor sort of. You prepared the ground. Put it that way.
Wallace: I did the initial research, but I did the rest of it too. He had me working on that project all the way through till Judge Weis was appointed chair. And even then, I was asked to criticize, and we really made progress in these areas. So he assigned me as long as he needed me. He had a welcoming personality. I was able to keep up all my work and working with him was always an interesting thing to do. And he was always open to change.
He was enamored by the English, and he was working on an idea that there should be some test to practice law in the federal courts. He singled the federal court as different from the state courts. And so you ought to have some way of saying that the person is qualified to practice there. And he had one test on education and one on practice.
Then he appointed a committee led by Judge Ed Devitt, and he put me on that committee. We met for years. I thought we would continue meeting until Ed Devitt had played golf on every golf course in the United States. We did a lot of work, but that went nowhere. It was a good idea. We even had a study conducted by the Federal Judicial Center, making sure that we could tell when a person was doing good work in the trial court or not doing good work. The study should be able to do that. And so the way was open to focus on these areas, but he couldn’t move the ball in that direction.
So he had me on the judicial exchange with the English. We had an annual exchange. At one in England, we were looking at how they educate their lawyers: the Inns of Court. We visited several Inns, then we were going on one of our days. I was alone on the bus. He came in. I can’t imagine people not getting there before the Chief Justice. He sat down beside me and asked me how things were going. And I told him that I had this idea that the British have really solved it with their Inns of Court because they have a way of continuing the educational process, it seems to me that we could Americanize that idea and accomplish what he wanted to accomplish with the Devitt Committee. This was the first time he heard something positive about getting a lawyer education program to the goal line.
He put me to work on it, and I worked on that for two or three years, talking to people, trying to get people interested in it, and reporting to him. Then we were at a law school I recommended that we try a trial program law school, and we did so. He liked the then Dean of BYU Law School, who had been a solicitor general (Rex Lee). So we did the pilot program there, and then the American Inns of Court went on from there. Now, 25,000 lawyers are involved. But it was just an idea that Warren Burger had: something that needed to be changed. And we were able to focus on an idea, and then he had me working on getting it started.
Levi: Yeah. That’s amazing. I mean, that’s been such a successful new thing on the block. It’s not so new anymore, the American Inns of Court. Well, let’s talk about judicial administration. So you know, you’ve been at this now for a long time, 50 years.
What areas in judicial administration do you think you’ve seen the most change, and where would you say we still need to spend a lot more time? We can do a lot better. What areas would you say? You know, if I were Warren Burger and I came to you now, and I said, “Hey, could you update that piece?” What would you say?
Wallace: It’s interesting that you ask that question because you would think that there’s just one key and it’s going to open every door, but there isn’t because there’s never the same door. We have the civil and the common law, and that’s a big difference between the two, and my work with courts and civil law is different. My approach is different than common law. But even within the civil law or the common law, I find a lot of differences in the various countries. So it’s given me an opportunity to take a look at what is really important. And I find that what’s important is to find in that country, what is their most pressing need? And they may be different from country to country, but to make sure that you focus on the one thing that’ll get them started on this path and to make sure that you protect the chief justice: make sure that you’re successful so that he doesn’t get low marks because he let an American in.
Generally speaking, of course, it is trying to organize the workload such that it’s even across the judges. Finding ways of getting judges who need some improvement to get them more effective because they are going to be with you for a long time. It’s very hard to get rid of judges once they’re in, and it should be hard. Some of the countries I’m a little concerned about. I found that each one of the countries may have a similar problem, but it is always about the detail, and the devil is in the detail.
To make it successful, you have to do two things: find out what the problem is and what’s the first step to overcome it. Then make sure the chief justice gets the credit. I hear from them all the time say, “I’ve got this problem. What do you think.” I hear them in writing. I hear them at conferences. I see them often, and we chat about things. Sometimes I need to return to their country. Right now, I’ve got programs going that I need to get back for. One in China, another one in the Russian Federation, and there’re six or seven I have to get back to. I’m not sure there’s an easy way of defining it because of the differences, and the devil is in the detail.
Levi: I mentioned earlier that you are the 2022 recipient of the Bolch Prize for the Rule of Law, which we award annually by the Bolch Judicial Institute for someone who’s made this significant contribution to the rule of law. You obviously have. You’ve been everywhere in the world on your own time, sometimes on your own dime, looking at judiciaries and how to help them, and you’ve just now been explaining sort of what your overall technique is, which sounds very good. And I know that the committee that decided to make this award was so impressed by your service to the United States courts, but also this international work, of course, which has just been amazing. Can we go back to the beginning? So you had this interest in judicial administration that was very focused on US courts. You were working with our chief justice. When did the lure, the opportunity, or the interest in international work come to you?
Wallace: When I became a district court judge, for some reason, the Executive Branch wanted to send me overseas to give talks, and they wanted me to go to Taiwan and the Philippines. I thought that was a good thing. That was the first time I had been involved with foreign judiciaries for our government. That was 50 years ago. I went to Taiwan, and I enjoyed my work there, and then to the Philippines, and I was lent to the chief justice of the Philippines to speak at a conference to judges about how they try lawsuits. And there happened to be in the audience the then president of the Asia Foundation. And he asked me to see him in San Francisco, and so I did so. And he ended up asking me to be the Senior Advisor for Judicial Administration for the Asia Foundation. Now there’s no junior advisor, so there’s no pay, but he was willing to finance the trips.
So that’s how it got started. And my first trip for the Asia Foundation was to China, which was right after President Nixon had the ping pong tournament. At the end of the cultural revolution, China was in destitute. Its cultural revolution had just ruined China, and that was my first trip to China. They had no lawyers or judges functioning. They were all gardeners. They were using retired military for judges. And it was interesting. The person who was the President of the Supreme Court was an old politician who just took naps. The vice president was an engineer. So they left that whole China program open to me. I was able to go anywhere and ask all the questions I wanted to.
Then I got to the end of my visit, I had my conference with the Vice President. He said to me, “We’re having some difficulty here. What can you do to help?” I said, “What do you want to achieve?” And he said, “We need to develop a judicial system that will attract Western investment.” This was 50 years ago, and they were in “bankruptcy,” a complete bankruptcy. I watched them dump cabbage on the streets and have people struggle for it. People were starving. It was terrible. There was no effective judicial system. I took him up on that, and I worked more in China during those years than anyplace else. It was interesting because it was so big and also there was so much to do. But most important is that I had a good relationship with the Vice Chief Justice. It was worthwhile. We were doing something important. There was always something new to accomplish.
Later, I developed this program, a Conference of Chief Justice Asia and the Pacific. The Asia Foundation helped to finance the first meeting. It’s been meeting every two years for the last 30 years. That was a good experience for me. I enjoyed that very much. But later on, in one of the meetings, they changed the chief justice, and most of the chief justices in China come from security. They don’t come from the court, and this one came from security and I went over to him and introduced myself. “I’m Judge Wallace. I’m from the United States. Congratulations on being appointed to the chief justice.” And he said, through an interpreter, “Oh, we know all about you, Judge Wallace. You’re a friend of China.”
Levi: Oh, that’s very nice.
Wallace: And I’m in the middle of a program right now in China. Just waiting to get in to finish up the program. I don’t worry about what their politics are. I don’t worry about what they’ve done before. I just take them as they are, and try to get the next step up and help them.
Levi: You try to help the judiciary become a modern professional judiciary. Do you see that as sort of the way in which to generate the rule of law principles ultimately over time?
Wallace: Yes. I don’t think there’s any doubt about it. You can have all the rules of what law you want, but until it’s applied to people in cases, there’s no rule of law functioning. And so I, from the very beginning, thought of this as a part of the rule of law. You have the rule of law, but you have to develop a system in which it can be applied to every individual. And there’s no rule of law until you have a way of enforcing the rule of law. My approach to it was that the rule of law looks good on paper, but it isn’t successful until it’s implemented in the courts, and that’s where we come in with judicial administration.
Levi: Not to get you too much into the weeds here, but I think it will be interesting to people. What you’ve described is you go to a country, they’re all unique, they have their very different problems, you try to figure out what it is that they’re looking for. Maybe there’s one, or maybe a couple of things that they’re really hoping to achieve that will get them started. You made the point that you want to have the confidence of the chief justice so that you get buy-in from the top. I think I have found that to be important.
In other contexts, you want the leadership to support you. And then there’re certain things that I think all of us think about when we think about court systems that are handling lots of cases and that tend to get overwhelmed by them, certainly in countries like China, with big populations of people, we think about alternative dispute resolution. We think about case management. There’re sort of other tools for helping judges and courts move cases along, case tracking, all kinds of things. I’m wondering, sort of what was in your toolkit, and what did you find was particularly helpful? What was not particularly helpful? Just any observations you have about that kind of thing?
Wallace: I think you put your finger on it. The types of things that we do, we’ve been successful here, can always be modified to fit there. The idea of settling cases, not having the judge decide it, has to be something that they have to buy into. This is important because there are some cases that are better off settling. But then, to do that, they have to have a way of settling the case in which the people go away happy with the outcome. If all you’re doing is going in and beating them over the head to settle a case, which is one of the programs in one of the countries I’m working with right now, then you haven’t moved the rule of law. But if these cases can be settled and you can get people back together again, this type of mediator is committed with the rule of law and good practices. Put businessmen back together again, neighbors back together again, if your alternative dispute resolution is something that, “Okay, you have to come up with this, or you have to come down to this,” the program is not consistent with the rule of law and good practices. But if you can get the people to actually want to settle, then they go out arm and arm, and they go into business again, then they start making money. Your neighbor doesn’t shake their fist at you, they wave to you.
The whole idea of getting mediation to work right is to change the attitude of the people. It is more important than the settlement. And so that takes technique, and they have to buy into it. So it’s more than just the name “mediation.”. It’s how it’ll fit in that country and what modifications. Training judges in China, for example, it is massive. And we’re right in the middle of a program to accomplish that because they are not getting the training they need. It’s not their fault. We just haven’t been able to get the program finished. We got it halfway done, and it’s not finished yet.
But the Russian Federation never had any true mediation, and I’d keep talking to Chief Justice Lebedev. It took three years to convince him, but now he is a believer. They’re mediating thousands of cases in the Russian Federation. It’s a huge court, but he had to become convinced that it’s important for the system. And that’s the catch.
I think that as long as we take an idea and then don’t try to cram it in, but to change it, so it fits their system and then make sure it’s successful, then we’ll do okay. But that means every day’s a new day. I can’t use yesterday’s program. I have to have a new program for every country. That’s the fun of it.
Levi: Yeah. It’s great. I wonder whether you, on some of these trips, you go with a clerk of court. I have experienced situations in which really what foreign judges or foreign court administrators are interested in is how the clerk’s office operates and electronic filing and that kind of thing. They’re not as interested in things that I know more about, which is case management. I’m wondering if you experienced that too. Like how do we set up a clerk’s office?
Wallace: Yes, and it changes from country to country. Some of them are not very good. They don’t have a profession of court administration. In our judicial time here, where has changed, where we have a real court administrator profession, rather than somebody who is the oldest clerk and whether or not they had the ability to make changes or modifications or something else. Fortunately, when I was chief judge, I had excellent court clerks and circuit executives, and their staff. And if you don’t have that, when you go away, no one calls it to the attention of the chief judge, or chief justice, that something needs to be changed. So I think your point is a good one. You can’t just rely on the judges, they’re busy deciding cases, but if there’s someone there that knows what the end is so they can help them making modifications till the next time you come — it’s very, very important. At one time, I tried to develop a school for clerks in Asia. We were going to do it in Hong Kong, and we had a university which was interested in it, but it just didn’t work. They just didn’t want to let their clerk go. They didn’t think it was that important. But I think there’s a big gap there.
Levi: So is there some part of the world that you’ve really always had a hankering to go to, and you just wish you could get there once COVID recedes?
Wallace: Well, I was going to say, “No, I just wait.” But that’s really not true. We have been successful in establishing chief justices conferences, Conference of Chief Justice of Asian and Pacific, which I was able to develop with the help of the Asia Foundation. It has been meeting every two years since then. There’re 34 chief justices sitting around a table, representing two-thirds of the population of the world. That is a very important conference, and we’re going to meet by visual. I’ve already got my invitation. I’ve got my speaking assignment, and we will get back to in person meetings soon. But those conferences really become important. The Conference of Chief Justices of Central and Eastern Europe, you mentioned earlier. That conference was born in the Yale Club in New York, where Judge John Walker asked me to come to lunch to talk about it, and we’ve been working together ever since then. I think these conferences are very important. We’ve tried to get some of them started. We have one in the Pacific in addition to that one. And I envisage that eventually, we’ll get them to various other and so that Chief Justices of the region can come together and learn, and we’ve found that to be very important.
Levi: So that’s work yet to be done. That’s what you mean by that.
Wallace: Well, it leads into my next comment: answering the question, is there someplace I want to go? The answer is yes, but it has to do with these types of conferences. My goal is to have a conference of chief justices in the Middle East. We’ve had a few starts. We almost had one going in UAE, and then things changed, and the investor there left and was modified with the new election. We’ve had several bumps in the road. To me, the key place I’d like to see that regional conference happen is because there’s so much opportunity, and you could do so much good if you had judicial systems that were considering good ideas to advance the rule of law in the Middle East. So yes, that’s my number one goal.
Levi: I have some big picture, 30,000 feet questions I’d like to ask you. First, with keeping our focus on the international scene, what would you say are today the biggest challenges that courts face around the world, outside of the United States? How would you describe that?
Wallace: I think it’s the backlog. They’re not getting their work out, but they’re just doing it the way it’s always been done, and their answers are give us more judges, and we’ll get the work out. They don’t think in terms of change. And I think that it is very critical. I went to the last opening of court in Turkey. The president of the country spoke, the chief justice spoke, the head of the bar spoke, and they all spoke on the backlog. I think that’s gotten to be serious if you have to wait 20 years, which some people do, “Where is the rule of law?”
Wallace: So we have to teach them the keys to eliminate backlog and not just burn up the files, but to do it effectively by improving the system to make the judiciary more efficient and more effective as a judge.
Levi: So take your focus home here to the USA. What would you say is the biggest challenge that our United States courts face today? Federal and state.
Wallace: Well, I think by an overview, I worry very much about how the other two branches treat the court. They treat it as a political institution, and they want to stock it so that they will come out with decisions that are in keeping with their political philosophy. And that’s true of both parties. I would like this to have some way that we can teach them what the founders really had in mind was that they get to make all those political decisions. Some call this judicial restraint. I call it judicial respect. That the non-political branch, the third branch, makes sure that they’re working within the bounds of the constitution but stays out of politics. And that the other branches stay out of the judiciary and work in a political institution.
I don’t think people really see the constitution that way. One of the members of the Supreme Court said, “No one knows their judicial philosophy until they have been on the bench five years.” I’ve come to agree with that. Everybody gets worried because Earl Warren was very conservative and became very liberal, became a very loyal liberal, Whizzer White was very liberal and became very conservative, and they think they’re willy-nilly. But I think that they just learn what their judicial philosophy is, and you don’t learn that by just going to the court any more than a football player learns how to be a quarterback by sitting up in the stand. And I think that’s a major problem that we’re, long term.
Levi: I have a sense that our Supreme Court, which you and I both admire so much, they need help, but it’s not clear exactly how to help them. They’re sort of in the middle of too much. In one sense is that they’ve become too important. The court has. But how to help it sort of stay out of some of the political fray it’s not easy. It requires some kind of judgment and self-restraint and deftness and…
Wallace: The justice told me that I’d been on the bench 10 years, so I thought I should know my own judicial philosophy. So I wrote it, and it’s published in the George Washington Law Review. The title is the “Jurisprudence of Judicial Restraint: A Call to Return to the Moorings.”
Levi: Yeah. Well, I’m with you on that. I suppose every judge has a judicial philosophy in some way or another, but you don’t want, I’m just speaking for myself, I don’t want judges to have a judicial ideology such that I know that I’m going to lose in front of you. I will never get… You won’t even have to read my brief. I can tell you what the issue is, and you’ll just say, “Well, this is how I rule.” And that is not our model of judging.
We want our judges to be thoughtful, open minded. And I think to have a kind of a play in their joints so that they’re always listening. And that as conditions change, the law changes, that they change. I think we need that. Otherwise, we will end up with computers on the bench. You’ve talked about your faith and the structure that religion gave to you. Really, I think, made you who you are, the way you describe it, and you’ve been a devout member of your church, and I know it plays a huge role in your life and the way you see things. And I’m wondering, could you just discuss a little bit the role of your faith in your professional life?
Wallace: At one time, when I was on the district court, there was a newspaperman that accused me of attempting to get revelation for every case. And that isn’t what I feel religion does, nor do I think I get that type of advice on cases. I think what my religion taught me was that the constitution was a document inspired by God and that it has an important role to play. That is very consistent with what my independent branch’s tenant.
I also was very impressed with the idea that we are here on earth to help other people. And so, when I was practicing law, it didn’t matter that much what the fee was. It was whether I could help somebody. I looked at myself more as a mechanic that’s coming to take care of a car than I do someone who’s up on a high mountain saying all these marvelous things. And my religion teaches me that we should be helping all people to the extent that we can. So my faith, I think, has not interfered with the oaths I’ve taken, but it’s had a role in how I play my role as a judge. And that’s, I think that is what got me started overseas. That I had a place where I could be a help, and they need it, and why shouldn’t I do it. And you know, if not me, who. And when I started doing it, no one was doing it. We have a fine cadre of people now that are going out, but I still enjoy it. Getting on the airplane is, that’s my juice.
Levi: Well, that’s a great answer. You have done so much. I think we all want to know what your secret is. What is the recipe here?
Wallace: I started out without much promise for the future. I was given an opportunity to make changes in the roadway so that I had the ability to do things. I don’t think that was by happenstance. And I think I have a responsibility to make use of the blessings I’ve received to help generally people. That’s more than just how I work and try and get my work out. It has to do with problems that need to be solved in the United States and otherwise. And instead of going home and watching TV, it’s my responsibility to think through some of these processes. To be grateful for the blessings I have by showing how they can be helpful to other people. I owe so much. I got off the wrong track and on the right track, and I feel that as long as I can continue to do it, I have a responsibility to do it.
Levi: Well, that’s an awfully good answer. You’ve just been amazing. So I like to ask the judges that I interview, I like to ask them about their own judicial heroes. You’re a judicial hero to so many. Who is your hero? Who inspired you? Is there someone you knew or a historical figure who’s been something of a role model or has provided inspiration to you in your career as a judge?
Wallace: In the legal area, I’m indebted to Warren Burger. We saw things eye to eye in judicial administration, and I’m grateful he opened the door. Obviously, that was a great help to me to further what I was trying to accomplish in my life to be of assistance to other people. As far as political leaders go, I’m grateful, I’m very grateful for the life of Abraham Lincoln. When I used to go back to Washington DC, when I was Chief Judge, I always went over to the Lincoln Memorial and read the Gettysburg Address in the second inaugural. I always felt that my eyesight was better after I finished that. So he’s my favorite president. Warren Burger’s my favorite chief justice. And I think in a more broad sense, I’m grateful to the many chief justices throughout the world that gave trust to me. And were willing to work with me and not send me home or not say another American or he must be a spy, but became my very good friends. And with that confidence that we had in each other, we were able to do things. I didn’t do them. I just helped. They did it.
Levi: Judge Wallace, Cliff, what a treat it has been to talk with you today. I can’t think of anyone who has done so much to improve the courts of our country and of so many countries around the world. Thank you for your dedication to the rule of law, your commitment to the administration of justice, and for the extraordinary example of humility, service, and civility that you have offered to all of us that you have shared with us. This has been another episode of Judgment Calls. I’m David Levi. Thank you for joining us.