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Judge Ann Claire Williams (Part 2)

December 10, 2020 | Season 2, Episode 1 | 1:02:25

Highlights

  • In part two, Judge Ann Claire Williams talks with David F. Levi about her more than 30-year career as the first Black woman appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.
  • Following the police killing of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, Judge Williams characterizes systemic racism in the United States. She tells of her own efforts as a founder of numerous legal affinity groups for minority lawyers, such as Minority Legal Education Resources Inc., Just The Beginning, and the Black Women Lawyers Association, to address these complex problems.
  • Judge Williams concludes by telling of her current work to strengthen the rule of law in Africa. Her affinity with Africa has led to numerous trips with organizations like Lawyers Without Borders throughout her career. After retiring from the bench in 2018, she joined Jones Day and now works full-time to improve systems of justice across the African continent.

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Transcript

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Levi: Hello and welcome to Judgment Calls. I am David Levi, director of the Bolch Judicial Institute at Duke Law School. This is part two of our interview with Judge Ann Claire Williams who 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. We talked last time about her childhood, her education, and her early career as a law clerk and a federal prosecutor. She quickly earned a strong reputation for judgment and excellence, and at the young age of 35, she was nominated to the U.S. district court by President Ronald Reagan, and that’s where we’ll pick up today. 

Judge Williams, you had such a varied career on the bench. How did you enjoy being a district judge? 

Williams: So I loved, I loved being in the trial court. And I loved the interaction with the lawyers. But my favorite were the jury — I loved the jurors. I just loved them. I knew when they came into the courtroom they were not happy. You know what that’s like. 

Levi: (laughs) Yeah, I do. 

Williams: They were not happy. So, I did my best to make them feel comfortable and want them to be in my courtroom. I talked to my jurors after every trial and to have them say, “You know, I hated it when I got this summons. You know I did not want to be on this jury, but this experience has changed my whole attitude about serving the country.”

I used to also say that, next to being in the military, serving on the jury is the most significant thing you can do for your country. And I would add voting would be right up there, equally. When they left, they knew that, and then I’d debrief them. They always wanted to know what I thought. Would I have ruled the same way? And then I had to explain, “You know, I really can’t comment on it. They’re going to be post-trial motions, and there’ll be rulings, and then, you know, it could go up to the court of appeals.” And I explained the whole process. So I never got into that with them, but I always sent a follow-up letter to the jurors. So, in addition to speaking with them, I sent a letter.

So I’ll tell you this one story. I love this. I was teaching in Minnesota a NITA program. I think it was a North Central region is what we call the program in north Minnesota with John Sonsteng, and one of the lawyers, I think he was co-training with us, came up to me and said, “You’re Ann Williams and you sit in Chicago.” And I’m like, “Yes.” And he said, “And my mother was on one of your juries, and my mother framed that letter that you sent to her.”

So the impact that you have on the jurors — on everybody that you interact within the district court matters. In those criminal matters, and that to me was the most difficult, the most challenging, finding the right sentence, looking at all the factors we had to look at, the nature of the crime, who were the victims. Is this a repeat offender? What’s the impact on the community? What about rehabilitation? Because I’ve never wanted to feel like I had to just throw the book away on someone. You know there were, of course, some horrendous crimes, and those crimes warranted high sentences, but for the most part, I was initially appointed when we didn’t have guidelines. So we had a whole range of sentences, from probation or whatever we wanted, under the statutory limits.

Levi: It’s a terribly difficult issue and why don’t we talk about it next. But before we leave the jury, I just so agree with you, and it’s such a shame that we have fewer and fewer jury trials because this is one of the most participatory aspects of our particular democracy. And jurors, you know, they’re bombarded with misinformation now from all sides. And this is where they can go in and see how a trial works. This is Judge Williams, you know, and every preconception that they’ve had they’re able to test that. And it’s very, very rare that you don’t end a trial with the jurors saying, “Gee, I’m so impressed by everybody in this courthouse from the bailiffs up to the judge, to the prosecutors, the defense attorneys, and it was such a privilege to serve.” And you can tell they really mean it.

Williams: Well, absolutely. Then the other thing is, I said I love the lawyers because, of course, I was a trial lawyer. So, when magic would happen in the courtroom and when I started on the bench, I couldn’t just email my clerks or text message come out, but I could tell because I knew my lawyers really well. I knew who was going to really be great, and I’d tell my clerks to come out for openings come out for closing. And if a cross was going really well or direct, I would just pick up the phone, you know, and do my no expression talk. I’d say, “Get out here right now. This is magic.” And then we’d watch the magic. And then, of course, we watched the trainwrecks in terms of how people tried cases.

The other thing I enjoyed was — especially when I joined the court — there was Jim Parsons, who was African American [judge] in the whole country and then George Layton another incredible rock star heroic figure. He was the second black judge, but I was the first black woman. And so, to see the pride that people took in my being there because, you know, like my father told me, “Never let the road get in the way of my humanity.” Even though there was no question who ran the courtroom, I believe that I was always respectful to everyone, treated everybody with respect, and took time with people. That matters in terms of the image of the judiciary. It matters how you treat people. It matters if you take the time. I remember once there was a criminal case, it was a fraud case maybe $200,000, the victim was a black small businessman and the defendant was also black and he had stolen, I don’t know, maybe $100,000 from this business. It was really a very unfortunate situation, and, of course, the victims were very, very upset. Well, between the time that the guy pled and he was sentenced, he was diagnosed with AIDS. So the guy who appeared before me for sentencing was just a shadow of a man. He was down to like 90 pounds, and when he came in for the sentencing, he said, “You know, I’d never done anything in my life to shame my family, but I have shamed my family, my mother, everything they stood for, and I am worthless, and I’m ready to die.”

Well, you know, I said to him, “You know what you have said that you are sorry, and you made a terrible mistake. But I am going to give you the opportunity to live out these last two months of your life with your family.” Because what is the point? Now, of course, the victim was very upset. But I didn’t care. It was the first time I actually came down from the bench and gave a defendant a hug. I think it was the first and only time I did that. We were all in tears as was the prosecutor. So showing compassion matters or saying to people because they’re under the Sentencing Guidelines, “Okay, under the guidelines, I must impose a sentence of 63 to 72 months. I’m going to the bottom of the guidelines because you have shown by your statements and by your actions you’ve paid back the victims, you admitted your guilt when you were questioned by the police, and quite frankly, if I was not limited by these guidelines, your sentence would be much less. But my hands are tied.”

Those were the cases that were really, really hard. It was really hard for me to go out on the bench and sentence people when in my heart and in my mind I knew the sentence was too long. But there was nothing I could do because we were restricted by the case law in terms of going under and the justification for it. So that was difficult, but I always wanted people to feel like they were treated fairly in my courtroom regardless of their age, race, sex, none of that really mattered anyway. And I love people. I think that’s pretty obvious. I love people. I love the interaction with people.

Levi: Well, and you learn so much. I love the jury selection process just because it was so interesting. You’d say, you know, “Mrs. So-and-so or Mr. So-and-so, you know, tell us where you grew up, do you have any kids?” You know all these questions and you’d learn so much about people, and it’s one of the reasons now, just speaking for myself, I don’t believe that Americans want to toss their democracy into the trash can. When I have these discussions with other people, I say you didn’t pick juries for 20 years, you know. I’m just telling you people love this country. They want to serve. There’s a lot of goodwill out there. You know the average person is a great person.

Williams: Absolutely. And to the heart of it, I took a lot of pride in jury selection because the panel would sometimes go to another courtroom or because when we started the jury served for like a month, so you were eligible for a month to serve on a jury. It wasn’t that you show up one day you get picked, or you show up you don’t get picked, and you don’t show up again for a year or two years. So you were in the panel and when the prosecutor would say, “You know, he just served in a jury on such-and-such a courtroom, and we never found out that his son was addicted to drugs.” Because any of those difficult case questions I always did it sidebar. I always said, “Have you, a family member, or close friend ever been addicted to drugs? You, a family member, or close friend convicted of a crime?” So that I could take that burden off and as soon as they say “Yes,” nobody in the audience knew the answer. Was it them? Was it their family? Was it their friend? and we took all those questions that sidebar. And then I got people to open up. So, and you said the variety, just the variety of cases on the district court. I think it would have been very hard for me to be a state court judge assigned to one court.

Levi: I wonder if you agree with this statement that José Cabranes once said to me, well, he said, “If you can be a judge on the district court and the circuit court that’s really ideal. But if you can only have one, it’s got to be the district court.” What do you think?

Williams: Well, a lot depends on your background. Now, someone who’s been an academic or has been an appellate lawyer, clearly, the appellate court is where they would [want to be]. But if I had to pick, I would say yes, the district court. Now the other thing I would say is I think it’s a tremendous advantage to have been a district judge before I went to the court of appeals because I knew how things worked in the real world. And it wasn’t theoretical. Like I can remember when I went to the court of appeals and there was an issue relating to the dismissal of a case, and I settled a lot of cases on the district court. That’s the other thing I loved about the district court. I loved settling cases, and I especially loved the ones where the lawyers would say this case will never settle in a million years, and after two or three settlement conferences I settled it. It was the only place where you as a judge got to shine. It was a place where we got to use our advocacy skills, our persuasive skills. Yeah, so, I just love that when they’d say, “No, no, no, we’re not going to settle,” and I would get them to settle. So I did love the aspect of settlement.

Now, on the court of appeals, knowing what I knew on the district court, I was going to tell you about this case. So you’d have a settlement conference, and sometimes I’d have my court reporter in there, but anytime I thought there was any chance of blowback I had my court reporter come in because I wanted to make sure everybody said, “Yes, I’ve agreed. Yes, I’ve agreed. Yes, I’ve agreed.”

We had one situation, I’m trying to think, where in the court of appeals we have a situation where a district court judge had dismissed a case without prejudice and knowing that the signed plea agreement was going to come forward like two months later. So the question was whether or not it was a final judgment, and I was on the case with another person — another judge — who had never been a trial lawyer, never been a trial judge, and said, “Well, I don’t understand this. Why, wasn’t it?” And I said, “I know what’s going on. The parties have said they’re going to settle. The judge has given them two months to bring in the final order because sometimes you can’t get all the details in that conference. You don’t have the signature of — you can ask for the principle, but even if you have the principle, they’re going to have to — if it’s a corporation or something, they’re gonna have to run that by somebody. I never got into all the nitty-gritty of the settlement. I got the essence of the settlement done and I always said, “Okay, we’ve got all down on the record. Now, you all get the paperwork in.”

But it’s just a small example of if you’ve been there, you understand what’s going on. And as a trial judge, you understand at the appellate level why the judges don’t always make perfect decisions. They’re under fire. They’re under fire. They don’t have the amount of time that we have on the court of appeals to go through the record, and review everything, and look at all the cases, and really contemplate, and go back and forth with our law clerks. Yes, on the critical issues and some of the hard issues of the day district judges do the same thing, but the volume is so great that you have to move through the cases with some speed or you’re stuck with a humongous docket. So you do the best you can with the research you have. You make those calls. You try to make a really good record. You explain your reasoning to the court of appeals, and then you move on to the next case. So I think being a trial judge was helpful.

Levi: Let’s talk some more about the Sentencing Guidelines because that was such a big part of your time on the bench and mine as well. Most of our judges who listen to this will know exactly what we’re talking about, although they may not know the entire history to it, but there was a time and it began in the ’70s really when judges, like Marvin Frankel, became very concerned about disparity in sentencing from courtroom to courtroom. You know, you’d go into one courtroom and you’d get probation. You’d go into another courtroom and you’d get two years in prison, and it was a system that depended very heavily on the parole guidelines. We had parole boards and they have their own guidelines and judges weren’t all that aware of what the parole commissions were doing. But there was concern about equality in sentencing and egalitarianism in sentencing, and so we got the sentencing guidelines, and on top of that, we got the mandatory minimums and everything went up. I mean you noticed it. I noticed it. All the sentences became very high all of a sudden, which generated a huge amount of plea bargaining and kind of wiped out the criminal jury trial in many districts which is unfortunate. And now we’re in a looser period where the courts have regained a certain amount of discretion. Unfortunately, with that discretion, according to the latest study by the Sentencing Commission, we’re now seeing racial disparity in sentencing, which we didn’t have under the more rigid guideline era when just everybody got these impossibly long sentences.

Williams: Well, I beg to differ with you, David. Now, I have not looked at every Sentencing Commission study because you know the Sentencing Commission does an analysis of all the sentences every year.

Levi: This is from 2017.

Williams: Because at least when I was actively on the District Court, we didn’t see a dramatic decrease in — we expected in terms of black and brown people that we would see more moderation because we have the guidelines, and it would be more fair because, as you said, when it was wide open, the disparity was self-evident, depending on your race, the type of crime, where you were. Is it the city or the country? You know, because in a place like Chicago, theft of 10 postal checks totaling $15,000, if it’s a first offense, that’s probation — no question about it. It’s some restitution, maybe some community service. But if you’re in maybe Little Rock, Arkansas, or some small town, and I’m not calling out Arkansas just because I’m calling out Arkansas, it could be any small town. It could be a small town in Illinois. You’re not going to get that same sentence. So the guidelines, it was one of those situations where the intent was the right intent to try to make things fair.

But what happened in the guidelines a lot of the discretion we had was thrown to the prosecutor because what you were charged with had a lot to do with what your calculation was, and then under these guidelines — and I was one of the ones who ruled against this — even if you pled guilty to two counts and your guideline range was a certain range, if there was other conduct even of the same crime, but say more checks for more value. Let’s just stick with these postal checks, with checks in the mail. That number could be thrown right back into the sentencing calculation. So it was like you weren’t even getting what you bargained for. You actually getting more. So I thought that was unfair and that was uncharged conduct, and then even if you pled guilty, or if you you went to trial and you were found guilty, or you were acquitted say of one count, you could still throw that charged conduct which you were acquitted that could go in the calculation by a different standard not proof by reasonable doubt. But likelihood or not, a preponderance of evidence was the standard that we used. So it was a lesser standard. So you go to trial, you get acquitted, and the court could still take into account that conduct. And it was very difficult to ignore it because the only way we were able to ignore it is if we knew the prosecutor would go along with us because the prosecutor could rightfully under the law say, “No, you have to include that acquitted conduct.” It didn’t help on the disparity with black and brown people.

So now we have it looser, like you said, but I think the data shows that so many of the judges now on the bench they grew up under the guidelines, and I think there’s not a lot of variation from the guidelines and the sentencing. Now you’ve looked at the sentencing. But is that still true? At least it was true when I left, I mean, when I left the court of appeals.

Levi: It’s unfortunately true, and it’s very disturbing. I did a program with Chuck Breyer and some others on race and judging, and he addressed this issue. He is still on the Sentencing Commission, and it’s very difficult. You know, things are not evenly distributed across race, for example, poverty isn’t evenly distributed and poverty and crime are related, and there are other things — education — and it’s all, you know, it’s all part of our world. But at the end of the day, you know, we don’t want people to go into a courthouse and get a different sentence and come out and say, “Gee, isn’t it interesting that everybody who’s my color gets a harsher sentence then these other people.” That’s devastating I think for the society.

Williams: And it was horrible when we made the transition from the no guidelines to the guidelines because there were people in jail sitting next to each other after they did a third of their time under the old system and were eligible for parole, and under the new system, you have to do 85% of your time unless you cooperate and you get a waiver. 85% of your time. So people with the same crimes the person under the guidelines is serving more time, just as the mandatory minimums because you just threw the guidelines away with the mandatory minimums. The mandatory minimums were extremely harsh, and extremely harsh as it related to black and brown and poor people. I’m on a committee of the Northern District of Illinois and we have asked pretrial services and the probation department to give us the stats on the racial demographics in terms of sentencing, and the length of sentence, and that kind of thing, and still, that disparity exists.

Levi: I find this very hard to think through and I’ve tried. I did a program with the mayor of Chicago. You probably know her. She was an assistant US attorney and well-respected lawyer, and I did a conversation with her about six weeks ago. So, you know, she’s tough-minded and she knows these problems don’t have an easy solution. When you and I were prosecutors, the Black community’s main concern was not over-policing, it was under policing. They said we’re not getting our fair share of law enforcement resources, but when you get your fair share then a lot of people get arrested, they get these very long sentences, and then you feel like law enforcement is no longer your friend that they are burdening your community. How to get that right?

Williams: Yeah, it’s tough because you said “fair share.” I wouldn’t call it that. I would say that there were certain campaigns and things targeted at certain crimes, and we have to step back, too, and see those various times when the number of arrests that the police made was tied directly to like promotions and how highly regarded they were. We had a lot of emphasis when the resources did come to the community, that were poured into the community, and a lot of people were picked up on a lot of minor crimes. So in some sense, to me, I would say there was over-policing and not a respect for rights. 

The whole George Floyd murder and the murders that preceded that, and subsequent murders of black people, that was not news to me. It was not a surprise to me. It’s something that we’ve suffered in the black community for generations. So this whole issue of policing, because there are and you and I know as prosecutors, we work with a lot of great agents and people who were fair, and, of course, part of our job was to make sure they played by the rules.

I can remember cases where the agents came to me. They violated the rights of a prospective defendant, and we had to find another way to get that case. We had to put that on the shelf or try to find another way to do further investigation because there were certain violations because you and I were prosecutors who cared about fairness. It was not the win. Yes, you wanted to win, but you wanted to win fairly.

We have so much that needs to be done in our criminal justice system, but we have a lot that needs to be done in our society because the other thing the George Floyd moment brought out, which is now a movement, and COVID was the great racial, ethnic, and economic disparity we have in this country and the fact that black and brown people pay the brunt of the price. We’ve got to do something to reform and to recognize some of the institutional racism that’s been built-in to our rules, our policy, and our laws.

We have to educate the public. Now, it was a great tragedy, as Justice O’Connor said, when civics was dropped from so many school curricula because people didn’t understand what their rights were, didn’t understand how the government worked. I mean, to me, some of what we’re seeing today in this dysfunction that we have is people not understanding their rights and not getting the real truth about our history and about the various people and the various groups that have come to America, whether enslaved or people who ran here for freedom. It was not told in the history books. So there’s, to me, a huge disparity in sort of understanding who we are and the fact that we started with the killing and murder and stealing of land of the indigenous people in this country. So we’ve got a lot to deal with on the racial reckoning side. On the economic reckoning side, all of these people who are out of work. Poor people who don’t know where their next meal is going to come from, and then with COVID and everything, that’s like ripped the Band-Aid off of all of that. So we really get to see who’s paying the price and who hasn’t benefited from the American dream.

Levi: We have these big issues and society needs to come to grips with them. I totally agree with you. It might be interesting for you and me to talk a little bit about the judicial culture. You know, I was a district judge in Eastern California. My colleagues, we didn’t have a female judge, but we were very diverse racially, ethnically, sometimes kind of half and half Black, or half and half Hispanic. My colleagues and I, I think, we could have frank discussions, and I’m wondering whether you felt the same way, or did you have a different experience.

Williams: Well, we did have a sentencing group that met once a week and we shared with each other the pre-sentence reports and we chatted about the cases but I would not describe it the way you described your colleagues. Like we didn’t spend a lot of time talking about race and social-economic issues. I mean, we did talk about the individual and what their background was.

I think that the other thing that George Floyd [and other] murders — which happened before everybody’s eyes, which is part of why it has resonated more deeply at least for this generation because it’s like Emmett Till and Martin Luther King and John Lewis were sort of like earlier generations — those were moments that we shared as a culture because everybody was at home because of COVID. I think that what has come out of that is an acknowledgment of institutional racism in this country and the number of allies that have been educated or understand the situation that Black people have been in and brown people have been in because when you look at the demonstrations, the peaceful demonstrations around this country, many of those protests were in areas that were all-white. I think because we were all looking at the screen and heard that man say, “I can’t breathe,” it had an impact.

When have we seen corporations issuing statements the way they have? Educational institutions, not-for-profit institutions, individuals, leaders in the government, across every race, sex, religion, when you look at even like Amazon, look at the books that were number one that relate to white privilege, or the caste book, or books that deal with race, those are still some of the number one bestsellers. That’s never happened before, to my knowledge, in this country. The difference in the conversations we can have now, David, where people can honestly say, “I’m uncomfortable talking about race.” You know, because before it was like everybody was supposed to say, “No, I’m colorblind. I don’t see color and all that.” And, you know, people see color. Everybody has bias. Everybody has bias, but we didn’t talk about it in the same way. So I think it’s freed black people to talk more honestly, and I think it’s freed white folk to talk about it, too. And to have uncomfortable conversations because the conversations aren’t easy.

We have to find ways to have those conversations — to educate ourselves — so that we can understand and put ourselves in the shoes of others. It’s been a moment and a movement that’s given me hope because the editorials from white Christian evangelicals, and Jewish people, and Black people, and just, you know, kids writing and saying or parents saying, “You know, my kids really they want to be in these demonstrations and I didn’t really understand and my kids are like, educating me.” Then, people really feeling the pain that Black people have felt, that fear. That conversation and that talk I had with my kids: “Be careful of the police. Say Yes, sir. Yes, ma’am. Have your hands out because at any moment it could change on a dime. If you give any kind of lip.” When we look at the people who are murdered by the police, I always ask myself, would that have happened if the person was white? No. When we look at that guy who murdered all those people in South Carolina in the church. He had murdered all those people. The police knew he had murdered all those people and he came out of the church, and he was able to peacefully give himself up. They had their guns aimed at him but so many instances. I’m not saying that white folk haven’t been unfairly treated by police or there hasn’t been some brutality because they’re just some cops that are brutal and ignore rights. I don’t think that’s the majority of the cops, but I think we need to have a cultural shift in how we view each other, and we need to get to know each other. You and I have had the benefit because when you’re on the bench all kinds of people appear before us. And like you said, we learn so many stories and we’re exposed to so many different cultures. But that’s not the average American.

Levi: It’s true. You know, you and I, full disclosure, we know one another’s families and we know that there are some communities in this country — not so many but there are a few — like where I grew up and where you now live which are actually well-integrated. That used to be part of our dream was to have, you know, that was Martin Luther King’s dream, and it hasn’t been fulfilled for so many different reasons. People just don’t know each other.

Williams: No, they don’t. You know when you look historically at what happened to Black folk, enslaved for all those generations, didn’t know [their ancestors]. I was in Africa once with another judge, and whenever I’m in Africa, I always say I’m so grateful to be here because I know my ancestors came from here, but I don’t know where. And the judge said, “Oh really, you don’t know where your ancestors are from.” And I absolutely don’t because my mother went to Utah, I think it was, and tried to look up the records and stopped cold in the 1900s because our ancestors were slaves. So I don’t know what village. I don’t know what town. I don’t know any of that. All of my friends who immigrated here, who came to the U.S not on slave ships but because they were fleeing say the potato famine or the Holocaust or oppression in Russia or wherever. Everybody knows who their family was. Now, some families were destroyed because of the Holocaust but they knew where their people came from. We didn’t know our people. We couldn’t even say our names. We were not allowed to speak the language, practice any of the culture, own anything, build any equity, none of that. So then after the Civil War, you know, we became sharecroppers, didn’t get 20 acres and a mule and worked on the same plantations, and emancipation comes and you think, “well, great.” There was 13 years where Black people were being elected to office and everything and it looked like we were going to be like everybody else. Then, of course, that was shut down, and then the Ku Klux Klan in the South and then all these things that help people like the FHA loans those loans were not available for Black people. That’s where redlining started so Black people couldn’t get those loans or if they could it could only be a certain area, and then the GI Bill continued those practices of redlining. So it’s bigger than just how people feel about Black people or how we feel about people that are different. There have been rules and laws passed that have directly affected the ability of Black people to build wealth, to pass on culture, and of course, things have improved over the years, I’m not saying that [they haven’t] because I wouldn’t be sitting here if they hadn’t. But I’m looking at the vast majority of people who are still suffering — are still suffering. So we have a lot of work to do and we have a lot of work to do generally with poor people, like I said, and the racial gap.

Levi: Ann, you’ve tried to address some of these things in your own way by building pipelines for women and minorities and are helping people into those pipelines. Can you, would you, talk a little bit about that work that you’ve been doing?

Williams: In my life before, I think I mentioned when we first got together, I was a teacher and taught in the inner-city public schools. I’ve always loved teaching, and I think that’s who I am fundamentally, a teacher. The first thing that I helped create was something called Minority Legal Education Resources, Inc. It was when I was taking the bar. There was a professor at Northwestern by the name of Ron Kennedy, and at that time the pass rate for African Americans in Illinois was low for the bar. So Ron decided he would start this class with five Black graduates of Northwestern, and basically it was a class where you took practice exams. You looked at the old exams and the Illinois bar, and you wrote those exams under the same conditions you would as the bar. Because I’m always something that is looking for opportunity, when I heard about that, I said, “Well, can I join?” So they went back. He said, “No, you went to Notre Dame not Northwestern. No, go.” But I never forgot that, and so a couple of years later, I’m in the US Attorney’s office and a Black guy who was at Northwestern, Al Moran. I said, “Al, is Ron Kennedy still running that class?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Is the pass rate still 100%.” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Well, has he expanded it to include people not at Northwestern?” He said, “No.” I said, “Well, would you introduce me?” So Al got an appointment. We went to see Professor Kennedy, and of course, he doesn’t know me. I’m like the woman in the moon, like, who is she? I said, “Well, I think you need to expand it.” And he looked at me because you know he was an academic. He had a good thing going. He had a 100% pass rate. He had his method down. Why would he want to experiment with me? I said, “Well, how about this. If I get some of my friends and you teach us and we do a non-Northwestern group, and we get the same pass rate. Can we talk?” And that’s what we did. So we formed Minority Legal Education Resources Inc., and we have helped more than 4,500 lawyers in the course of the years pass the bar. We equal the Illinois pass rate, and it’s been open to everyone from the beginning. So that was one pipeline — really important pipeline — and now we’re in California because someone on the California Board of Bar Examiners heard a presentation I did, came to MLER, and now we’re working on a program out there to help people pass the bar. There are reasons why the pass rate is not as great. Some of it has to do with people having to work as soon as they get out of law school and thinking they can handle the job and passing the bar, or family obligations, or to me just the idea of the practice dealing with some of the anxiety.

That was one group and then another group, we started the Black Women Lawyers Association in Chicago. There was some controversy with that because the Cook County Bar, which was the traditional African American Bar Association. I love the Cook County bar. They did a great job. They wondered why do we have to do a Black women’s bar, why couldn’t we stay within that organization? Well, we felt there were certain needs that Black women had in common — interests — and that it would be important to start it. So we started that. It’s one of the best bar associations in the Chicago land area and serves as a way for women to network, to extend their careers, and, more importantly, for me, this kind of organization is an organization that nourishes your soul. So you learn leadership skills, you get to interact with people outside of the Black women lawyers, and it positions you to become a member of the larger legal community, which is really important to me.

I’ve always done things that relate to African Americans, Black people, helping, pipeline, but to me, if I just stay within that area, yes, I can be successful, and I can do wonderful things. But to me, when we have those skills, we need to get involved in the larger community and to use those skills in a more fulsome way. Many of the women who were presidents of Black Women Lawyers Association became presidents of the Chicago Bar Association, our largest bar association, became leaders and other fields, became judges, became magistrates because they gained the confidence in those organizations to step out into a bigger world.

In the meantime, I was stepping out into a bigger world because when I became a district court judge, and I always loved teaching. I’ll never forget Hugh Will, who was a rock star as far as I’m concerned in the Northern District. He was the father of the pre-trial order. He was the one who said people shouldn’t just not try cases and come in and just call witnesses, nobody knows who’s next. Nobody knows what exhibits are being offered. He organized our first pre-trial order. Anyway, he was a founder of the Federal Judges Association. I was on the bench for a couple of years. I had joined. I paid my dues. It’s kind of like our union, you know that David, but anyway, he says to me, “Are you going to the meeting?” We have a meeting every four years. And I’m like, “No, I’m not going Hugh. I’m too busy, Yang Yang Yang.” He said, “No, you need to be active in the Federal Judges Association.” So he persuaded me. I paid. I went. I did not know Hugh was going to nominate me to be treasurer of the organization, but he did because he did not tell me that part of the plan. I ended up being treasurer for four years and then moved into president-elect and ended up being the first Black president of the Federal Judges Association. I tell that story not because I was so exceptional, or so different, or so whatever, but to say that you can be a leader within your own affiliate affinity group. I’m a big believer in affinity groups, but then you need to translate that where you can have greater influence and greater power. Being with the Federal Judges Association was huge.

I was also asked to teach after about five years on the bench at the Federal Judicial Center. Well you know I was a teacher anyway and civil case management was my thing, settlement managing cases. I loved it. And as you know, there were many people when we went on the bench that didn’t think the judge should do any management. It was just like, tell me when you’re ready. I’m going, “Oh, it’ll take two years to do depositions. Fine.” But when we came along, people were really beginning to focus on case management and realizing that you wanted to have the cases resolved in the least amount of time, least cost, [with a] high level of justice. So then I started teaching, and for seven years I taught every new class of baby federal judges. That’s how I got to know so many federal judges across the country.

Levi: That’s great.

Williams: I love that. And I have taught Sonia Sotomayor. That’s how I met her. We became really good friends. We became really friendly and we went out after the sessions and stuff and I told her early on, I said, “You’re going to be the one that makes it to the Supreme Court. You know, for Latinas, you’re going to be the one” because she had the whole package, that’s just aside.

So that was helpful. Then after that, I was asked at some point to join a Judicial Conference Committee, I think I had joined the court administration and case management committee. Frank McGuire who was the chief had recommended me because I love case management, and I served on that committee for four years, appointed by Justice Rehnquist. I’ll never forget Bob Parker from Texas who would not be offended by me calling him a good old boy because he really was a good old boy with one of those 10-gallon hats and everything made me chair of one of the subcommittees, and we were at a cocktail party and he came up to me and said, “You know, my time as chair is coming to an end, and I think you should be the next chair.” So I said to him, “That’s the alcohol talking.” He said, “No, I think you should be the next chair.” There had never been a Black woman chair or a woman of color chair of any Judicial Conference Committee. So of course, I had two kids. I had to think about it, you know. So a lot of work. But I thought about it, and I came back to him when the meeting was over, and I said, “I’m comfortable with you submitting my name.” And I was fortunate enough to be selected by Chief Justice Rehnquist to be the chair of court administration and case management. It was a three-year term. 

Levi: Very important.

Williams: Then I got it extended for another year. I got a chance to testify in front of the House Judiciary Committees, the Senate Judiciary Committees, on things like courtroom sharing, cameras in the courtroom, a lot of the things that still we talked about. Now, of course, COVID is taking care of cameras because now we have cameras in the courtroom.

The other thing that I would say is, you know, you have to learn to say yes in your career. So yes, it was scary for me to say, I mean, I knew I had a caseload. I didn’t want to go to that Federal Judges Association meeting, but there was always something in my gut that says, “You know you need to say yes.” And when he asked me to be the chair, I looked around and I said, “Well who else could be picked for this?” Because sometimes in the moment you’re the one. It doesn’t have anything to do with ego. It’s just when you look around, there’s nobody else who is going to say yes or who’s going to be asked, and so sometimes you have to step out there. So I did that.

Then in ’92, I started Just the Beginning — A Pipeline Organization. That started in honor of Judge James Benton Parsons who was the first judge of color in the United States. He sat in Chicago. Ultimately, we came up with the idea of starting summer camps for high school students and since ’06, [we’ve held] our summer programs for our high school students. I think we’re in seven or eight cities. It’s a week-long program. They get to meet lawyers and judges, the things that I didn’t have because I didn’t know anybody. They get to meet these role models, visit law firms, write their personal essay for college, learn to do an oral argument, have a day in federal court. So that’s been very successful. In fact, I’m scheduled to do a program on Thursday, and one of the women, she graduated [from law school] two years ago, on the call is a woman who took our program in Indianapolis in high school and is now a lawyer. That high school program really works.

Then we have programs for law students. We have an internship program. We placed 92 diverse students in the chambers of 60 federal judges this summer. It’s about the seventh or eighth year we’ve done that program. We have a program for law clerks. We placed about 120 clerks in the chambers of federal judges. I really believe in passing on the blessing. There were so many people, I mentioned Hugh Will, I mentioned Rehnquist appointed me, I mentioned these people — so many hands reached out to me and a lot of them were people who didn’t look like me. I think when you get in a position and been blessed like I have, you have an obligation to give back and to make sure you might be first but you won’t be the last. That’s my view of the whole pipeline and now this year, actually, I got a letter from Jim Duff. I had spoken with him this summer, and I don’t think we covered this before.

Levi: Just so everybody knows he’s the director of the Administrative Office of the Courts.

Williams: I met him years ago when he was counsel to the Federal Judges Association. So as president of the Federal Judges Association and president-elect we were meeting with the Judiciary Committees of the Senate and the House on a regular basis on issues of pay, on issues of judicial security. Anyway, Jim Duff was one of our lawyers. His law firm represented the Federal Judges Association. So, I’ve continued to work on issues of pay and worked a lot with Justice Breyer and others and Margaret McKeown when we finally got that “catch up” on our COLAs. And then we had to work, of course, with the White House and other entities to make that happen. But the Federal Judges Association ended up being quite a blessing. We have representatives from judges all across the country.

When my name came up for the Court of Appeals, unlike the District Court where I was a total unknown except for the Justice Department and all the U.S. Attorneys I had worked within the drug task force because they ended up being my mentors — people like Sarah Barker, Joe Stadtmueller, and Lowell Jensen — who was working for the Attorney General at the time. They stood up for me, but I didn’t know anything about how things worked. You know, I was like, independent, had never been in vocation, any kind of politics. Well by the time my Court of Appeals came I still wasn’t in politics. I was still independent, but I had all these people when my name came up, that said, “What can we do? How can we help? You know, we’d love to see you get this position.” And I had had all these experiences so that then led to the Court of Appeals. Of course, there were issues with the Clinton White House because they were like she was appointed by Reagan. Why would we appoint her to the court of appeals? So, you know, a lot of the work that I’d done starting all these different organizations — the teaching I had done — all of that mattered to the Clinton White House, and I had been on the bench almost 15 years. I had a lot of experience behind me, so all of those things sort of came together.

Levi: It’s very unusual to be appointed by presidents of different parties, and it’s really a testament to your incredible quality. It just seemed inevitable, in a way, probably to those presidents that they would want to appoint you. You had a wonderful career on the Circuit Court and then the time came where you decided to leave the bench and do something new, which you’re now doing. You’re of-counsel with Jones Day and would you talk about what you’re doing because it’s quite, it seems quite extraordinary.

Williams: Well, I started going to Africa. Again, back to the Federal Judges Association. See, you never know when you say yes where it’s going to lead you. So we are members of the International Association of Judges, I think I have that correct. Anyway, as president, I was going to go to a meeting on the Ivory Coast in Africa, and as fate would have it, there was a civil war that year. I was unable to go. But I had my ticket, and I had some friends at the State Department who said, “Well, why don’t you go to Ghana? We’re trying to do work with the Ghanian judiciary.” So I went to Ghana, fell in love with Africa, and then went back to Ghana two more times. Ultimately, through NITA, the National Institute for Trial Advocacy, I started training at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda that was dealing with the genocide in Rwanda and at The Hague dealing with Milosevic. We were training prosecutors. That then led to me teaching with Lawyers Without Borders, and I’ve been working with Lawyers Without Borders for many, many years across the continent. And with NITA, one of my great buddies is a guy named Mike Ginsburg, an extraordinary teacher, and he leads the training at Jones Day, and I invited him to come to Kenya on a Lawyers Without Borders project. He came. He fell in love, and he’s come every year and we did training for civil lawyers and prosecutors, defense attorneys, magistrates, and ultimately Jones Day did an incredible amount of work with Lawyers Without Borders. That’s kind of setting the stage, but there were many other law firms. I work with many judges. I worked with the State Department with Lawyers Without Borders, so I continued to do these trips to Africa, leading the delegations, doing the appellate advocacy, trial advocacy case management, working a lot with the judiciary.

It became a passion of mine, and I think [this is why] it became a passion. I mentioned that as the ancestor of enslaved people I didn’t know who my people were, so Africa held a special place in my heart because I knew my people were somewhere from there. And secondly, it was because of my mother. My mother loved to travel and was very excited when I started going to Africa and wanted to come with me. But by that time her health was failing and it was too dicey. And so it was always a goal of my mother’s to go to Africa. I think in some ways I’m fulfilling her dream. The training and the number of countries that I have done training in — Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Namibia, Liberia, Nigeria, and I know I’m missing a couple — I felt that I could offer a lot. I had been on the bench for almost I think 33 years, and I wanted to make a different kind of contribution, so I decided to leave. It was a tough decision because I loved being on the bench. I loved being on the Court of Appeals, but I felt that if I didn’t go then when would I be able to go?

So I was eligible for senior status. I went senior for a short time, and then I ended up with Jones Day because that was the firm that I had had the most familiarity with. I knew what their commitment was to Africa. So we don’t have offices in Africa. We have clients that that do some business in Africa that would like to do more business in Africa. There are some countries in Africa, like Namibia, that are very advanced in terms of rule of law, computers on the bench, everything really organized, very focused on case management, and then there are countries that because of the volume and various logistical issues, they have many challenges. Jones Day wanted me to do what I could to try to improve the rule of law and enhance it, a long-range plan, with the idea that ultimately there would be more and more business coming to that continent, and it is the youngest continent. I had a track record there, and so I’m in a position where I can use the resources of the firm, use the contacts I have, and the collaborations with NITA, the National Institute for Trial Advocacy, with Lawyers Without Borders, with the State Department, all those things have come together. So it’s very exciting and fulfilling work. Plus, I was able to bring my permanent clerk Erin McGinley who was with me on the court for more than 12 years. If I’ve been to Africa 30-35 times, she’s been 20. She graduated number one in her class at Loyola, is a brilliant person, and was on the faculty and adjunct at Loyola, so they said yes to me and to Erin. The work I have really, really enjoyed it. I’m doing work that’s impactful — or we hope it’s impactful — and more institutional and systemic, and now I’m able to devote my full time to it. So I miss my colleagues, I miss the work, but I’m very excited to be where I am.

Levi: That’s exciting. When I end these discussions that I’ve had with judges, I like to ask whether you have one judicial role model or one judicial hero and in your case, I think, I know who that is because you wrote such a beautiful article about Judge Constance Baker Motley who was a huge figure in the Civil Rights movement and then was a wonderful judge on the Southern District for many years, and I’m thinking that’s your judicial hero. Am I right?

Williams: I would say, you’re right. I mean, she was a rock star. She was amazing. You knew her David, plus that deep voice she had and the way she spoke. She was so amazing. She was so smart. She, she was such a student of human behavior and so fair and so thoughtful in her manner, and yet so kind and mentored so many people. So you probably know the story of her and Justice Sotomayor. So Sotomayor had been asked to consider the Supreme Court, no, it was the…

Levi: Maybe it was the Court of Appeals?

Williams: I think it was the Court of Appeals. So Connie had a discussion with her and basically said you have been asked and you have to say yes. Why are you hesitating? You know what I mean, but she mentored so many people, men and women, every color. You know, she was just tremendous in her bearing, her demeanor, and as I said in that article, how she shoved off every “-ism.” So that story about her going to the private club in New York for the judges meetings once a month and women were not permitted. So at some point, Connie asked one of our colleagues, “How is it that I can come to these meetings?” And he said, “Oh, well, we tell them you’re the secretary and you have to take notes.” Now, it is true, as you know, when you’re the baby judge you take notes.

Levi: Junior take notes. Yeah.

Williams: But she was also a judge, and Connie would tell that story. And she’d bring flowers for the table. I mean, she never let any of that get in the way of what she needed to do. She never let it move her off her prize or her course. Whenever I have moments when I am down or I think there was this slight or I could read in someone’s eyes that I was being judged because of my color or my gender, I think about Connie, and I say, “I can carry on because she carried on.” Now, you asked me about one, but I also need to talk about Ruth Bader Ginsburg because she was also an inspiration to me. We spent a lot of time together, and I admire her greatly because she was an iron butterfly, never to be deterred from her course and a steel-trap mind with an incredible memory — always focused, always her eyes on the prize, and in these later years when she became RBG was just fascinated by the fact and befuddled a little that she would be a rock star in her 80s, that people would find her story so fascinating. She and Connie had so much in common in the sense of their humanity and what they had been through, and so they had empathy. They understood the human condition, and when you stood before them in court, you knew that you were being fairly treated and they had that upper-most in their minds.

Levi: Well, those are pretty good. You know, you picked a couple of rock stars, and I think we’ve got a trio here. You’re a rock star, and what an honor to have had this time with you and to talk with you. I can’t thank you enough for your service to the courts and to our country and now to other countries in pursuit of the rule of law. You do so much to build and sustain that and to bring others along. I’m David Levi, thank you so much for joining us today on Judgment Calls, and thank you judge Williams.

Williams: And thank you so much, David, for having me. It was an honor and a privilege. To be with you and spend some time with you was a real treat and a joy.