Judge Patricia M. Wald is a native of Torrington, Connecticut and a 1948 Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the Connecticut College for Women. Working in the factories of northwestern Connecticut gave her not only money to pay for her education, but introduced her to the fundamentals of the labor movement and the social needs of blue-collar workers. The factory experience helped shape her decision to attend law school as a means to help that segment of American society. She attended Yale Law School as one of a mere handful of female students, served as Case Editor on the Yale Law Journal and graduated with honors in 1951.
Leaving New Haven, she went to work as a clerk for Judge Jerome Frank of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The venerable judge called her the best clerk he ever had. Following her clerkship, she went to work for the Washington, DC firm of Arnold & Porter, leaving the firm after about a year to join her Navy JAG husband, Robert, who had been assigned to duty in Norfolk. For almost a decade, Judge Wald stayed at home, devoting her energies to launching the lives of the couple’s five children and doing occasional legal research and writing.
When she returned to the practice of law in the early sixties, Judge Wald enthusiastically focused her attentions and abilities on multiple roles. In over a dozen public and private leadership positions, she worked in such diverse fields as criminal justice, juvenile law, mental disability law, drug abuse, poverty and public interest law, administrative law, constitutional law, judicial process, and women and the law.
In 1977, she was appointed as Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs for the U.S. Department of Justice. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter nominated her to fill a newly created seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit – the first woman ever to sit on that bench, and served as chief Judge from 1986 until 1991. Subsequently, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was appointed to the same court, recalled of her friend and colleague, “I began to understand Pat’s devotion to her judicial position my first year as her colleague. While the rest of us spent vacation time at some beautiful place in the U.S. or abroad, she enrolled in a two-week course in utilities regulation in Michigan, on a college campus, as I recall, where living conditions were not luxurious … to better understand the arguments made in rate-making cases that trooped all too regularly before the D.C. Circuit.”
Such was the distinctive character of Judge Wald’s twenty year tenure on the DC Court of Appeals: to learn, to reason, to apply and then to pass on that knowledge and experience to others that has inspired and equipped a legion of her clerks in their professional careers. She is a talented and prolific writer, nationally sought speaker, beloved mentor and public example of the epitome of the profession. Despite the heavy time commitment as a judge of one of the nation’s busiest courts, Judge Wald was instrumental in the founding of the Prettyman - Leventhal American Inn of Court in Washington, DC and participated in every Inn meeting for its first five years.
In 1999, after twenty years on the federal bench, Judge Wald stepped down. Her colleague and successor as Chief, Abner J. Mikva spoke of her as “the model of the good judge”. But retirement from the federal bench was not to lead to the front porch rocking chair – not for Judge Wald. “There is a time – this was my incentive to leave – when you realize you only have a limited number of years in which to pursue any new or different endeavor, and a little bit of the adventure or pilgrim spirit rises to the surface. You want to try one more thing that’s exciting and worthwhile before you quit.” she recently said in an interview.
Upon her retirement, Judge Wald accepted an appointment to serve on the 14 member panel of judges of the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague, where she spent the next two years hearing cases on wartime atrocities in the former Yugoslavia. It was arduous work for Judge Wald. The trials in the Tribunal lasted, on average, fifteen months, many much longer. There was the obstacle of language and no uniform set of rules for the judges to apply. It was a grueling process for all involved. Judge Wald became a leader of the Tribunal and established a standard for fairness and the rule of law. As a result of her dedication to those principles, the lessons learned will vastly improve future international courts.
Judge Wald now serves as Chair of the Open Society Institute’s Criminal Justice Initiative.
Throughout her exceptional career as an advocate and jurist, Judge Wald has displayed a rare blend of practical intelligence, idealism and humanity. She has served as a role model for a generation of public interest lawyers. She has played key roles in countless professional associations, national commissions, and legal reform efforts in the United States and overseas. In addition to a score of honorary degrees, she has been recognized with gratitude by countless organizations for her dedication, leadership, and inspiration as a champion of justice around the globe.