When President Barack Obama awarded Judge Patricia Wald the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013, he summed up her career this way: “Patricia McGowan Wald made history as the first woman appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Rising to Chief Judge of the Court, she always strove to better understand the law and fairly apply it. After leaving federal service, Judge Wald helped institute standards for justice and the rule of law at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. Hailed as a model judge, she laid a foundation for countless women within the legal profession and helped unveil the humanity within the law.”
This gives a brief sense of what made my friend Judge Wald, who passed away last month at age 90, a trailblazing champion for justice for children and all of us.
Early on, Judge Wald was an example of the importance of giving every child an equal chance to succeed — girls as well as boys, wealthy and working class. She was raised by a single mother in a crowded home with their close-knit extended family in Torrington, Connecticut, a factory town where Judge Wald spent teenage summers on World War II-era assembly lines “up to [her] arms in ball-bearing grease.” Most of her relatives’ lives revolved around work at the factory, but they encouraged her as she excelled in school and supported her dream of going to college. She graduated first in her class from Connecticut College (then Connecticut College for Women) in 1948 and went on to Yale Law School where she was an editor of the Yale Law Journal and one of only 11 women in her class.
She described that experience years later: “We more or less accepted the fact that we would be a minority, that we would not escape notice in class, and that we would always be asked to give the plaintiff’s testimony in rape moot courts … the men lived in the big stone dormitories, but the women were required to live off campus in this dinky old house that was falling down near the railroad tracks. Every night for three years the Boston-Maine went roaring by my window at a quarter past twelve.”
Though I followed her at Yale Law School more than a decade later, my fellow women students and I experienced some of the same isolation including exclusion from the all-male Yale Law school dormitories and our constitutional law professor’s course which he insisted on holding at Mory’s — a private club across the street from Yale Law School that excluded women. But Judge Wald said the silver lining was the bond it forged: “By sticking together we managed to weather the storm.”
Being one of the first or only women in a role never slowed her down. As President Obama said, she was the first woman to serve on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit — Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the second — and then the first woman to preside over that powerful court. Her long and influential tenure there followed years of useful service fighting for labor rights, the poor, women, and children. She began her career as a clerk for federal judge Jerome Frank and then worked at a Washington law firm. After a 10-year break when her five children were young she took a position at the D.C. Neighborhood Legal Services Project (now Program), an early public interest firm. She later worked at the Mental Health Law Project and the Center for Law and Social Policy and among her accomplishments fought for education for children with disabilities and mental health needs and for juvenile justice reforms. I served with Judge Wald on the Carnegie Council for Children in the 1970s chaired by MIT professor Ken Keniston and saw firsthand what a passionate and superb child advocate she was.
President Jimmy Carter named her assistant attorney general in 1977 before nominating her to the federal bench in 1979. She was a candidate for attorney general during the Clinton administration before withdrawing her name from consideration and I believe she should have been a Supreme Court Justice. But on the influential Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia, where her colleagues included Justice Ginsberg, Robert H. Bork, the late Justice Antonin Scalia, and Kenneth Starr, she wrote more than 800 decisions including those affirming equal rights to employment and education for women, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities. She once said, “I see the law as a way to translate our most fundamental aspirations and goals for an open and orderly society that treats all people in the community with respect,” and she followed this simple principle throughout her professional life.
In a 1994 lecture at the University of Maine School of Law, “Whose Public Interest Is It Anyway? Advice for Altruistic Young Lawyers,” Judge Wald said: “I can certainly attest from my own 40 years in the law that there are great satisfactions in devoting one’s skills to a cause larger than money or even professional reputation. But I can also tell you that doing good can be hard work, and that a lifetime of public service requires just as much, probably more, prudence, discretion, judgment, tolerance for frustration, and long-range perspective as for-profit lawyering.”
Judge Wald was a model for each of those key qualities and never flagged in doing that hard work. She also gave listeners her definition of success: “a sense at the end of your career that you have contributed, commensurate with your talent and skills, to the slow but measured advance of your community and nation toward a more just society.”
I am so grateful for Judge Wald’s rich, deep and successful legacy in ensuring just treatment for every child.
Edelman is founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund.