At the time of her death on January 12, so many people praised Pat Wald as a giant of the legal profession. That is certainly true, but I am pleased to say that she was also my friend. I am in no way objective about her, but even before I knew her personally, I appreciated her as a role model for young lawyers, and especially for young women trying to figure out how to balance family and career. Pat would have been the first to say that there is no clear answer to that question. She faced with resolve the many obstacles in place at the time she applied to law school (Harvard did not even accept women when she applied; Yale became the lucky beneficiary). When she began her job search, one respected law firm told her it was unfortunate that she applied when she did because just a week ago they had hired their woman lawyer.
Despite these obstacles, she pressed forward. When she chose to take several years off to raise her five children, she continued to work when she could, writing influential books, including one that helped spur national bail reform.
Her heart was always in the public interest field, and she held a number of positions in that area, from legal services at the beginning of her career to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB) at the end. In between, she was a government lawyer, including as Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs in President Carter’s Justice Department, and went on to serve 20 years on the Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, where she became the chief judge.
She was proud of her many judicial decisions, but especially of those that opened the courts to those who might not otherwise have access to them and needed them to vindicate their rights.
One little-known fact is that she used her prodigious negotiating skills to help save the DC Circuit’s important Task Force on Gender, Race, and Ethnic Bias from attacks from within the court. I had the honor of working with her when I served as the Task Force’s executive director in the 1990s.
After she retired from the DC Circuit, she went on to serve in The Hague on the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, hearing cases involving some of the most gruesome war crimes imaginable and writing some of the most creative decisions to resolve them.
Her return to public service as a member of PCLOB exemplified her commitment to using the law as a tool for improving society and protecting the vulnerable. Long after many people would have taken a well-deserved retirement, she worked to ensure that the government’s surveillance practices respected privacy rights and civil liberties.
She had strongly-held opinions, but they never prevented her from working with colleagues who held contrary views, such as when she co-authored an op-ed with her former circuit colleague Kenneth Starr supporting DC statehood. That collaborative mindset also brought her to The Constitution Project, where she played an invaluable role on several of our expert committees. On issues ranging from the treatment of detained terrorism suspects, to balancing civil liberties with national security policies, to war powers, she worked with conservatives and liberals alike to come up with solutions to some of our country’s most vexing legal problems. Her views often carried the day because they were so sensible, but she was always willing to listen to other perspectives.
She gave so much back to the legal profession, actively participating in organizations dedicated to making the law better and more accessible, and to ensuring the independence of the judiciary from politics, which is more important today than ever.
It’s hard to say what about Pat Wald—from role model to brilliant judge—had the greatest impact on me. She was indeed a giant of the legal profession, but I knew her as a humble and supportive friend, from whom I learned so much about the law and about life. I loved our conversations about politics and justice, and books and movies. She was so proud of her late husband Bob, and her children and grandchildren, and excited that she lived long enough to see the birth of her great-grandson.
When she was nominated to the DC Circuit, one of her opponents called her “an instrument of the devil” because of her advocacy work on behalf of children’s rights. To the contrary, she was an instrument for everything that was just and principled and decent about the law and about life. What a well-lived life she led.
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