Patricia Wald, the first woman appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and long a champion for human rights, died Saturday in Washington at the age of 90. Wald’s son told The Washington Post the cause was pancreatic cancer.
Wald became the first woman associate at the law firm that is now Arnold & Porter, and she would later serve in the Carter administration as assistant attorney general for legislative affairs at the U.S. Department of Justice. President Jimmy Carter nominated Wald in 1979 for a seat on the D.C. Circuit, where she would serve for 20 years, including as chief judge. One of her colleagues on the appeals bench was now-U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“It was my good fortune to serve, for some 13 years on the D.C. Circuit, with the Honorable Patricia M. Wald. In all of her work and days as a lawyer, then judge, she pursued justice with passion—heart, mind and soul. In her lifetime of achievement, she unsparingly devoted her efforts to advancing the health and welfare of humankind,” Ginsburg said in a statement Saturday.
“I began to understand Pat’s devotion to her judicial role my first year as her colleague. While the rest of us spent vacation time teaching or lecturing at some beautiful place in the U.S. or abroad, Pat enrolled in a two-week course in utilities regulation in Michigan, on a college campus, as I recall, where living conditions were spartan. It was a program for new state administrators or regulators, offered by their national trade association. Her aim was to better understand the arguments made in rate-making cases that, in the 1980s, trooped all too regularly before the D.C. Circuit.”
Caitlin Halligan, a former Wald law clerk, said she “demanded an all-in effort and always gave the same.” The Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher litigation partner said the “opportunity to match wits with her for a year, as well as her belief that I had something to say, was transformative for me.” Halligan described Wald as “remarkably warm, funny, unpretentious and generous spirited. She kept up with the professional and personal lives of her clerks and treated us all like an extended family. And she was, of course, the quintessential role model.”
After Wald’s retirement from the bench in 1999, she served as a judge on the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia until 2002 and later numerous boards of organizations involved in social justice and disability rights.
Here’s some of what lawyers are saying in statements and on social media about the career and legacy of Patricia Wald:
>> Cindy Estlund, professor, New York University School of Law and a former Wald clerk: “She was an ideal mentor at a time when few women reached the top of the legal profession or the legal academy. She owned all sides of her already-remarkable life, debating the fine points of constitutional law and then regaling us with hilarious stories about her life as an at-home mother of five. And her life took more amazing turns after she left the DC Circuit. We will never see the likes of her again.”
>> Nancy Morawetz, professor, New York University School of Law, former Wald clerk: “One memory that stands out is how the table in Judge Wald’s chambers would be piled high with congressional reports and hearings full of paper-clipped pages (this was in the days before Post-its). She wanted to understand for each case what problem Congress was seeking to solve and how it approached the issues, and she did that for herself by reading the original documents and making liberal use of paper clips. She combined a powerful intellect with a practical interest and sensibility for the issues in every case she considered.”
>> Caitlin Halligan, partner, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher and a former Wald clerk: “Judge Wald had tremendous respect for the judicial process. She was firmly committed to explaining how and why she got to a certain result, in a plain-spoken and direct manner. That was true across the board—everything from high-profile, headline-grabbing matters to pro se appeals that otherwise could have been disposed of in a sentence or two. It mattered to her that litigants came away believing that they had a real day in court, and she seemed to draft opinions with an eye toward that goal.”
>> Kannon Shanmugam, partner, Williams & Connolly: “Judge Wald was a giant figure in the Washington legal community. She had a remarkable life and career, well chronicled in this obituary. RIP, Chief.”
>> Nan Aron, president, Alliance for Justice: “Judge Pat Wald was a dear friend and a trailblazer throughout her remarkable career, but she was also more than that: a mentor to so many young lawyers who looked up to her, an advocate for the rights of children at a time when the concept was new, a lifelong champion for human rights and a person who believed in her heart that the law should be an instrument for bettering the lives of everyday people.”
>> Deepak Gupta, co-founder of Washington’s Gupta Wessler: “A legend in the law, she built her pre-judicial career as a public interest lawyer on behalf of indigent women, children with special needs and criminal justice.”
>> Elisa Massimino, human rights lawyer: “How many people do you know who are both utterly brilliant and the salt of the earth? Pat Wald was unpretentious, wicked funny, and a kind & generous mentor, especially to women in public interest law. She inspired us & showed us the way. I will miss her.”
>> David Cole, national legal director, American Civil Liberties Union: “Pat Wald was a remarkable judge, a pathbreaker and entirely committed to extending justice to those most in need.”
>> Leslie Proll, judicial nominations adviser, NAACP: “My hero forever. Judges don’t come better than Patricia Wald.”
>> Peter Shane, professor, Ohio State University Moritz College of Law: ”Pat Wald was an extraordinary judge, a fine assistant attorney general, an exceptional public interest lawyer and, all in all, a wonderful human being who lived a very full and impactful life.”
>> Stephen Vladeck, professor, University of Texas School of Law: “I was doubly lucky—to have Judge Wald as a teacher when I was in law school and to get to work with her on a series of projects thereafter. She was brilliant, passionate, graceful and warm—an inspiration not just for how to be a lawyer, but how to be a human.”
>> Sasha Samberg-Champion, counsel, Relman, Dane & Colfax, Washington: “Judge Wald is one of the very few federal appellate judges who was a legal aid lawyer (and a very successful one). She took the bench with a deep understanding of how the legal system can perpetuate injustice. May we see more judges with similar backgrounds soon.”
>> Sam Bagenstos, professor, University of Michigan Law School: “Patricia Wald was one of the truly great federal court of appeals judges (and an important disability rights lawyer avant la lettre). RIP.”
>> Praveen Fernandes, vice president for public engagement, Constitutional Accountability Center: “Her life was marked by an unwavering belief in the Constitution’s text, history and values, and an unshakable faith in the rule of law. This concern for the rule of law and justice extended beyond our borders, illustrated by her service as a judge on the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. She will be deeply missed.”