Connecticut College Magazine · Winter 2014

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A Gavel Through a Glass Ceiling

A Gavel Through a Glass Ceiling
Receiving the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Nov. 20, 2013, at the White House. AP Photo/ Evan Vucci

Breaking a judicial gender barrier was only one accomplishment in the legal career of Patricia M. Wald '48, recently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

By Liam Farrell


On a cool November day last year in Washington, D.C., political, cultural and academic luminaries gathered in the ornate East Room of the White House, waiting to receive awards from President Barack Obama. The 2013 Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony bestowed the nation's highest civilian honor on recipients such as former President Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Ernie Banks, Ben Bradlee and Loretta Lynn.

Seated among them was a diminutive, gray-haired woman who was not as instantly recognizable as others but whose lifetime of accomplishments merited the same honor.

The ceremony was another significant signpost in the journey of Patricia McGowan Wald '48. The daughter of first-generation American parents grew up during the Great Depression in the industrial Northeast and accrued a slew of rarified achievements: a 1951 graduate of Yale University Law School, admitted with only 10 other women out of 180 students; the first woman appointed to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, established in 1893 and generally seen as the second-most-important court in the country; and service to numerous legal and government organizations, both in the United States and abroad.

From working as a storefront legal-service lawyer to fashioning an appeals court dissent on the primacy of free speech, Wald has had a deceptively simple goal: to make the world a more just and fair place for everyone.

“She always strove to better understand the law and fairly apply it,” a military aide read from an official proclamation at the Medal of Freedom ceremony before Obama, standing a full head and shoulders above Wald, tied the deep blue band of the star-shaped medal around her neck. “Hailed as a model judge, she laid a foundation for countless women within the legal profession and helped unveil the humanity within the law.”

A few weeks before the ceremony, Wald reflected on her life during a conversation at her apartment in a bustling part of northwest Washington, D.C., about a mile from the White House.

Of how she made it to where she is in life, Wald said, “I very often met women of my age who came from better circumstances and they would say, 'I would have liked to go to law school or something, but my father said 'no.' I was lucky. I had this working-class family, but they didn't have the class, cultural, 'You should get married (attitude).' They had a go-for-it, we've-got-your-back attitude.”

Daughter of a factory town

Torrington, Conn., about 30 miles from Hartford, organized its first government and church in the 1740s. By the early 19th century, the town's proximity to the Naugatuck River helped give rise to the brass mills and other factories that would define the region. The industrialization attracted immigrants from every corner of Europe and doubled Torrington's population.

Patricia McGowan, whose grandparents emigrated from Ireland, was born in Torrington on Sept. 16, 1928, on the doorstep of the Great Depression. By the time she was 2, she was being raised just by her mother, Margaret O'Keefe, because her father, Joseph McGowan, like many men during that time, had disappeared and was never heard from again.

Wald grew up in an extended family household after O'Keefe moved back in with her relatives. The men worked in the factories, the women worked in the factory offices, and Wald's grandmother kept house.

When it came time to go to high school, Wald assumed she would sign up for what was known then as the “normal” track, which trained girls to become teachers or nurses. It seemed the best that could be hoped for. Her mother had other ideas.

She wanted Wald to enter the “classical” track, which was meant to give college-bound students a foundation in Latin, history and the breadth of a liberal arts education. Even though Wald's mother hadn't finished high school, and no one in the family had gone to college, O'Keefe had decided her daughter wasn't going to stay in Torrington.

It was the first determinate step in her academic career. She graduated from high school as valedictorian in 1944 and secured a scholarship to attend what was then called the Connecticut College for Women.

The world opened further at Connecticut College. World War II New London was buzzing with soldiers and sailors and, as the war ended, the rejuvenated spirit of a world at peace. In New London, Wald saw her first opera, “Madame Butterfly.” Although she majored in math, she was also won over by classes in government, constitutional law and literature, and was introduced to the wider world of national politics. Government Professor Marjorie Dilley and several others encouraged her to consider law. Graduating Phi Beta Kappa and first in her class in 1948, she then won a Pepsi-Cola fellowship to attend Yale University Law School.

Although her path was starting to diverge significantly from Torrington, her working-class background continued to shape her concept of the legal profession as a way to make the world better.

Labor conditions were something she was learning about. In summers she had worked for a hometown business, the Torrington Company, which made needles and bearings. One year she did a night shift greasing ball bearings; another year, it was hours in the needle shop. When the union went on strike, she did too, putting in time at union headquarters.

“It was the whole town (on strike),” she says.

Yale Law School graduated its first woman in 1920. But when Wald arrived, 28 years later, women still made up barely 6 percent of the class.

Wald is quick to note that Yale was not oppressive. Negative remarks were not as frequent as simply being called on in class more than the men because of being more noticeable. Still, coming home every night was a reminder of an explicitly different, if not overtly subordinate, status. While the men lived in the university dorms, women law and graduate students lived across town in a rickety house owned by the school and replete with chaperones.

Railroad tracks lay underneath her room, and near midnight a daily train would rumble past, taking its passengers to somewhere far away and somewhere new.

An 'instrument of the Devil'

In the midst of a four-hour Senate confirmation hearing on a warm day in the summer of 1979, Dr. Bob Jones III, president of Bob Jones University in South Carolina, sat in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, a Bible by his side, and made his opinion clear on the nomination of Patricia Wald for a newly created seat on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

“I am here as a preacher to speak of sin and of righteousness and of judgment, Mrs. Wald's sin,” Jones said. “Any individual who places herself in opposition to God's plan and program is not only in mind insidious but is an instrument of the Devil.”

Wald, then an assistant attorney general for legislative affairs, was part of a judicial nominating blitz by President Jimmy Carter, who was determined to bring more diverse backgrounds and perspectives to the bench. During his term, he appointed nearly 100 minority and women judges — more than all his predecessors combined.

In addition to her government service, Wald was an experienced legal-service and public-interest litigator with a track record of pushing courts and legal-aid groups to waive divorce fees for poor women; of fighting retaliatory evictions; of winning federal funds for special-education programs; and of improving conditions in state juvenile facilities.

“I was intent to go out and reform,” she says.

In the hearing process, Jones and others sought to portray Wald as a threat to the American family. Their ammunition was a speech she had made in October 1974 at the University of Minnesota's Center for Youth Development and Research and its Law School. In it she questioned the lack of legal rights afforded children under 18, no matter their mental capacity, from control over spending money and making contracts to choosing their own schools and medical care.

At the hearing, Wald explained that the speech was for an academic audience and aimed to raise difficult questions for the purpose of debate. “I took the liberty of being provocative,” she said, “and now I am paying the price.”
She further defended herself by pointing to her own record. “A large portion of the two years I spent in legal services were devoted to trying to keep poor families together,” she said.

Wald was not without allies. A Boston Globe editorial at the time noted, “this fearsome threat to the American family took 10 years out of her law career at one point so that she could concentrate on raising five children.”

Typing in the dining room

Wald met her future husband, Robert L. Wald, in law school. He worked as a lawyer for the Federal Trade Commission and started his own law firm in the early 1960s.

Meanwhile, Patricia was clerking for Judge Jerome Frank (who considered an appeal from Julius and Ethel Rosenberg at that time) and working briefly at the law firm Arnold, Fortas & Porter (whose founders all had ties to the Franklin Roosevelt administration). Beginning in 1953 she had five children in seven years and for a while put her career on hold.

As her children started school, the D.C. legal circles in which Wald and her husband traveled provided opportunities to restart her law career. She helped write a book on the bail system during a reform movement spearheaded by Robert F. Kennedy. She was appointed by Lyndon Johnson to the President's Commission on Crime in D.C.

But when Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968, the lifelong Democrat says, “All my friends in government disappeared.” She turned to the grassroots of legal service and public-interest law, fighting for those unable to fight for themselves.

The Walds' home was a place of organized chaos in the suburbs outside of D.C., children Johanna and Frederica Wald remember. Johanna recalls her mother would tell the kids, “Happiness is coming home and knowing I have a really good brief to write,” with the dining room table the scene of frantic typing.

At the appeals court confirmation hearing years later, after Bob Jones described Patricia in inflammatory terms, a reporter asked one of Wald's sons, “How did you feel when they called your mother an instrument of the devil?”

“She does burn the lamb chops,” he responded, “but otherwise she is pretty much OK.”

Champion of rights

The D.C. Court of Appeals is generally seen as the most important court in the country after the U.S. Supreme Court. Besides frequently serving as the training ground for Supreme Court justices, the court considers many of the legal challenges to the regulatory and policy decisions that come out of the federal government and its agencies. Wald estimates she wrote more than 800 opinions during her time on the court. Her 1979 appointment predated the appointment of the first woman Supreme Court justice, Sandra Day O'Connor, by two years.

The appeals court's reviews generally involve legal technicalities and aren't particularly dramatic, but there are exceptions.

Nan Aron, a leading figure in public-interest law who founded the Alliance for Justice in 1979, says Wald consistently showed thoughtfulness, caring and intelligence in her work. More importantly, she says, Wald demonstrated how judges at the upper echelon of the legal world can maintain the fight for everyone's equality and not just the powerful.

One memorable case illustrated her interest in making sure everyone's voice could be heard. It involved her 1986 dissent from the court's decision to uphold laws regulating protests in front of foreign embassies. A clause in the statute essentially forbade signs bearing any critical messages. The majority opinion, written by the conservative jurist Robert Bork, later a famously rejected Supreme Court nominee, found it to be a “very minor geographic limitation on speech” in light of how “the framers understood that the protection of foreign embassies from insult was one of the central obligations of the law of nations.”

Wald, in what she now terms a “big dissent,” disagreed strongly. She wrote that to let speech be restricted on the basis of unproven fears “presents risks to our basic freedoms that are more deadly than any terrorists' blows.” Ultimately, the Supreme Court agreed with her that the regulation of sign content was unconstitutional.

Geoffrey M. Klineberg, now a partner at the D.C. law firm of Kellogg, Huber, Hansen, Todd, Evans & Figel, PLLC, clerked for Wald in 1991 after graduating from Yale Law School. Wald, who had just completed a five-year term as the court's chief judge, was already a “larger than life figure,” he says.

Klineberg recalls how thoroughly she prepared for hearings and how she would ask the difficult, essential questions of the lawyers who argued before her without ever embarrassing them. Years later, when Klineberg made his first argument in court, it was before the same D.C. circuit. Wald was the presiding judge on the panel.

“She was very polite but also very tough on me, just like she was in chambers,” says Klineberg, who helped organize a dinner of former clerks to honor her about a week before the Medal of Freedom ceremony.

While clerking for Wald, Klineberg worked on a case involving provisions of federal pension law. Although the same issue had been decided by a court in New York and at the district court level by judges Wald knew and respected immensely, she urged Klineberg to review their reasoning critically and form his own opinion.

“Be really sure of what you think about this,” she said. “You don't want to rely too much on the fact that these very respected judges read it one way.”

Klineberg concluded that the judges had gotten it wrong, and Wald agreed. She wrote the majority opinion, which was later upheld by the Supreme Court.

Wald's activity did not wane after she retired from the appeals court in 1999. She served a term at The Hague as part of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which was adjudicating crimes committed during the Balkan wars. She presided over several trials of persons accused of genocide and crimes against humanity, including the massacre of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims at Srebenica by the Serbian army under the command of General Ratko Mladi´c. In one case she tried five joint defendants who served in prison camps, including an officer one rank below Mladi´c. All five were convicted.

Wald later served on a committee assembled by President George W. Bush that issued a report critical of the intelligence community for its role in spurring the invasion of Iraq.

According to journalist Bob Woodward's book “State of Denial,” about the Bush administration's management of the Iraq occupation, Wald was added to the committee at the request of Laurence Silberman, a colleague from the appeals court who had been appointed by Ronald Reagan. He co-chaired the committee and had much respect for Wald despite their different ideologies.

Wald currently serves on a national Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board for which she was nominated by President Obama and confirmed by the Senate. The group reviews counterterrorism programs for potential infringements of privacy and civil liberties.
Looking back over her career, Wald says that one reward of a life in the legal system and courts was it allowed her a chance to follow her own judgment.

“I always wanted whatever I was working on to make a difference, to make something different in the right direction,” she says.

Until her husband died three years ago — the sadness that comes over her eyes and face shows a loss that remains difficult — she says she had “everything I could hope for.”

When Wald's selection for the Presidential Medal of Freedom was announced last year, her children received an email from her noting that they would all be invited to the White House ceremony. In conversations, though, their mother humbly reminded them that, well, plenty of other people were getting the medal, too.

“It's genuine,” Johanna Wald says of her mother's humility. “There still is a great part of her that's very much from Torrington, Connecticut.”

Long after the sun has set on her Washington neighborhood, she points out to her visitor one of the souvenirs from her career decorating the apartment: a signed Herblock cartoon with a note from the legendary political cartoonist. Few totems in D.C. could match the cultural power of that, but Wald is prouder of a long line of photos, stretching beneath filled bookshelves: her children and grandchildren.

“That's the greatest legacy,” she says.


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