By Christine Kraly
Twenty years ago this September, about 750 lawyers, judges and guests gathered in Chicago. Dressed in black tie and formal wear, they came to wish Judge James Parsons, the first black U.S. District Court judge, well in his retirement from the bench.
To their horror, organizers realized the singer to open the event failed to show.
As Patricia Brown Holmes tells it, Judge Ann Claire Williams leaned over to someone and asked, "'Now, (that song's) the one that starts off, 'Oh, say can you see,' right?'
"She steps to the (microphone) and she a cappella sings the 'The Star-Spangled Banner' in the most beautiful voice," said Holmes, a partner at Schiff Hardin. "Everyone was awestruck. No one knew she could sing."
This moment illustrates the way friends and colleagues consistently describe Williams: A resourceful problem solver and someone blessed with myriad talents, including a voice and the humility not to flaunt it. Because of her personality, if you ran into her at the grocery story, you may not realize she ended up on a short list to become a U.S. Supreme Court justice.
"She's down to earth," Holmes said. "She's everyday people."
Never forgetting 'every day'
Williams, who turns 63 on Aug. 16, grew up in Detroit, the daughter of a teacher mother and bus driver father. She grew to appreciate the beauty and pride of "good, honest, decent work."
Judge Ann Claire Williams (right) prepared to hug keynote speaker, Maria Hinojosa, correspondent for PBS' "Frontline" and host of NPR's "Latino USA," after she introduced her at the 13th annual Midwest Light of Human Rights Awards in June. The awards ceremony benefited Heartland Alliance National Immigrant Justice Center.
Photo by Natalie Battaglia.
She graduated from Wayne State University in 1970 with a degree in elementary education. She earned a master's degree in guidance and counseling from the University of Michigan in 1972, while teaching music to Detroit third-graders.
After earning her law degree from Notre Dame Law School in 1975, Williams clerked for Judge Robert A. Sprecher of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and later became an assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago. She rose to become chief of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force in 1983.
In 1985, Republican President Ronald Reagan named Williams to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. The move made her the first black woman in this district.
Her judicial success would cross the political aisle 14 years later. In 1999, Democratic President Bill Clinton handed her another first: He appointed her to the 7th Circuit, making her the first black judge to serve on the 7th Circuit and only the third black woman to serve on any appeals court.
Williams credits her success and drive to her parents. Both earned college degrees, yet neither could land work in their respective fields.
For 12 years, her mother taught in a school for delinquent children because black people could not get licensed in Detroit's public schools at the time.
In a video series "Pathways to the Bench" produced by the U.S. courts, Williams reflected on the stark differences in professional paths available to her and her parents.
"I think it was pretty extraordinary for me to have this kind of opportunity to go from knowing no lawyers and then to end up being a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals," she said.
She told the story of how, as a confused and frustrated young person, she asked her father — a psychology major — how he could stand his lot in life. Wasn't he angry?
"He said, 'No one could take my education away from me,'" she said.
Her father eventually went back to school to become a teacher. They took classes together when she pursued a bachelor's degree at Wayne State.
She learned by example, Williams said, to be driven, to aim high and never give up.
"She's that black woman lawyer we all look to," said Holmes, who first met Williams when she, too, served as an assistant U.S. attorney. "(We think) if she can do it, I can do it, because she is me."
Groups to ensure a future
It's been 20 years since Williams played understudy and wowed the crowd with her voice at what would be the birthplace of the Just The Beginning Foundation.
Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and Judge Ann Claire Williams attended a 2010 Chicago Bar Association luncheon where O'Connor was scheduled to speak.
Photo by Paul McGrath.
After the success of Parsons' celebratory weekend, Williams floated the idea of establishing a foundation to spread information, financial funding and support to inspire minority students to give the legal profession a try.
Williams said she remains proud and content for breaking barriers, for being the first of many things.
But, she said, "I don't want to be the last. You need to pass on what you've learned."
"She's constantly trying to train somebody to be the next," said Holmes, president of the Just The Beginning Foundation Board of Directors. "She's got a Rolodex as deep as you-know-what. That's how she is — she's always trying to help somebody get there, trying to use her connections."
There is little coincidence that Williams spends much of her time in and out of the robe instructing others. The former music teacher never really left the classroom. Her room now just houses different kinds of lessons, with different kinds of students.
"I am a teacher," she said with pride as she discusses her judgeship. "Teachers have to persuade, lawyers have to persuade. Teachers have to counsel, lawyers have to counsel."
The Just The Beginning Foundation organizers designed and expanded the program since its infancy to illustrate "how critical it is to reach young people," said Williams, who serves as chairwoman of the foundation's Judicial Advisory Committee.
What began as a Chicago-grown aim to guide more minority law school and college students with ease into the legal profession expanded to include programs for students in high school and middle school and throughout the country.
Brandon Loggins clerked for U.S. Magistrate Judge Arlander Keys in 2008 when he got the chance to serve as a foundation summer legal institute team leader.
Teaching in the institute proved especially important for Loggins, he said, because he participated in a similar program as a high school student.
"I know how that can be a spark of inspiration for a young person," said Loggins, an associate at the Law Office of Ernest B. Fenton. "It opens a door to a possible opportunity that you may not have considered previously."
The program provided the appeal, too, of working alongside fellow former teacher Williams — Loggins delayed law school for two years to teach fourth grade in Mississippi through Teach for America.
During the foundation's summer institute, students hear from speakers like Williams and other judges and lawyers who detail their own success stories. Williams said she hopes students learn that "we were not born with a gavel or a black robe."
If they can do it, so can the students, she said.
In June 1985, President Ronald Reagan appointed Ann Claire Williams to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. In the photo in her office, she was being sworn in with her family present.
Photo by Natalie Battaglia.
Loggins witnessed the inspiration gleaned from Williams' dedication to equipping young people with knowledge.
"A lot of the students who I've seen, you see that same light and spark that goes off when they enjoy the advocacy," Loggins said.
Even if they don't go into law, he said, "It just presents another tool, another avenue that they may possibly consider later in life."
Another of Williams' passion projects, Minority Legal Education Resources (MLER), experiences a milestone anniversary this year.
In 1975, Williams tried to join a program at Northwestern University School of Law aimed at improving bar passing rates by minorities, taught by Ronald E. Kennedy. After learning she did not qualify for the program because she was not a Northwestern student, Williams approached Kennedy about expanding the program to other schools. In the meantime, she passed the bar, but still eyed extending the program.
MLER began offering the bar preparation program as an official nonprofit in the summer of 1977.
MLER President Joi Thomas called Williams' push to expand the prep program an example of "her identifying a need and finding a solution."
The beauty of MLER is the support system and dedication of volunteers, strangers, whose "main focus is your success," said Thomas, an associate at Holland & Knight.
Volunteers help prepare minority law students raise the bar passing rate to at least meet or exceed the national average.
"Had (Williams) not taken that initiative, MLER would not be MLER," Thomas said. "She's one of the reasons why MLER has been able to go through the growth that it has."
Loggins also participated in MLER.
"Both programs have been truly inspirational in my life and gave me a sense of vision in how you can, as an attorney, have a very productive career," he said. "But (you can) also … make sure that the next generation has the same opportunities."
Williams' colleagues praise her for the opportunities she afforded them in breaking judicial records.
"She got there first, and she's paving the way, and I'm following right behind saying, 'Thank you, thank you, thank you,'" Holmes said.
Williams helped pave the way for other black, female lawyers in 1987, when she helped found the Black Women Lawyers' Association (BWLA) of Greater Chicago Inc.
BWLA outgoing president, Tracy Campbell, commended Williams for the "grace and poise" with which she has navigated the legal system's milestones.
"What she truly is, is a mentor and inspiration to me, in terms of what is possible," said Campbell, a partner at Schiff Hardin.
She appears to have inspired at least one other young black woman into the legal profession: her daughter Claire also practices as a lawyer. (Her son, Jonathan, is in retail.)
In an April 2011 interview with NBC's Andrea Mitchell, Williams spoke about the rise of female power in the judiciary and the responsibility that follows it.
"Now, more and more women are being appointed," she said. "With that growth, women have more power. What judges have to do is get beyond deciding the cases to assume leadership roles to make real change in society."
Down to earth, if even near highest court
Another first Williams neared recently would have taken her to Washington, D.C., to become the first black woman to sit on the highest court in the land.
Judge Ann Claire Williams and attorney Michael Monico talked at a May event.
Photo by Paul McGrath.
In April 2010, the White House confirmed that Williams was among about 10 people then considered for a nomination to the Supreme Court. The post eventually went to Justice Elena Kagan.
Williams demurs when asked about the Supreme Court chatter, saying politely that she does not want to elaborate on her consideration.
"I was honored and flattered to be under consideration," she said simply and respectfully.
Holmes called Williams' being passed over a "sore spot," as a friend as well as a fellow black female lawyer. Holmes said several supporters, including multiple bar associations, wrote to President Barack Obama on Williams' behalf.
"She's so perfect for the job," Holmes said. "You don't really understand why she didn't get it."
Kagan and Justice Sonia M. Sotomayor — confirmed in 2009, also marked a time of unconfirmed rumblings about Williams — are wonderfully qualified, Holmes said.
"But she's our baby," Holmes said of Williams. "You want your baby to win the prize."
On her part, Williams became more forthcoming in her excitement on winning another prize, Notre Dame's "Sorin Award."
A university trustee, Williams won the honor — given to an outstanding alumni who contributed to the university and community — in June.
"That was really a thrill," Williams said. "It was really an extraordinary honor."
Another such honor came in 2010, when Williams received the "Devitt Award," given to Article III judges with distinguished careers advancing the rule of law and benefiting society.
Friends and colleagues who spoke for her Washington, D.C., ceremony called her "unstoppable," "direct," "thoroughly prepared" and able to deliver comments with "a devilish sense of humor."
Hawaii-based lawyer Frank Rothschild praised her philanthropy and stellar mentoring.
"She lights up every classroom and has a way of making absolutely everyone so comfortable in her presence," Rothschild said. "There are tens of thousands of lawyers around this world who fondly remember learning from Ann."
Judge Ann Claire Williams attended the 13th annual Midwest Light of Human Rights Awards, where she introduced keynote speaker, Maria Hinojosa, correspondent for PBS' "Frontline" and host of NPR's "Latino USA," in June.
Photo by Natalie Battaglia.
Nicole Jackson, Williams' 13th law clerk and a partner at Applegate & Thorne-Thomsen, praised Williams as a mentor and teacher of young attorneys.
"She taught us that law is more than a set of rules to be applied; law is about applying those rules in a fair and equitable way to achieve the most just results for the parties and for society," Jackson said.
Williams received numerous other accolades, including the National Bar Association's "Gertrude E. Rush Award" in 2008 and The Chicago Bar Association's "Justice John Paul Stevens Award" the same year.
And this year, Newsweek/The Daily Beast named her one of the 150 Fearless Women in the World.
"It makes me feel very overwhelmed and very humbled, really," she said. "I really am not in this for that."
It's clear to the people who know her that Williams' focus never has been fame or accolades, Thomas said.
"She is someone who believes in every inch of them that you're supposed to serve," Thomas said.
What Williams seems genuinely "in it" for is her work, the breadth of legal cases — from criminal to contract to discrimination — that waft through her chambers.
"I love being a judge, especially a federal judge," she said. She said it almost with a giddiness, as might a clerk in her second week of work. She paused to commend her friends and colleagues serving in other roles; it's almost an apology for her gratitude. She takes nothing for granted.
Nary enough hours in the day
She famously takes no minute in the day for granted.
When not with her husband, David Stewart, at their Hyde Park home, Williams may be found judging moot court contests at various law schools or traveling through different parts of Africa.
Judge Ann Claire Williams ran a meeting with four law clerks in her temporary office in June.
Photo by Natalie Battaglia.
Through her work with Lawyers Without Borders, Williams traveled to Kenya, Liberia and Tanzania, sharing methodologies on different court systems.
Uzoma Nkwonta clerked for Williams in 2008 and traveled in April to Ghana with his former boss. Nkwonta, now an associate at Kirkland & Ellis in Washington, D.C., spent his time helping teach Ghana's legal officials how to run a legal system efficiently.
"It was an unforgettable experience," Nkwonta said of his time helping train judges in evidence and case management.
He described his desire to make another such trip to teach overseas as "just an example of the impact (Williams) leaves. You watch how she dedicates her time to the goal of improving the lives of others."
Williams called it vital to share best practices with the international legal leaders and "not just show the American way."
She taught domestically at Northwestern University School of Law, Harvard Law School, The John Marshall Law School and the National Institute for Trial Advocacy.
She has served on several boards and commissions, including those of the United States Supreme Court Fellows Program, Carnegie Foundation and Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry.
It baffles many friends that she manages to do all this, while caring for family members both at home in the Windy City and Detroit.
As her former clerk Jackson said for her Devitt ceremony, "Judge Williams has modeled for us how we can pursue our careers with passion and integrity while keeping our loved ones foremost in our lives."
Williams said her father once got asked how she became such an accomplished taskmaster.
"He said I've always been like this," she said, from grade school to grad school.
Imagine young Williams, the high school student, taking time away from the student newspaper to direct traffic in the school hallways.
"I've always been a doer," she said. "I've always felt that I've been extremely blessed in my life. That is a lesson from home — when you are blessed like that, you have an obligation to give back. I have tried to live my life like that."
What inspires Ann Claire Williams?
Who mentored you early in your career?
I was mentored by Judge Robert A. Sprecher, whom I clerked for right out of law school; Judge Marianne Jackson, who recruited me to join the U.S. attorney’s office; Judge Ilana Rovner, who was my first supervisor in that office; and Judges William J. Bauer, George Leighton and Nick Bua, who gave me sound, practical advice in those early years.
What music do you listen to for inspiration?
I enjoy all kinds of music from classical to Motown to gospel to smooth jazz.
Name a person who inspires you.
In addition to my parents, Judge Constance Baker Motley, the first African-American woman to serve on a federal court in this nation. I think of her struggles and the challenges she faced and realize that whatever hurdles I need to overcome pale by comparison. And I greatly admire Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman on the Supreme Court and her work after the bench that focuses on educating children and the general public about the legal system and civics.
What’s the biggest change to the legal community?
The growth and opportunities for minorities and women since I began my career. Much still needs to be done and more glass ceilings need to be broken, but the change is amazing. Also, the skyrocketing costs of a legal education and the amount of debt that graduates face. That has an impact on the choices students make once they graduate and makes many public interest options unaffordable.
What’s the biggest challenge in your day-to-day job?
Being limited to the record that is before us. We don’t operate with a clean slate.