D.C. Bar Remembers Trailblazing Judge

By Jeff Leon

January 17, 2019

Judge Wald Resized (2)Judge Patricia Wald, the first woman to serve as chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, passed away from cancer on January 12. She was 90 years old. 

Born on September 16, 1928, to a working-class family in Torrington, Connecticut, Judge Wald attended the Connecticut College for Women on a scholarship and was able to attend Yale Law School through a fellowship from Pepsi-Cola. At Yale, Wald was one of only 11 women in a class of 200, recalling in a 2007 interview with C-SPAN that while women students were segregated from the men in housing and were usually called on more frequently by professors during discussions on more sexually charged cases, her professors were encouraging. Judge Wald graduated from Yale in 1951. 

Establishing herself in Washington, Judge Wald focused on public interest law, specifically bail reform and family law, and made some notable contributions in those realms. In 1964 she co-authored a major study on the state of bail and criminal law, Bail in the United States: 1964, with law professor and Justice Department attorney Daniel J. Freed. The book was influential toward the passage of the landmark Bail Reform Act of 1966. She also wrote Law and Poverty, 1965, and after a short term at the Department of Justice, joined the Neighborhood Legal Services program in 1968. 

In 1979 President Jimmy Carter appointed Wald to the bench of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, and in 1986 she was appointed chief judge, the first woman to serve in the role. Judge Wald remained in the role until 1991. During her 20 years on the bench, Judge Wald authored more than 800 opinions on issues including separation of powers and administrative law. In a 1995 interview with the D.C. Bar, Judge Wald shared that an opinion she was particularly proud of was a justice case in agriculture, pushing the Department of Labor to enforce toilet and drinking water regulations for migrant workers. 

“From early in her career, Judge Wald worked tirelessly to promote equality for women, those with disabilities, and members of the LGBTQ community. She fought for the underdog when it wasn’t always popular or convenient,” says Robert J. Spagnoletti, CEO of the D.C. Bar. “She truly is one of the legends of the law and her presence in the legal community will be sorely missed.”