Patricia Wald, a trailblazing judge best known for her work uplifting society’s underdogs, has died at the age of 90.
Wald emerged from an era in which female lawyers were few and far between, and did so while raising five children. Under President Jimmy Carter in 1979, she was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and in 2013, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama, who referred to her as “one of the most respected appellate judges of her generation.”
Her son, Douglas, confirmed to The Washington Post succumbed to pancreatic cancer early on Saturday at her home in Washington.
Wald was raised by a single mother, and got to work early on in life making ball bearings in World War I. She graduated both high school and college at the top of her class, and was able to attend Yale Law School through a Pepsi-Cola fellowship. It was there that she met her husband, Robert Wald, and the two were married in 1952.
An early proponent of bail reform, Wald spent a large part of her career taking on pro bono and family law cases. She had a passion for social justice, and wanted to use the law to better the lives of those it served.
She wrote more than 800 opinions during her tenure, most notably related to equality in the employment and education system for women, LGBTQ individuals and those with disabilities.
Wald was the first woman to ever be appointed on the D.C. Circuit bench, where she served as chief justice from 1986 to 1991. She was the first woman officer on the American Law Institute, where she was instrumental in increasing the number of female members on the council from two to 13. She also founded the D.C. Circuit Gender, Race and Ethnicity task force and worked tirelessly as a member to promote diversity and equality.
Throughout her career, she aided in legislation that prohibited pregnancy discrimination against women, obligated schools to provide education for the mentally and physically disabled and fought against laws targeting the impoverished. She also dissented in a landmark case against a Naval Academy in 1993, which expelled a young male student for being gay.
A 7-3 ruling found that the student could not be readmitted to the school after having been expelled for his sexuality. Although Wald felt justice wasn’t served in that case, she understood the importance of dissenting despite the outcome.
“You always have a sad feeling when you write a dissent because it means you lost,” Wald said, according to The Washington Post. “But you write them because you have faith that maybe they will play out at some time in the future, and because of the integrity you owe to yourself. There are times when you need to stand up and say, ‘I can’t be associated with this point of view.’ That was certainly the way I felt in the gay midshipman case.”
As far as her international work, Wald was selected as one of 14 judges from 14 different countries to serve on a war crimes tribunal following the genocide in former Yugoslavia. The tribunal later made history by finding former Bosnian Serb general Radislav Krstic guilty of genocide for the murder of thousands of Muslim men and boys, and sentenced him to 46 years in prison in 2001. His sentence was later reduced to 35 years. When the Soviet Union collapsed, she also aided in the America Bar Association’s efforts to institute new judicial structures in those communist nations.
Wald’s husband died in 2010. They are both survived by their five children: Douglas, Sarah, Johanna, Frederica and Thomas, 10 grandchildren, and one great-grandson.
Apart from her professional legacy, Wald is remembered as a kind-hearted woman who never let the weight of her job impede her ability to connect with people on a genuine level. She was known to leave her office door wide open to visitors, and couriered her own documents rather than sending clerks in her place. She often took her packed lunch down to the cafeteria, according to The Post.
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