Judge Wood and the Human Side of Judging

Tejas N. Narechania1Robert and Nanci Corson Assistant Professor of Law, University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. I am immensely grateful to Judge Wood for giving me the chance to clerk for her, to Khushali Narechania for being willing to uproot our nascent family so that I could seize that opportunity, and to Scott Hemphill for urging me to apply to Judge Wood’s chambers in the first instance. I also thank Matthew Reade and the editors of The University of Chicago Law Review for the invitation to offer my personal recollections, and for their edits and suggestions on this short piece.

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This short Essay is one of a series of short remembrances of Judge Diane Wood of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in honor of her twenty-five years (and counting) on the bench.

It is often said that one should always choose a great boss over a great role. My first job as a lawyer, clerking for Judge Diane Wood (or “Judge” to her clerks), married both. Judge Wood is a great boss, and clerking for her was both a formative experience and one of the best jobs I’ve ever had.

And so I am grateful for the opportunity—brief as it is—to describe how Judge Wood’s guidance, mentorship, and example has shaped my career. It was Judge who, for example, helped me identify that my dual interests in competition and technology could both find a home in telecommunications policy (in addition to intellectual property).2I suspect that Judge knew this from our very first meeting, in which I spent entirely too long talking about Goldwasser v. Ameritech Corp., 222 F.3d 390 (7th Cir. 2000). I am thankful she hired me all the same. It was Judge who, through conversation and the opportunity to assist with her own academic work, helped me to confirm my interest in eventually joining the academy.3See, e.g., Diane P. Wood, Back to the Basics of Erie, 18 Lewis & Clark L. Rev. 673, 673 n.* (2014). And, more broadly, it was in Judge Wood’s chambers that I saw law as an intensely human enterprise, one built on the interpersonal relationships among the parties to the case, among the public and its representatives in the judiciary, among the judges on a panel, and even among a judge and her clerks.

In law school, we learn to abstract away from litigants and cases in order to discern holdings and distill them into principles: Pierson and Post, for example, sometimes seem to be characters in a fable, relaying a moral about the nature of property to first-year law students.4See Pierson v. Post, 2 Am. Dec. 264 (N.Y. 1805). But Judge never lost sight of the fact that the litigants in the Seventh Circuit’s cases were real people who had turned to the judiciary for help in times of dire need. I vividly remember stacks of record boxes piled against the wall of windows in Judge’s office, partially obscuring a grand view of Lake Michigan. We would often dive into those materials to gain a complete picture of the lived experiences of a case’s litigants—the indignities of employment discrimination suffered by a plaintiff, or the ailments endured by a citizen seeking disability insurance, among other examples.5Seee.g., Coleman v. Donahoe, 667 F.3d 835 (7th Cir. 2012); Farrell v. Astrue, 692 F.3d 767 (7th Cir. 2012). Among these were some cases of wrongs without remedies. But even where settled law seemed to command an inequitable outcome, Judge’s empathy and understanding for all the parties was clear. I now aim to pass this lesson on to my own students: In Property, for example, I take care to remind students that, even as we look for holdings and principles in these foundational cases, we should not lose sight of the fact that these decisions are records of real conflict among real people whose homes and livelihoods were often at stake.

Like most appellate courts, the Seventh Circuit’s decisions not only resolve the immediate conflicts among the parties to each case, but also, through their precedential effect, help to shape future human behavior and conduct. Here, too, Judge took exceptional care in ensuring that the citizens of Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin (and beyond) knew exactly what the law expected of them: Judge’s opinions were always sharply reasoned and clearly explained.6See generallye.g., Peters v. West, 692 F.3d 629 (7th Cir. 2012) (clarifying the standard for copyright infringement); see also generally Minn-Chem, Inc. v. Agrium Inc., 683 F.3d 845 (7th Cir. 2012) (explaining why one particular matter is much more than a mere “picky point that is of interest only to procedure buffs”). And as I saw Judge work through a range of legal and jurisprudential problems, I bore witness to an exemplar of a public servant, one acutely aware of her role as a member of the government, working on behalf of the governed. And that sense of her role seemed to give life to Judge’s vision of the law, one that mirrored America’s own dynamism by accounting for current societal norms and conditions.7See generally Diane P. Wood, Our 18th Century Constitution in the 21st Century World, 80 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 1079 (2005).

Judge Wood did not, of course, work through these cases alone, but instead as one member in a panel of three judges—some of whom approached such legal questions differently. Hence, my clerkship offered not only a view into Judge’s external relationships—her connection to the litigants and to the public—but also a view into the court’s internal relationships. Here, too, Judge was characteristically collegial: I can recall more than one occasion when, after talking through a particularly difficult question of interpretation or anticipating some potential disagreement, Judge would reach out in advance, saying, “I’ll work it out with Frank [Easterbrook],” or “I’ll mention it to Dick [Posner].” I was not privy to those conversations. But what I saw going into them and coming out of them was a public servant who diligently sought an answer that everyone could agree to. Indeed, I suspect that there are few (if any) past and present members of the Seventh Circuit who could manage to gather unanimous support for an en banc opinion (reversing what was a unanimous panel decision, applying a previous en banc decision). Judge did.8Minn-Chem, Inc. v. Agrium Inc., 683 F.3d 845 (7th Cir. 2012). And even when Judge disagreed with the outcome or reasoning of a case, she was thoughtful and intentional about her choices to write separately.9See generally Diane P. Wood, When to Hold, When to Fold, and When to Reshuffle: The Art of Decisionmaking on a Multi-Member Court, 100 Calif. L. Rev. 1445 (2012). And when she did so, she always—always—did so respectfully. 

In short, my clerkship in Judge Wood’s chambers was not only my introduction to the practice of law, it was also my introduction to the practice of being a lawyer. Judge Wood set an example of brilliance, diligence, and empathy.

She exhibited these characteristics in her relationship to her clerks, too. I remember the first draft of an assignment I turned in to Judge. She quickly returned the draft to me, edited beyond recognition. Along with that revised draft, Judge included a detailed note explaining that she greatly appreciates her clerks’ assistance, that she recognizes that her edits are substantial, that we should not take these changes personally, and that, instead, these significant edits ensure that all her work reflects her own views and voice. Judge seemed almost (though not quite) apologetic, as if to be saying: “It’s not you, it’s me.” But, of course, it was me (as it had been every other clerk to receive a similar message): Judge was light-years ahead of us, but was generous enough to take the time and care to help us learn from the improvements she made and the examples she set. 

I learned more than I can measure over the course of that year. My approach to the law is better, sharper, and clearer because of my experience as Judge Wood’s clerk. Indeed, I think the law is better, sharper, and clearer because of Judge Wood’s time on the bench.10See 3 Patry on Copyright §§ 9:223.50–60 (describing some of Judge Wood’s contributions as “expansive and insightful” and “well worth quoting in full”). She has served on the Seventh Circuit for twenty-five years. I can only hope, for our sake, that she keeps it up for twenty-five more.

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Tejas N. Narechania is the Robert and Nanci Corson Assistant Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law.

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