What Judge Wood Taught Me About Glass Cages

Elizabeth A. Reese1Elizabeth Reese (Yunpoví) is a Bigelow Fellow & Lecturer in Law at the University of Chicago Law School.

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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.

When I began my clerkship year with Judge Diane Wood, I was keenly aware that I would be getting to know one of the most powerful people I would ever encounter in my life. When I applied for the clerkship, she was already well known as a brilliant jurist who not only consistently earned the adoration of the left but commanded respect and admiration from the right. This fact about her made her particularly mythic and intriguing to me. 

At the time I was familiar with being underestimated for being a person of color, for being young, and for being a woman. I had learned and deployed a lot of different strategies by this point in my career to defy low expectations, signal belonging, or charm people. But being a successful—let alone powerful—woman was an entirely different thing. I’d watched Hillary Clinton and countless other women hold power or seek it out and be hated for it. This phenomenon of the unlikeable and untrustworthy powerful woman has led to nothing short of a chaos of think pieces. My generation of women has been inundated with conflicting pieces of advice about how to act in order to “pull it off,” “have it all,”  “be liked,” “be feared,” or “be respected.” Lean in. Smile. Work harder than everyone else. Work smarter. Don’t smile. Be kind. Be cold. Be warm. Be tough. Wear skirts. Never wear skirts. No makeup. Light makeup. It’s exhausting really…

So there I was, with the opportunity to spend a year working with a living legend and determined to actually figure out how she did it. I needed to learn how she managed to earn the kind of respect for her brilliance and her opinion that truly mattered. What was this special power to persuade she commanded? 

Here’s just a bit of what I learned as I studied her (my ledger on a legend if you will):

  • She works incredibly hard. 
  • She has one of those minds that holds onto everything (truly…everything). 
  • She approaches her job—and all the people she interacted with—with patience and care.
  • She is a morning person. 
  • She is neither arrogant, nor modest. She is simply brilliant, and everyone knows it.
  • She is tough, but never cold, hard, or mean. 
  • She acknowledges frustrating things, but shrugs them off and keeps fighting. 
  • She is a cat person. 
  • She had one of the sharpest wits of anyone I’d ever encountered. 
  • She is a loving parent who is close to her kids. 
  • She hates footnotes. 
  • She knits (quite well). 
  • She is hilarious on the bench (Judge Frank Easterbrook especially would crack up at her jokes).
  • She is an innovative legal thinker, and it would not occur to her to hold that back.

At some point, I realized that Judge Wood had no secret to “being her.” She was… just… her. That was it. She was unapologetically, uncomplicatedly herself all the time. She was smart, hardworking, and all the other things you’d expect, but she wasn’t performing a persona in the slightest. She was simply a real human person with no grand strategy behind any of it. And that seemed to be a huge part of why it worked so well. She seemed to command so much respect and earn so much trust from everyone around her not only because she was brilliant and excellent but because she was real. 

When I fully realized this, I broke down and cried. I realized that, like so many women I had been carrying around so much pressure to “be” one hundred different things all at once in order to succeed, and that none of them were me. Judge Wood entered my life at a key moment and taught me a lesson by example about what true power looks like in a woman. 

I will always be grateful for that lesson. It liberated me. It also gave me hope.

One early morning before anyone else had arrived, Judge Wood came into my office and asked if I was up for an “art project.” She was giving a talk later that day about the role of the federal judiciary and had the idea that bringing along a prop to demonstrate the delicate balance between the branches of government was just the thing she needed to punctuate her remarks. We began scouring the office supply cabinet in chambers for objects that could be transformed into the necessary instruments of a three-branch mobile. We realized quickly that the pencils couldn’t be taped securely enough together to create a central fulcrum—so that was out. We ended up using unwound paper clips and navy thread I brought to repair a tear on the hem of my suit. I delicately hung a golden-colored sign from each corner: one for each branch.

I am writing this reflection during a time when these branches have been put under more strain than at any other time I can think of. There is a global pandemic and an election in chaos. I think and I worry all the time about the people who hold power in this country. Who are they? What are they like? What will they do under this pressure? I don’t always feel optimistic.

I opened up this reflection acknowledging my own awareness of my clerkship as, in part, proximity to power. It is one of the unspoken truths of our profession that many brilliant and hardworking people devote their lives to the law with the ambition of using the law as a ladder to achieve power. It is one of the tragedies of our profession that some of those people see that power as valuable primarily because of its prestige. Egos can become real threats to the republic. Each kind of public servant has their own dangers, but for judges, it can be easy to forget that shaping and interpreting the law is not the same thing as making it, or being it. There is a fine line between pouring your energy into every phrase knowing that your opinions are binding precedent, and yet not believing that your word is law in some grander sense. From Judge Wood’s writings on the subject, it is clear that she sees these lines very clearly, and considers it a fundamental assumption of the job that there is a distinction between the law and those who administer it. And yet, even without those writings it is hard to imagine the woman I know ever abusing her power, flouting the law, or doing anything other than her utmost to fairly and equally administer justice. 

In these trying times, I picture the brilliant and powerful woman I know sitting at her desk. She is reading briefs closer than anyone, crafting masterful opinions, and swaying her colleagues. The mobile we made hangs near the corner of her desk, each branch of government hanging on by a thread (strictly and figuratively speaking) but balanced. And I think to myself that I trust this powerful woman I know with power. And I am so glad that I got to know her.

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Elizabeth A. Reese (Yunpoví) is a Bigelow Fellow & Lecturer in Law at the University of Chicago Law School.

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