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February 04, 2022 Appellate Issues | Winter 2022

Hail To the Chiefs

By Jennifer North

The 2021 Summit of the Appellate Judges Education Institute (AJEI) opened with a warm tribute to Lady Justice in all her forms: the work of the suffragettes, a recognition of the growing number of lawyers and judges who are women, and finally an award dedicated to the legacy of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. 

The first session of AJEI, entitled “Hail to the Chiefs,” featured three accomplished jurists: the Honorable Maureen O’Connor, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio, the Honorable Priscilla Owen, Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, and the Honorable Loretta H. Rush, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Indiana. The panel was moderated by the Chief Judge of the South Carolina Court of Appeals, Judge James Lockemy. 

With the delightful and animated Judge Lockemy as the welcoming moderator, the Summit began on a decidedly positive tone. Judge Lockemy himself brought to the panel myriad experiences that resonated through the conference. As a fellow chief judge, he demonstrated his leadership; his civic interests through public involvement in little league and community theater; and his commitment to service in the National Guard and the South Carolina Military Department, where he recently retired as a Major General. While the Summit ventured into the serious topics of courage while on the bench and serving in unpopular posts, opening on the achievements of women in law provided an affirmative starting point, prompting attendees to consider how they could be motivated to make individual contributions to the profession and to create a meaningful life. 

Judge Lockemy opened by saying that this special panel was a year overdue. A tribute to women in the legal profession had been planned for the AJEI Summit in 2020, the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment. Now, we know the year 2020 has become notable for another reason–the year of the COVID-19 pandemic–and due to the precautions taken, last year’s Summit was postponed. Fortunately, AJEI attendees were able to gather this year in Austin, Texas, for the conference that incorporated a salute to women in the legal profession and ventured into the courage that all lawyers, and jurists in particular, must draw on during their careers.

Judge Lockemy led the judges through questions about their accomplishments, personal histories, and advice to future lawyers. While these judges have accumulated numerous accolades and many firsts for women in law, they also embody the characteristics expected from all jurists. Perhaps the most notable achievement that each panelist emphasized was balance–the fact that life balance made them better jurists. They demonstrated a dedication to civic interests and an unwavering attention to maintaining a meaningful life away from the public eye.

The judges shared some common experiences that they believe contributed to their similar successes. Chief Justice O’Connor showed an early aptitude for the law. In junior high, a teacher planted the seed that she should become a lawyer. After spending some time as a teacher, she followed that advice and entered law school. Judge Owen related that no one ever told her she was limited in her career choices. She remarked that growing up on a ranch instilled in her the foundations of her beliefs about what is right and what is wrong. She was drawn to law because of these influences. Chief Justice Rush’s career shows her deeply held beliefs in protecting the packet of rights that are inherent in being a citizen. She followed these thoughts with an unconventional idea to some–a juris doctor degree is beneficial, even outside the practice of law.

The individual and combined achievements of these panelists is staggering. Chief Justice O’Connor is the first woman to lead the judicial branch in Ohio. As the chief justice, she has championed camaraderie through the disruption of the pandemic and is known for her ability to build coalitions. Her work to establish transparency, fairness, and access to justice is a testament to the mark she will leave on Ohio’s third branch of government. Chief Judge Owen first became a judge in 1995 when she was elected to the Texas Supreme Court. She was confirmed to the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in 2005, and by reason of seniority, took on the duties of chief judge in 2019—duties that include the administration and representation of the appeals court at the national policy level. Judge Owen supported state legislation that provided legal services to the poor and champions mediation to avoid the expense and frustration of trials. Similarly, Chief Justice Rush supervises the entire judicial branch in Indiana. She has co-chaired the task force in the National Judicial Conference to examine the treatment of opioid addiction in the courts and is actively involved in determining responses for those in the court system who exhibit mental illness.

While these female jurists have set a high bar for achievement, their inspiration is not limited to any gender. They certainly have seen immense growth in the number of women at the bar and on the bench, and Justice O’Connor’s election to the bench in Ohio created the first female majority on the court. This marks progress for women in the profession, but it does not necessarily mean drastic shifts in dispositions. Judge Owen observed that the court splits she has witnessed have not been dependent on gender. In fact, the recipient of the inaugural award that followed is a well-known pragmatist, and her opinions cannot be catalogued into a pattern dependent on her gender.

This year the National Judicial College, the organizers of AJEI, established the Justice Sandra Day O’Connor Award. This annual award will be given to the judge who has demonstrated extraordinary service and commitment to justice as embodied in the core values of excellence, innovation, integrity, and leadership. The National Judicial College considers this award its highest honor.

The inaugural honoree of this award was Justice Sandra Day O’Connor herself. A short video recapped her well-known legal career. As a young cowgirl from Arizona, she entered Stanford University at age 16 and graduated from Stanford Law School at age 22. She graduated third in her class and was overqualified for the secretarial job she was offered after graduation. Justice O’Connor worked in public sector legal jobs, was elected to the Arizona state house, became a judge on the Arizona State Court of Appeals, and finally ascended to the United States Supreme Court as its first woman justice in 1981. In 1974, Justice O’Connor was a student at the National Judicial College upon her initial election to the bench in Maricopa County, Arizona. It was a natural fit for the College to establish this award in her honor.

The award was accepted on behalf of Justice O’Connor by Arizona Supreme Court Vice Chief Ann Timmer. Justice Timmer recounted Justice O’Connor’s attitude toward justice by implying that she wouldn’t have rested on platitudes in the face of unfairness but instead would have asked what can we do about it? If there was an injustice, she was sure Justice O’Connor would have pointedly determined how to seek solutions through integrity and leadership. She also remarked that while Justice O’Connor was happy to be the first woman on the United States Supreme Court, she did not want to be the last. Scott O’Connor, Justice O’Connor‘s son, wrote that he and his brothers were pleased that this award was named after his mom. He stated that she was a “huge fan of the National Judicial College, and of its football team.” He also recounted his memories of traversing the state of Arizona during his mom’s first election campaign. Envisioning the no-nonsense persona of Justice O’Connor riding in the family station wagon across the flats of the state wasn’t hard to imagine.

Edging into the first break of the Summit, the panel of “chiefs” set a tone of resilience, opportunity, and encouragement for venturing into new frontiers. The panel bridged the gap of the lost Summit of 2020, included a moment to reflect on the progress of women, showcased current prominent jurists, and set the stage for the substantive topics that followed in the 2021 AJEI Summit.

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Jennifer North


Jennifer North is a Legal Writing Professor and Director of the Legal Research, Analysis, and Writing program at Charleston School of Law in Charleston, South Carolina. She joined the law school in 2004. Professor North holds a Juris Doctor from Texas A & M University School of Law, a Master of Laws in admiralty from Tulane Law School, and a Master of Arts in English from the College of Charleston. She also directs the Maritime Programs at Charleston School of Law. Prior to joining the law school, Professor North was in private practice litigating business and maritime matters. Upon graduation from Tulane University with a Bachelor of Arts in anthropology, she served as an officer in the United States Marine Corps.