chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
May 01, 2019 Feature

An Interview with Judge Joan Lefkow

By Judge Willie J. Epps Jr.

Joan Lefkow was appointed on September 1, 2000, by President Bill Clinton as a judge for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. Earlier, she served as a bankruptcy judge and a magistrate judge in the Northern District. She has been in the federal judiciary since 1982.

Most judges know Joan Lefkow’s name even though it has been 14 years since she left the federal courthouse in downtown Chicago to find her husband and mother murdered in the basement of their home. The nation mourned with her while law enforcement searched for, and then found, the killer, who once had been a plaintiff in a medical malpractice case that Lefkow had dismissed. Judge Lefkow became a compelling symbol of the need for greater protection of judges, and her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2005 was important to the passage of the Court Security Improvement Act of 2007, which provided necessary funding to provide security for judges and witnesses.

We’re at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Denver this morning where Judge Lefkow is slated to speak to a group of judges attending the National Workshop for United States Magistrate Judges. Judge Lefkow, thank you for sitting down with me and allowing Judges’ Journal to share your story with our readers. Let me start by asking, when did you decide to become a judge?

I’ve always, since law school days, been interested in becoming a judge. In law school, students read cases written by judges, and I remember thinking way back then that it would be great to be on the Illinois Supreme Court. So, it’s been a longstanding goal, I suppose.

I started my judicial career as an ALJ with the Illinois Fair Employment Practices Commission [FEPC]. That wasn’t my first law job but my first job as a judge. I’m kind of unusual among judges—I’m more or less a career judge. In the U.S. system, law students don’t train to be judges, unlike in many other countries. In Turkey, for example, you go to school to be a judge, or you go to school to be a prosecutor or a regular lawyer. I just found a niche, and I’ve always enjoyed it. I think I enjoy the intellectual challenge, especially being in federal court. Rather than being assigned to a particular type of cases, as many state court judges are, federal judges do legal analysis in a wide variety of areas, so it keeps it interesting.

What did you learn from your clerkship with Judge Thomas Fairchild on the Seventh Circuit back in 1971–72?

I learned a lot from him. He had a very keen mind. He was really the intellectual light of the Seventh Circuit at that time. He taught me that one should not publicly embarrass a litigant or a lawyer. He told me a story about once making a statement in an opinion, probably when he was on the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and he regretted it all his life because it was a bit of a cutting remark about a lawyer, and he never wanted to do that again. So, I always try to be very careful not to criticize lawyers, not to be personal about it.

Judge Fairchild had a great deal of integrity in his analysis of cases. He wanted it to be right, the way he thought was right. And I am that way. I want to understand what I’m doing, so if I get a draft from a law clerk, it may read very well, but I want to make sure I understand and agree with that. Or, if I don’t agree, we discuss. So, I always want to make sure I am being the judge. He was also a very kind man and not at all flamboyant. So, it gave me encouragement that one doesn’t have to be imperious to be a good judge because I’m kind of a quiet personality. We had a nice relationship throughout his life. I try to be open and welcoming with my former clerks in the same way.

You served as a U.S. Magistrate Judge from 1982 to 1997. Did you enjoy that experience?

Oh, yes. That was my entry into the federal judiciary. It was a very exciting time for me. I had kind of bounced around from one job to another the first 10 years. And then in ’82 I was selected as a magistrate. (In those days we said magistrate.) And I’ve been in the courthouse ever since, so go figure. [Laughter] It was a good fit for me.

Please talk about that 10-year period before you became a magistrate judge. Can you give us a list of jobs you held before joining the federal bench?

Yes, I think I can. My first job was as a clerk for Judge Fairchild. Then I went to work in legal services for the poor, what’s now called Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, or LAF. I was a neighborhood staff attorney in the Uptown area of Chicago. I was there for three years. We did civil legal aid work. In those days, federally funded legal services providers could sue the state and could file class actions, which they can’t do anymore. It was an exciting time for young, idealistic attorneys. Then I went to the Illinois FEPC, as I mentioned, as an ALJ adjudicating claims of discrimination. We would hold hearings and make reports and recommendations to the Commissioners. So, in a way, it was similar to the work of a magistrate judge. That may have been one reason the district judges thought I was qualified for the job.

Then my husband Michael and I took off to Spain for about nine months. I was able to get a leave of absence from the FEPC, and we traveled in Europe, studied Spanish in Madrid, and had our first baby there. Once we returned, Michael was making a career change, and we moved to Miami, Florida, for his employment. I gave birth to our second daughter and took a year off from working outside the home. After a year, I took a temporary position as an instructor at the University of Miami Law School. We came back to Chicago, and I became executive director of the Cook County Legal Assistance Foundation. It was the suburban counterpart of LAF. From there, I went to the district court.

What did you enjoy most about being a magistrate judge?

I liked working with the lawyers in court. I liked the interaction, getting to know them as lawyers and sometimes as people. On the criminal side, I always thought it was interesting to see the warrant applications because we saw what was going on before anybody else knew about it. [Laughter] It’s all interesting. As a judge, you have to make decisions, and you try to mold your rulings to be just and fair and thoughtful. I always enjoyed it, but, after 15 years, I felt a change would be nice.

You served as a U.S. bankruptcy judge from 1997 to 2000. That’s a big change. Why did you make that move?

I had been hoping to be appointed to the district court as a district judge since the time that President Clinton was elected because his policy was to add diversity to the bench. So, several of us women who were magistrate judges felt this might be an opportunity. Our ranking U.S. senator also set up a commission to find people who were able and, I suppose, politically agreeable to the Senate. Fortunately, in Illinois for many years, our senators have been very cooperative, despite being of opposite parties. So, anyhow, I went through that process several times and was not selected.

So, one of my judge colleagues said, “Well, if I were you, I’d go to the bankruptcy court.” I thought, What?, because I had never practiced in bankruptcy. But we had a really great bankruptcy bench and they operated quite independently of the district court. So, an opening came up and I applied and was selected. It was sort of deer-in-the-headlights for a while because I had to scramble to learn what I needed to know. It was a very different environment in the sense that a magistrate judge would have probably fewer than a hundred cases on the docket, but bankruptcy judges would brag, “Oh, we have 7,000 cases.” But, of course, we never saw most of them because they were just technically assigned to a judge. On the other hand, we would have our Chapter 13 calls where we would have 300 cases on the call that morning. So, you had to be really organized and able to rule right then and there.

I think I learned a lot of skills about being a judge through that process. Bankruptcy law is fascinating. The code was rewritten in the late ’60s, I think. Because it was new, there was a need for a lot of interpretation. By the time I got there, that had matured, but, still, it was just remarkable how many new questions we got. Also, there was not a lot of appellate authority, so I had to feel my own way without definite governing law.

You were nominated to the U.S. District Court by President Bill Clinton on May 11, 2000, for a seat that was vacated by Judge Ann Claire Williams. You were confirmed just six weeks later. Was that a quick and enjoyable U.S. Senate confirmation process?

[Laughter] I wouldn’t call it enjoyable. It was certainly quick.

Why so quick?

Who knows? I think there was less acrimony in Congress about judicial appointments at that time compared to now. It was the last year of Clinton’s presidency. My hearing was in June. I remember that Senator Grassley presided, and I think there was only one other senator there. Senator Grassley went through kind of a litany of questions that I’m sure were asked of everyone. And we got voted out.

Of course, the senators are not as concerned about district judge appointments in terms of who gets appointed and all the political volleying that goes on for appellate judges. I was noncontroversial, obviously. I had been a public employee for all these years and not involved in politics.

So, you’ve been an ALJ, a magistrate judge, a bankruptcy judge, and now a district judge. Which judgeship have you enjoyed the most?

I think my heart was set on the district court from the time it seemed a possibility. I certainly could have had a career as a magistrate judge or a bankruptcy judge and enjoyed it, but I think my background and the law that I was familiar with and the things I cared about we saw more in the district court. It’s very challenging, a very long learning curve, and I wanted that challenge. It’s a wonderful opportunity in so many ways to be given the responsibility in society to be a judge over important disputes or someone’s criminal behavior. It’s an honor and a worthwhile thing to do. You feel you’re contributing somehow to the betterment of the world in some way.

Most federal judges know your name because of the tragedy that struck your family on February 28, 2005. You returned home that day to find your husband and mother in the basement of your home having been murdered. The nation later learned that an individual who had been a plaintiff in a medical malpractice case that you had dismissed was responsible for the murders. How were you able to move forward after that horrific experience?

I would say with difficulty. I had daughters; my youngest was 16. My next older was a sophomore in college. She was out in California. None of them was married at that time, so especially with the younger ones, I really felt I had to be strong to keep them on their feet. I did what almost anyone would do. You get hit with a tragedy like that, and it’s completely unexpected and undeserved. But you face it. You have to face it. You take one step at a time forward. Because of all the publicity, I had a lot of support. There was a negative side to the publicity, too, but my friends put together a food brigade so we would have meals. I received more than a thousand cards and letters from all over the country, and fellow judges were so kind and helpful. Another example of people reaching out to me—a note from President Clinton, who was not president at that time, but he said . . . I’d have to look it up to be sure, something about the “madness in the shadows of modern life,” a well-turned phrase.

It was just . . . it was agony. But you just do what you have to do.

I read that you had around-the-clock U.S. Marshal protection in the year that followed that incident?

Yes, it was about a year.

I also read an account that because this plaintiff was pro se, given your background, you were in the process of researching ways to help this dismissed plaintiff. Is that accurate?

I felt compassionate toward him. There was an article in the newspaper about the kind of cancer he had or the kind of surgery he had had, and I thought about communicating, but I never did. The press published what I had written when I dismissed his case, and I think it was compassionate. But it was a jurisdictional problem. He was desperate, and I believe psychotic.

Very, very sad you had that experience.

I was telling you about how forthcoming everyone was and supportive, but there was also a dark side to that because it was during the time of the run up to the appointment of Justice [John] Roberts as chief justice. The right-leaning people wanted a very conservative judge. There was a lot of anti-judge sentiment out there, weird stuff like “Jail4Judges” and certain media attacking judges as out of control. I got some hate mail, not much. But there was this incident in which a senator made a public remark about understanding that a person could get so frustrated with a judge as to become violent, almost condoning what had happened. So, I wrote him a letter asking, “What did I do to deserve this?” When I went out to Washington to testify before the Judiciary Committee, the senator was asked about the letter and he said he hadn’t received it.

So, he never responded?

Never responded. But the fact that I was able to help get funding for judicial security I think was one positive thing that came out of the tragedy. And I was hounded by the media. You know, Larry King, the Enquirer, Diane Sawyer, the Today Show, GMA. . . . [Laughter]

Did you go on Larry King?

No, no. I didn’t. I didn’t want to become a celebrity because of this tragedy. If I can do something good, like testify, as I did, yeah, I’ll do that. But I felt this does not feel right at all and especially when such trauma happens. But it was an interesting sidelight of the whole experience.

On a brighter note, who were your mentors?

In law school, my first mentor was my husband, who was a young lawyer at the time. We weren’t yet married, but I confided in him that I was interested in going to law school. It was unusual for a woman to go to law school at that time. And I was this quiet, shy person from rural America. But he encouraged me to go. He said, “I think you’d be a fine lawyer.” Once we got married and we were both practicing law, we mentored each other.

Then I would say Judge Fairchild, whom I’ve already talked about. There was a woman named Helen Jones, who’s now deceased, but she was a lawyer in a labor law firm in Chicago, and she would contact me from time to time and we’d have lunch. She was very encouraging.

How did you meet Helen Jones?

Through the bar association. I was active in the Chicago Council of Lawyers. I think maybe we were both on the board; I’m not sure. But, looking back on it, I realize that she probably very intentionally was mentoring me, but I didn’t quite understand it that way. I just thought, what a lovely person.

Once I was on the court, there were different go-to people, and Jim Moran was one that I could always rely on for good advice. He died a few years ago. We’ve had some great judges on our court: Ilana Rovner, Ann Williams. Those are friends of mine. Joan Gottschall and Elaine Bucklo have been very good friends whose opinions I respect. I feel very fortunate. I’ve had a wonderful career, and I had a good marriage and a family. What more could I ask?

What advice would you give to young lawyers who want to follow in your footsteps and enter public service as a judge, whether it be as a state court judge or an ALJ, or serving as a judge at the federal level?

First, they need to get the basic skills that are needed to be a judge: legal knowledge, experience, and seasoning—all those things. I would also suggest being involved in professional associations and becoming known in the community. Do your service to the profession and to the community. There are different paths to the judiciary. Federal judges are appointed. Illinois has an elected judiciary. Legally, all you need is a law license, but, of course, there’s more to it than that.

They should reach out to judges and ask them about their paths to the bench. Look to mentors for advice. As for federal judges, and I’m sure it’s true in most states as well, especially in the higher courts—as it’s often said, it’s like being struck by lightning. You happen to be in the right place, at the right time, and have the favor of the right people. If you know your senator, that helps. I certainly encourage people who want to be judges and try to help them.

Wonderful. Well, we salute your career and thank you for giving us time for this interview and wish you continued success.

Well, thank you. It’s flattering to be asked. 

The material in all ABA publications is copyrighted and may be reprinted by permission only. Request reprint permission here.

By Judge Willie J. Epps Jr.

Willie J. Epps Jr. is a U.S. Magistrate Judge for the Western District of Missouri and sits in Jefferson City. He recently was appointed to the Executive Committee of the National Conference of Federal Trial Judges.