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Wood breaks gender barrier on the 7th Circuit

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Diane P. Wood’s first day as the first female chief judge of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals also was the first day of the recent government shutdown.

“It was quite sobering, really,” Wood said. Federal courts, like much of the government, faced the potential of wholesale changes, if not disruptions, in doing business. “The courts had literally two weeks worth of funds, so to speak, in the bank.

diane-wood-portrait-1col.jpg Diane Wood took the helm as 7th Circuit chief judge Oct. 1. She is one of only a dozen women to ever serve as federal circuit chief judge. (Photo provided)

“This was requiring us to make some very tough calls about the core functions of the courts and how much we could postpone,” she said. “We were looking at a set of options that were all very bad options in some way and trying to pick the least intolerable.”

All of this after funding for the federal judiciary had taken multiple hits over the years, and budgets were further cut by the sequester this year. “There’s no low-hanging fruit left,” Wood said.

Sobering, too, is that Wood’s term as chief judge, which began Oct. 1, marked just the 12th time a woman would preside over a federal circuit. The 7th Circuit is among the last to have a woman chief.

“It’s largely a function of when women began to come onto the federal judiciary in large numbers,” said Wood, 63, who began her seven-year term as chief judge upon the completion of Judge Frank H. Easterbrook’s tenure.

“I’m of a generation where I was often the only woman in the room or the first to do this or that, and I’m glad that’s not the case anymore.” A New Jersey native who as a teenager moved to Texas when her father’s job relocated, Wood graduated from the University of Texas Law School with honors in 1975, clerked on the 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, and later for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun.

She later taught law at the University of Chicago, where she remains on the faculty – the first woman with a chair named in her honor at the school.

Wood this month began a tour of courts of the 7th Circuit in Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin with the intent of visiting them all and finding out what’s on the minds of her fellow judges and court staff.

“I think the most important thing I’m trying to focus on is looking forward in this world of constrained resources,” she said.

Wood said the courts have to embrace efficiencies that won’t compromise the Circuit’s reputation for industriousness. “If people in the bar or others have ideas about how we can use information technology or better structure proceedings, I am very eager to hear those suggestions.”

Easterbrook, during the 7th Circuit’s Judicial Conference this year in Indianapolis, attested to the Circuit’s leadership, calling the 7th Circuit “the nation’s leader in both hearing arguments and publishing opinions.”

Wood said the court strives to issue reasoned and citable opinions and said doing so gives the public a better work product and also establishes the Circuit’s credibility among others seeking legal reasoning.

An appeal on patents

Wood recently advocated for fundamental reform of the patent appeals process, arguing that the exclusive jurisdiction enjoyed by the Federal Circuit in Washington, D.C., might not be ideal.

“There are many instances in which, in the administrative area, people have a choice in going to the Federal D.C. Circuit or the regional Circuit,” she said. “Why not do the same thing with patent appeals?”

Patent appeals were moved to the Federal Circuit on the basis of legal complexity, but Wood doesn’t buy it. She said a similar argument could be made for antitrust, pension appeals or any number of areas of federal law.

“My view is there’s nothing special about patents in the sense of complexity that distinguishes them from anything else, and the system would be a healthier one if more people were involved in it,” she said.

“One loses the ability to develop an area of law when so few people are concentrated with it,” she said, noting a change would give the Supreme Court of the United States the benefit of viewpoints from the 12 circuits.

While Wood has been outspoken on patent appeals, she’s proceeding cautiously before considering changes in court functions and administration.

“When I became chief judge, I took to heart the medical profession motto, ‘First, do no harm,’” she said. “Our court has had some amazing chief judges and we are in excellent shape in many ways.

“Whatever I have in mind is probably not the most important question,” Wood said. “We are in an era of very strict budgetary constraints, and trying to keep the court as good as it has been within these limitations is a real challenge.”

Personal notes

Outside the Chicago federal courthouse, Wood often can be found in other venues.

“I very much enjoy music as a performer and a consumer of music, and I play oboe in several different orchestras and bands in the Chicago area,” she said. She’s a fan of the Chicago Symphony and Lyric Opera, among others, enjoys travel, speaks multiple languages and admits a guilty pleasure of reading books in the “Wheel of Time” sci-fi/fantasy series.

Of Wood’s three grown children – David, Kathryn and Jane Hutchinson – two pursued legal careers. Wood said Kathryn just finished a clerkship with the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. David, a graduate of Indiana University Maurer School of Law, is an associate in the litigation department at Jenner & Block in Chicago. Jane is pursuing an advanced degree in art history.

The 7th Circuit’s new chief judge said she’s pleased about the progress of gender equity in the legal profession by the time David and Kathryn attended and graduated from law school, but there’s still reason for concern.

“The world they live in is one where there are women partners they both worked with,” Wood said. “What isn’t as far along as I might have liked – and this affects both men and women – and that’s family-friendly policies in firms.”

Wood has received some attention not just as the first woman chief in the 7th Circuit, but also as the first in more than two decades appointed by a Democratic president. Wood was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1995, but she believes too much is made of the political distinctions between her and former chiefs such as Easterbrook, Richard Posner and Joel Flaum, each of whom were Republican appointees and have built a reputation as conservative legal luminaries.

“If you look at the 7th Circuit, you’ll discover the political party of the appointing president is not really a reliable predictor” of how a judge will rule, Wood said, noting that the Circuit’s decisions result in few dissents. Unlike the Supreme Court, federal circuits can’t pick and choose cases they’ll hear, so judges are less likely to be split on ideological grounds, she said. She believes political distinctions among judges are distractions.

“It’s an extremely collegial court, and we take a lot of steps to keep it that way,” she said, including constantly shifting panels so the 10 current judges interact on multiple cases in the course of a year.

Wood was one of the few judges interviewed by President Barack Obama before he nominated Elena Kagan to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Wood’s name frequently is among those mentioned for future vacancies.

“I don’t even think about it at all,” she said. “It was a great honor to be considered back when I was, and it’s just one of those processes that people go through.”•

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  1. Some are above the law in Indiana. Some lined up with Lodges have controlled power in the state since the 1920s when the Klan ruled Indiana. Consider the comments at this post and note the international h.q. in Indianapolis. http://www.theindianalawyer.com/human-trafficking-rising-in-indiana/PARAMS/article/42468. Brave journalists need to take this child torturing, above the law and antimarriage cult on just like The Globe courageously took on Cardinal Law. Are there any brave Hoosier journalists?

  2. I am nearing 66 years old..... I have no interest in contacting anyone. All I need to have is a nationality....a REAL Birthday...... the place U was born...... my soul will never be at peace. I have lived my life without identity.... if anyone can help me please contact me.

  3. This is the dissent discussed in the comment below. See comments on that story for an amazing discussion of likely judicial corruption of some kind, the rejection of the rule of law at the very least. http://www.theindianalawyer.com/justices-deny-transfer-to-child-custody-case/PARAMS/article/42774#comment

  4. That means much to me, thank you. My own communion, to which I came in my 30's from a protestant evangelical background, refuses to so affirm me, the Bishop's courtiers all saying, when it matters, that they defer to the state, and trust that the state would not be wrong as to me. (LIttle did I know that is the most common modernist catholic position on the state -- at least when the state acts consistent with the philosophy of the democrat party). I asked my RCC pastor to stand with me before the Examiners after they demanded that I disavow God's law on the record .... he refused, saying the Bishop would not allow it. I filed all of my file in the open in federal court so the Bishop's men could see what had been done ... they refused to look. (But the 7th Cir and federal judge Theresa Springmann gave me the honor of admission after so reading, even though ISC had denied me, rendering me a very rare bird). Such affirmation from a fellow believer as you have done here has been rare for me, and that dearth of solidarity, and the economic pain visited upon my wife and five children, have been the hardest part of the struggle. They did indeed banish me, for life, and so, in substance did the the Diocese, which treated me like a pariah, but thanks to this ezine ... and this is simply amazing to me .... because of this ezine I am not silenced. This ezine allowing us to speak to the corruption that the former chief "justice" left behind, yet embedded in his systems when he retired ... the openness to discuss that corruption (like that revealed in the recent whistleblowing dissent by courageous Justice David and fresh breath of air Chief Justice Rush,) is a great example of the First Amendment at work. I will not be silenced as long as this tree falling in the wood can be heard. The Hoosier Judiciary has deep seated problems, generational corruption, ideological corruption. Many cases demonstrate this. It must be spotlighted. The corrupted system has no hold on me now, none. I have survived their best shots. It is now my time to not be silent. To the Glory of God, and for the good of man's law. (It almost always works that way as to the true law, as I explained the bar examiners -- who refused to follow even their own statutory law and violated core organic law when banishing me for life -- actually revealing themselves to be lawless.)

  5. to answer your questions, you would still be practicing law and its very sad because we need lawyers like you to stand up for the little guy who have no voice. You probably were a threat to them and they didnt know how to handle the truth and did not want anyone to "rock the boat" so instead of allowing you to keep praticing they banished you, silenced you , the cowards that they are.

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