Federal judge tapped to fill Illinois seat on 7th Circuit

Editor’s note: This article has been updated.

Judge John Z. Lee of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois has been nominated by the Biden administration to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals and, if confirmed, will be the first Asian American judge to serve on that bench.

If confirmed, Lee will be filling the seat held by Judge Diane Wood, who announced in December 2021 that she would take senior status.

A 1989 magna cum laude graduate from Harvard College and 1992 cum laude graduate from Harvard Law School, Lee was confirmed to the Northern Illinois District Court in 2012. He was the first Korean American to ever serve as an Article III federal judge in the Northern Illinois District.

Lee was born in Aachen, Germany, and spent his early childhood in South Korea. He immigrated with his family to the United States in 1972 as a 4-year-old who did not speak English.

At his 2012 confirmation, Lee explained how his background instilled in him a reverence for the law.

“As a first generation immigrant to this country, I have developed a deep respect for the rule of law and for the principle that everyone should be treated fairly regardless of their racial or ethnic background, social-economic status or political beliefs,” he wrote in response to a question from Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota. “These are the very principles that attracted my parents to this country over 40 years ago and that provided me with the professional opportunities that I have enjoyed throughout my career. I believe that I have adhered to those principles throughout my professional and personal life and am deeply committed to them.”

Lee began his legal career serving in the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. He then moved into private practice, working as an associate at Mayer Brown and Grippo & Elden. Joining Freeborn & Peters in Chicago in 1999, Lee became a partner in two years, the quickest assent to partnership in the history of the firm.

Before he became a judge, Lee served as a board president of the Coordinated Advice and Referral Program for Legal Services, a legal aid agency that provides legal advice and referrals to members of underserved communities in Cook County, Illinois. Also, he served as president of the Asian Human Services of Chicago, a social services organization serving immigrant communities.

Lee spoke of his main focus as he began his tenure on the federal bench 10 years ago.

“I strive to provide all parties with a fair, just and efficient way of resolving disputes,” he said. “We are here not only to decide cases, but to oversee and craft a litigation process with the help of the parties that will results in a fair and just outcome.”

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