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Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024
The Observer

Circuit Court judge and Notre Dame trustee discusses life and career at Martin Luther King Celebration Luncheon

In a wide-ranging interview on Monday, interspersed with quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr., Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals Seventh Circuit and Notre Dame trustee Ann Claire Williams discussed her childhood in Detroit, her challenges and triumphs as a young black lawyer and judge, and her vision for a more just future.

The interview, which took place during a luncheon at the Joyce Center, closed off Walk the Walk Week, a series of University-sponsored events commemorating King’s legacy. Institute for Latino Studies co-director Luis Fraga reflected on King, and Erin McGinley, a 1996 graduate and Williams’ senior law clerk, conducted the interview.

U.S. Court of Appeals Seventh Circuit Judge Ann Claire Williams, left, responds to questions about her  upbringing and memories of the Civil Rights Movement at a luncheon at the Joyce Center on Monday.
Kathryne Robinson | The Observer
U.S. Court of Appeals Seventh Circuit Judge Ann Claire Williams, left, responds to questions about her upbringing and memories of the Civil Rights Movement at a luncheon at the Joyce Center on Monday.

Williams said although both her parents had college degrees and her mother worked in a school for juvenile delinquents, her father could not find a job in his field and worked as a bus driver. Williams said her parents worked hard and encouraged their children to follow their passions.

“My parents realized they had to take it one step at a time, and they had to keep moving forward, and that’s what they told us,” she said. “They also emphasized how important education was, that education was the key and that we could be whatever we wanted to be.”

Williams’ teenage years coincided with the height of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1963, her mother took her to the Detroit Walk for Freedom, at which King gave a speech that she described as a precursor to his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C. two months later.

“I was so taken and so moved by Dr. King and by his message of nonviolence, and so that was something that has stuck with me since then,” she said.

When she went to college to study education, both of Williams’ parents joined her. All three became schoolteachers. Williams said they overcame challenges that everybody faces at some point.  

“We’re all in this room today because somebody sacrificed, somebody dreamed big, came to this country, worked hard, never gave up and gave back to us and to the community, and so I always think about those things as I move forward in my life,” she said.

After teaching for a time and getting a masters degree, Williams applied to law school “on a dare,” she said. She was originally rejected from Notre Dame Law School, but a spot unexpectedly opened up for her. She became a member of several organizations, including the Center for Civil and Human Rights. She also took a job as an assistant rector at Farley Hall and worked on issues such as police brutality.

“We still have a lot of major disconnects in our communities,” she said. “When we look at certain communities where violence erupts, we have a lack of educational quality, we have the issue of lack of jobs, we have lots of issues and some of it is that some people are just violent, and that’s the way it is. There are reasons that that happens.

“On the other hand, we have police officers who come from communities [that are] not necessarily communities they serve and I think police departments are not doing the kind of job they need to be. They’re not doing enough to educate officers — there hasn't been enough communication.”

Williams said some communities, such as Boston, have made significant progress in increasing such communication. She said others have not.

“I think both sides can learn, and I think it’s a problem that we have to address head on and we have to face,” she said. “I think it’s tragic that we have these police officers killed and they’re afraid to go to work, and their families are afraid and the people in the community are afraid too that their kids are going to be murdered for no reason.”

Other persistent injustices, Williams said, are that over half of people who need a lawyer can’t afford one, and many don’t know how to respond to evictions or arrests. The most important part of her job as a lawyer and judge, she said, is to provide equal justice.

“Those vulnerable populations, those are the ones we have to worry about, and I think that’s what Dr. King was saying — it’s not just that you’re just safe and you can afford justice,” she said.

Through a Notre Dame law dean, Williams got a job as a clerk on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, the second African American to get the job. From there, she worked her way up. By 1985, President Ronald Reagan appointed her to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. At 35, she was the youngest-ever appointee, and the first woman of color.

“The Chicago Bar Association and seven other bar associations interviewed me,” she said. “I had tried a lot of cases as assistant U.S. attorney, and one of the lawyers said, 'You know, Ms. Williams, if you get this position, you’re, like, young, you’re a woman, and you’re black.' And I said, 'Well, I’ve been a black woman all my life. I’ve handled that.' And I said, 'As for age, that too will change in time.'”

In 1999, President Bill Clinton appointed Williams to the Seventh Circuit Court, again the first African American in the position.

When McGinley asked Williams why it is important to have judges from different backgrounds, Williams said while all judges must provide equal justice, people hope to see judges who are representative of them, and judges from a variety of backgrounds bring a variety of experience.

Williams said she had, in fact, faced racism on the job, like when lawyers would assume she was a court reporter when she was the judge, or when the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court shook her husband’s hand instead of hers at a dinner for new federal appointees.

“I’m not someone who gets angry and resentful,” she said. “You cannot carry every “ism” on your shoulders — racism, sexism, whatever the “ism” is — because then you look through the lens of your life through all those “isms” and it blocks you and you can’t go forward. You have to acknowledge that it’s there and then work with whatever the situation is. My view is, I will work harder, I will do more, I will use humor in some of those situations. That’s not to say I don’t get angry sometimes, but that’s not something I display in my inner action when I run into racism.”

In addition to her work as a federal judge and on the Notre Dame Board of Trustees, Williams has done a variety of other work, from working with the Just the Beginning Foundation, which encourages law careers for African Americans and other underrepresented groups, to teaching the American legal system in other countries.

“I believe if you have an idea and it’s a good idea ... you can move forward with the vision and get others to join with you,” she said. “And then you can make a [difference] in the world.”

Williams said that, especially in light of a contentious election season, it is important for different groups to communicate with each other and to remember that one group’s gain is not another group’s losses.

“It is not shouting,” she said. “It is not burning things up. It is doing it in discourse and standing up, marching, working within the political system, getting involved.

“All those things matter.”