Hon. Ann Claire Williams
United States Court of Appeals Judge for the Seventh Circuit
On November 10, 1999, Ann Claire Williams was appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit by President William J. Clinton. Judge Williams became the first African American ever appointed to the Seventh Circuit and the third African American woman to serve on any United States Court of Appeals. Judge Williams had previously been appointed in 1985 by President Ronald W. Reagan to the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. She was the first African American woman appointed to a district court in the Seventh Circuit, which includes all federal courts in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin.
Apart from her duties as a judge, Ann Williams has a long history of service to the federal judiciary. In 2008, Chief Justice John G. Roberts appointed Judge Williams to a second three-year term on the Supreme Court Fellows Program Commission. In 1993, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist appointed Judge Williams as the first woman and first African American to be Chair of the Court Administration and Case Management Committee (CACM) of the Judicial Conference of the United States from 1993 to 1997, after she had served on the Committee from 1990-1993. As Chair, Judge Williams was responsible for making policy recommendations and testifying before Congress on issues relating to the federal judiciary. While a member of the CACM, Judge Williams also taught case management skills to each new class of federal district court judges at the Federal Judicial Center in Washington, D.C. Judge Williams also served for two years as president of the Federal Judges Association (1999-2001) after serving as president-elect for two years and treasurer for four years. The FJA, with a membership of almost 900 district and appeals court federal judges, is dedicated to preserving the independence of the federal judiciary.
Throughout her career, Judge Williams has committed herself to public service and minority concerns, creating organizations to address those needs. In 1987, Judge Williams was a founding member of the Black Women Lawyers Association of Chicago (BWLA), an association of African American female lawyers, judges, law professors, and law students dedicated to providing professional support for African American women in the legal profession. Troubled by the low bar passage rate of African Americans in Illinois, in 1977, Judge Williams co-founded Minority Legal Education Resources, Inc. (MLER), an organization that for over 30 years has helped over 4,000 minority and other lawyers pass the Illinois bar at a rate that equals or exceeds the average passing rate. She continues to lecture twice a year to each new class of law school graduates.
In 1992, Judge Williams co-founded the Just The Beginning Foundation (JTBF), an organization that was initially created to celebrate the integration of the federal judiciary but has since evolved into a pipeline organization that encourages students of color and other under-represented groups from middle school through law school to pursue careers in law and the judiciary. JTBF’s activities include an annual Summer Legal Institute, a two-week program that provides high school students from diverse backgrounds with practical tools that help prepare them for a career in law. JTBF has also co-sponsored with other major bar associations seven national conferences attended by hundreds of judges and thousands of law students and members of the community.
In 1991, Judge Williams created a fellowship program for the Board of Equal Justice Works to fund post-graduate fellowships for public interest agencies and organizations and provide debt forgiveness to fellows. Judge Williams created the program through her order in In Re Folding Carton, 1991 WL 32867 (N.D. Ill. 1991), which provided $2.3 million in cy pres funds. The two-year fellowship program has been extremely successful — now more than 100 fellows are regularly placed in under-represented and disadvantaged communities. In 2002, Judge Williams was elected to the Board of Equal Justice Works.
Judge Williams also has a long-standing commitment to education and training, both abroad and in the United States. For over twenty years, Judge Williams has taught with the National Institute of Trial Advocacy, the country's premier trial advocacy program. She has also taught trial advocacy courses at Harvard, Northwestern and other Chicago area law schools and has judged moot court competitions across the country. Judge Williams has also served as an adjunct professor and instructor in numerous educational and training programs for judges, practicing attorneys, and law students.
Internationally, in 2006, Judge Williams co-led a conference on constitutional law and law reform in Nairobi, Kenya attended by over 125 Kenyan attorneys. Later that year, Judge Williams was invited by the Chief Justice of Kenya as the first non-Kenyan judge to attend and address the Kenyan Judicial Colloquium, an annual four-day gathering of the Kenyan judiciary, on issues such as mediation, case management, and judicial ethics. At the Chief Justice’s invitation, Judge Williams returned in 2007 and 2008 to present to the Colloquium issues relating to judicial training around the world. During that visit, Judge Williams also spearheaded and taught at the first Kenyan Women’s Trial Advocacy Program for lawyers who represent victims of domestic violence. Judge Williams returned in August 2008 to lead another women’s trial advocacy training program for 40-50 Kenyan lawyers and law students.
In 2007, Judge Williams led a delegation in Liberia for Lawyers Without Borders, teaching trial advocacy skills to Liberian magistrate judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys. She plans to return in 2008 to spearhead training for all of Liberia’s circuit trial judges and twenty additional lawyers. Also in 2007, Judge Williams was invited to and attended meetings in the United States and Canada as one of 28 delegates of the Canada-United States Legal Exchange Program attended by judges and members of the United States Supreme Court, the Supreme Court of Canada and the American College of Trial Lawyers.
In 2002 and 2003, Judge Williams led delegations to Ghana to train members of the Ghanaian judiciary in areas including judicial ethics, case management, and alternative dispute resolution. She has been influential in developing an ongoing relationship between the Ghanaian and United States judiciaries, and in 2004, she hosted in the United States a delegation from Ghana, which included the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Ghana and other Ghanaian judges during their three-week study of the United States courts. In 2008 trained Federal Judicial center Ghanian Judges at the new Judicial Training Center in collaboration with Fordham Law School and other organizations in the creation of the Ghana Judicial Training Center.
For several years, Judge Williams has also served as a member of international training delegations that have traveled to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha, Tanzania and the Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at the Hague. On her multiple trips to the ICTR and ICTY, she has taught trial and appellate advocacy courses to prosecutors of persons accused of serious violations of human rights law committed in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.
Finally, Judge Williams receive the 2008 American Bar Association Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award, which recognizes the accomplishments of women lawyers who have excelled in the field and have paved the way for others. In 2008, Judge Williams received the National Bar Association’s Gertrude E. Rush Award, which recognizes a lawyer who manifests the pioneering spirit of Gertrude Rush, demonstrates leadership in the community and in the legal profession, and demonstrates concern for human and civil rights. She also received an award this year as part of the 40th Anniversary Celebration of the American Bar Association’s Council on Legal Education Opportunity (CLEO), which promotes diversity in the legal profession.
Judge Williams has received numerous awards from schools and legal organizations for her contributions to the law and the legal community. In 2000, Williams received the Chicago Lawyer Person of the Year award, and in 2004, both Crain’s magazine and the Chicago Sun-Times named her as one of Chicago’s 100 Most Influential and Powerful Women. In 2005, Judge Williams received the Arabella Babb Mansfield Award from the National Association of Women Lawyers, the organization’s highest honor. In 2006, she received the Spirit of Excellence Award, the highest honor awarded by the American Bar Association’s Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession. In 2007, Judge Williams received awards from the BWLA and MLER organizations that she co-founded. That year, she was also inducted into the Cook County Bar Association’s Hall of Fame.
Other awards that Judge Williams has received include the William H. Hastie Award from the National Bar Association; the Chicago Bar Association’s Vanguard Award and Earl Burrus Dickerson Award; the Illinois Judicial Council Special Achievement Award; the Woman with Vision Award from the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois; the Women Making History Award from the National Council of Negro Women; and the National Black Law Students Association Alumni Award. Judge Williams has also received Honorary Degrees from the Universities of Notre Dame and Portland, Chicago-Kent, and William Mitchell Colleges of Law, and St. Mary’s, Colby, and Lake Forest Colleges, as well as numerous awards from other universities and legal organizations.
In addition to her memberships in various bar groups, including the Chicago, Women’s, Cook County, Black Women Lawyers, Federal, and American Bar Associations, Judge Williams also serves on the Board of Trustees of the University of Notre Dame, The National Institute for Trial Advocacy, Equal Justice Works, and Just The Beginning Foundation. She is also a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.
Before becoming a lawyer, Ann Williams began her career as a music and third grade teacher in the inner city public schools of Detroit, Michigan, after graduating with a Bachelor’s Degree from Wayne State University in Elementary Education and a Master’s Degree in Guidance and Counseling from the University of Michigan while working full time. She received her Juris Doctorate from the University of Notre Dame.
Williams’s legal career began as a law clerk with Judge Robert A. Sprecher of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. She was one of the first two African American law clerks in that court. She then worked as an Assistant United States Attorney in Chicago for nine years, trying major felony cases and appearing before the Seventh Circuit. She was the first African American woman to serve as supervisor in that office and was promoted to deputy chief of the criminal receiving and appellate division. Ultimately, she became the first Chief of the Organized Drug Enforcement Task Force, responsible for organizing federal investigation and prosecution activities for a five-state region.