At just over five feet tall, Hon. Amy J. St. Eve ’90 is “not overly imposing when standing,” wrote a reporter covering the Conrad Black fraud trial in Chicago for the Telegraph in 2007. “But when sitting behind the bench in courtroom 1241 in Chicago’s federal court house, she is not a woman to be messed with.”
Indeed, Judge St. Eve was one of the youngest judges to join the federal bench when she was appointed at age thirty-six to her current position as U.S. district court judge for the Northern District of Illinois by President George W. Bush in 2002.
But since then, in addition to the trial of Mr. Black, a media mogul found guilty of stealing $84 million from the company that owns the Chicago Sun-Times, Judge St. Eve has presided with aplomb over two other high-profile trials. In one, the defendant, Muhammed Salah, a Chicago medical van driver, was convicted earlier this year of lying under oath about his ties to the Palestinian group Hamas, which is on the U.S. government’s list of terrorist organizations. In another, Antoin “Tony” Rezko, a Chicago real estate developer and fundraiser for Barack Obama and other politicians from both parties, was convicted of fraud and money laundering.
On her approach to her job, Judge St. Eve explains: “I take the allegations seriously in every case that comes before me, whether it’s small, big, criminal, or civil. Politics plays no role at all. I assess things based on the law and the facts presented to me, and I try very hard to make sure I’m fair and objective in everything I do.”
One of her tasks is making sure the media doesn’t infl uence a trial’s outcome. It’s a lesson she learned in 1994–96 when she was named associate independent counsel under Kenneth Starr during his investigation of then-president Bill Clinton. “I learned in Little Rock to not let the press affect anything I do,” she says. “Now I don’t read coverage during a trial, and I put certain procedures in place so it doesn’t affect the jury.”
Judge St. Eve had worked in private practice with Davis Polk & Wardwell in New York City for just four years when her interest in prosecution earned her a spot on Mr. Starr’s team, prompted by a recommendation to his assistant deputy chief in Little Rock from a colleague at another law firm with whom she’d worked on a case.
Only twenty-nine when she took the job, she was responsible for the win in the fraud trial of former Arkansas governor Jim Guy Tucker and Jim and Susan McDougal, two partners in a failed real estate venture called Whitewater Development whose copartners also included Bill and Hillary Clinton.
“She’s an absolutely brilliant lawyer, one of the best there is,” says George Collins, a Chicago lawyer who appeared against Judge St. Eve in the prosecution of Mr. Tucker. “She was competent and capable and perceptive, and an extraordinarily good examiner of witnesses. If it didn’t hurt too bad to lose, I’d say it would be a joy to be against her.”
An early riser known for her promptness, Judge St. Eve is in her Northern Illinois district court chambers at 6:00 a.m., and in court ahead of schedule. “At the rates lawyers are billing their clients these days, if I set a hearing for 8:30 a.m. and don’t come until 9:00 a.m., I think that’s unfair,” she says.
“Smart and reasonable, she won’t let cases age, but she doesn’t steamroll you either,” one civil litigator writes in the Robing Room, a Web site where practitioners weigh in on judges.
“Amy is an outstanding judge who mixes high intelligence with down-to-earth common sense,” says colleague Virginia Kendall, a fellow U.S. district court judge with the Northern District of Illinois. “She is efficient and hardworking, and as a result, the litigants who appear in front of her are assured that their matter will be handled by someone who has expended the time and effort to understand the issues.”
Judge St. Eve grew up in Belleville, Illinois, a suburb of St. Louis. The kid sister of three brothers (“They toughened me up.”), she read Little Women and the Nancy Drew series as a girl and was class valedictorian and student council president in high school. A teacher and student council adviser, Fritz Kunze, made an impression when he told her “to keep my options open and reach for whatever I might want.”
Hunting for a good college on the East Coast at her father’s urging, “I did a school tour and fell in love with Cornell,” she says. She majored in history, graduating with honors in 1987. After interning the summer before her senior year for Illinois senator Alan J. Dixon, a Democrat also from Belleville, she decided to go on for a law degree at Cornell because, “I saw you could do so many different things with it.”
At the Law School, she was first in her class and editor of the Cornell Law Review. “It sounds crazy, but I really enjoyed law school,” she says. “The small classes were wonderful. Professor Hillman’s contracts class definitely had an impact, as did Professor Wolfram’s class in civil procedure.”
She joined Davis Polk after graduation, gravitating toward white-collar criminal defense work. Interested in prosecution, she considered joining the Justice Department but was prevented from doing so by a hiring freeze. Later, after her work with Mr. Starr’s team and before her judgeship, she was a prosecu tor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago and senior counsel with Abbott Laboratories.
“One thing that helps make Amy a balanced and practical jurist,” says Judge Kendall, “is she has a beautiful family that remains a priority in her life.”
In 1993, Judge St. Eve married Howard B. Chrisman, B.A.’87, whom she met when the two were students at Cornell. He went on to become a doctor. The couple now has three young children. “I try to be home in time to make them dinner every evening and am active at their schools as ‘room mom’ for one of their classes each year,” she reports. “I have a large amount of control over my time so I can often schedule it around their soccer games and piano recitals. It’s a juggle, but it’s certainly something that can be done if you choose to do it.”
Everyone in the family is active in sports, including Judge St. Eve, who runs half marathons, most recently in an August race in Chicago.
In 2002, she was named one of the forty top people under age forty in Crain’s Chicago Business, and in 2003, she was appointed to the President’s Council of Cornell Women. A third honor she cherishes is from her high school, Belleville West, which put her on its Wall of Fame. Sandy Hall Magnus, an astronaut, and Bob Goalby, a top golfer, are also on the wall, notes Judge St. Eve. “I was honored to be in their company.”
In response to those who have speculated she’ll eventually be nominated as a Supreme Court justice, she says: “I’m flattered. But my current position is a lifetime appointment by the president, confirmed by the Senate. I love my job, and I feel lucky and blessed with my life. I have no other plans.”