Judge Diane Wood on Breaking Gender Barriers, the Supreme Court, and Her Career in the Judicial Field

 /  May 15, 2016, 2:33 p.m.


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Judge Diane Wood is a lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School and also serves as a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. She is credited with many accomplishments in the judicial field, including being shortlisted twice by President Obama for the Supreme Court. The Gate’s Riddhi Sangam sat down with Judge Wood to discuss her judicial career and the Supreme Court’s role in the United States today.

Gate: You have broken many gender barriers in your career. You were one of the first women to clerk for the Supreme Court; you were the third woman hired as a law professor by the University of Chicago Law School; and you were the second woman to work on the Seventh Circuit. How has your role as a pioneer for women in the judicial field influenced your work?

Judge Diane Wood: Well, it's a big question. It's certainly something that one notices. When I became a lawyer, there weren't very many women in higher positions. And since I was the only woman on the faculty during the first year I was at the University of Chicago, it's pretty hard to miss that too. It took a while for the law school to catch up with hiring the many very qualified women who were starting to move into the professionpeople who had clerked at the Supreme Court, people who had other signs of excellence. The law school is better off for having a much wider variety of people at this point.

Gate: How do you think the role and perception of the Supreme Court has changed over the past two decades?

Wood: The first point I would make is that the public at large is poorly informed about the Supreme Court. That's a great shame, because the Court hands down so many decisions that are of wide public [interest]. Every June, the public pays attention to maybe a few blockbuster cases, but not the rest of the Court's work. I think what has happened over the last twenty or thirty years is that people have lost sight of the Court's fundamental character as a legal institution. I think the Court is seen in a much more politicized way, partly because of a few cases that have been that wayBush v. Gore, for example, and the Citizens United case. But for the most part, the Court is peopled by justices who are trying to interpret the Constitution or trying to interpret statutes as best as they can. Of course they have different approaches to it, as people are likely to do, and just as the judges on my court do, but it's a much more complex picture than just politics versus law.

Gate: Tell us a little bit about being shortlisted for the Supreme Court twice. What was it like interviewing one-on-one with President Obama for the vacant Supreme Court seat in 2009?

Wood: Obviously, it is a tremendous honor to be in that very small group of potential nominees, and we can see who the President is looking at now, although the circumstances are much more complicated at this point. But I was very pleased to have the chance to go to talk to President Obama about this. I did know him already a little bit from his time at the University of Chicago. It was not the first time I had met him, but I was not particularly in his best circle of friends there either. He was busy writing his book at the time, and I was busy being the mother of three children, and being the associate dean, and doing all sorts of other things. So I knew him a little bit, but not terribly well. The interview wasn't a very long conversation. It was a very careful conversation, because the President is well aware that you don't ask prospective judges how they would rule on particular cases, and he was very, very careful to follow that rule. So it was a nice conversation.

Gate: An important factor in the selection of Supreme Court justices is the president’s legacy, but other factors such as the judge’s stances on controversial or landmark decisions are also considered. What role do these various factors play in the selection process for the Supreme Court? Which factors do you think have the most influence?

Wood: It's very hard for me to say, because first of all, each president has hisor her, somedayown priorities about what goes into the selection of a particular justice. Obviously, you want somebody who is going to be able to handle the tremendous variety of topics that come before the Court. You want somebody who has a judicial philosophy that is compatible with yours, and so you think of the pragmatic school of thought, or the original intent school, or the progressive school, or whatever schools of thought are out there at any given time. The president is going to want somebody who will face the future and all of the unknown cases in a way that that particular president thinks is correct. As far as one's willingness to overrule old cases that seem to have been wrongly decidedversus sticking with the stare decisis principle that gives our country stability and gives us what we like to call the rule of lawthat's a very delicate balance that the justices themselves explore from time to time. So I'm not sure that the president either can or should get too much into that.

Gate: If you could advise President Obama, who would you select as the next Supreme Court justice?

Wood: I don't think I could ever do that, actually, because it's such a personal decision for the president. There are pros and cons for each, and looking at ideas about where somebody comes from and diversity among the nine justices is a good idea. I will say that looking at my own court, having people with different backgrounds and from different places enriches our discussions and really makes us a better court. So I suspect the president is well aware of that as he goes through this process.

Gate: How do you view the relationship between the three branches of government? Do you have any concerns about the Court’s lack of implementation powers?

Wood: No, I'm not concerned about that at all, because it's been proven throughout our history that we are a reactive branch of government. We take the cases that come to us. We don't go out there and make up policy. We don't go out there and look for casesbelieve me, we have plenty of business as it is, with people bringing their cases to us. I would say for me, after twenty years as a federal appellate judge, I think it's a very good idea for judges to be extremely modest in their constitutional rulings. Let the legislative branch address the topics of the day, the way that people who elected them want those topics to be addressed, because there is flexibility there. I have increasingly come to see that we don't have perfect crystal balls, and that we want to be very careful when we get out there on a limb and make a broad sweeping statement.

Gate: Do you view the main responsibility of the Court as upholding legal precedent or making good social policy?

Wood: Well, the Court is a legal institution. I think it's a false dichotomy in some ways, because, as I like to say, there are some parts of the Constitution that are extremely specific: the president has to be thirty-five years old, there are no titles of nobility. So of course the Court would enforce anything like that. There are other parts of the Constitution that are written in extremely broad terms: due process has to be followed, no cruel and unusual punishment, equal protection, freedom of speech and of the press. And those areas frequently require line-drawing. The way those lines get drawn is likely to be influenced by what's happening in society and what's the problem that's been put before the Court, and the Court is looking at problems now that were inconceivable in 1787 or in 1791, which is the year the Bill of Rights was enacted, or 1868, the year the Fourteenth Amendment came into force. So the Court is inevitably going to be understanding these broad constitutional terms in the context in which they are presented, so it's possible to avoid policy at some level. But it's really not because it's a policy decisionthey're trying to understand the document.

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Riddhi Sangam

Riddhi Sangam is a third-year Economics major. This past summer, she interned with Rutberg & Company, a boutique investment bank located in San Francisco. On campus, she is a Research Assistant at the Becker Friedman Institute and is also a member of the Women in Public Service Program.


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