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United States Circuit Judge Ann Claire Williams, a pioneering African-American federal judge, received the Morton Brody Distinguished Judicial Service Award Monday night at Colby College in Waterville and told a standing-room-only crowd that everyone should take inspiration from those who have gone before, and that we have an obligation to teach their lessons and to help others fulfill the American dream.
Williams noted that from 1789 to 1928 there were no women or persons of color in lifetime judicial positions. Today roughly 13 percent of federal judgeships are filled by women while about 10 percent are filled by African Americans. “Significant gains have been made, particularly in the last 40 years,” she said.
Williams enumerated a list of trailblazing jurists who broke gender and race barriers. She began with Genevieve Cline, the first woman appointed to a federal court, ending 139 years of U.S. history that had seen no women or people of color on the bench. “She [Cline] represents the breaking of the judicial glass ceiling,” Williams said. “She gives us all the courage to dare, to hope, to dream.”
Williams’s list of a half-dozen pioneering American judges ended with Constance Baker Motley, the first African-American woman district judge, appointed in 1966. Motley was allowed into exclusive New York men’s clubs for judicial meetings only because the clubs thought she was a secretary. “She laughs about that to this day,” Williams said. “She has a sense of humor, like Mort Brody. She is a spirit of leadership–a spirit that does not get perturbed or thrown off course because of little or big things. She faced the challenges and found a way to overcome. She rolled with the flow and did not get sidetracked by any ‘ism’.”
The Brody Convocation at Colby began with Williams receiving an honorary doctor of laws degree from President William D. Adams. The event honors the late Morton A. Brody, a federal judge in Maine who was a friend of the college and an adjunct faculty member for many years. The award recognizes judges who share Brody’s traits of integrity, compassion, humanity and judicial excellence.
“We are here today because of the courage, judgment, integrity and dedication of the lessons of Judge Brody and those early trailblazers,” she said. “May their lessons never be forgotten.”