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Judge J. Clifford Wallace Celebrates 50 Years on the Bench

November 5, 2020 / Ninth Circuit Public Information Office
Devitt Award

Now-retired Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, left, presenting Senior Circuit J. Clifford Wallace, right, with the American Judicature Society’s Edward J. Devitt Distinguished Service to Justice Award in 2006.

By William Cracraft, Communications Specialist

Chief Judge Emeritus J. Clifford Wallace, of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, who still takes half of a full caseload as a senior circuit judge, has had – and continues to have – an extraordinary 50-year judicial career.

Judge Wallace was born in 1928 in San Diego and lived his entire life there except for three years in the Navy in the ‘40s and three years in law school. Following his time in the Navy, he attended San Diego State College (now California State University, San Diego), graduating with honors and distinction in 1952, majoring in economics and minoring in political science. He went on to law school at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was a member of the board of editors of the California Law Review before graduating in 1955. Judge Wallace has been twice widowed and is now married to Dixie Jenee Robison Wallace. He has 15 children, 51 grandchildren, and 38 great-grandchildren.

When Judge Wallace passed the California Bar, he was offered a position in the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice which he turned down to join a law firm where he specialized in civil trials and eventually was made a partner.

Fifteen years after he started his legal career, on October 16, 1970, he received his commission as a U.S. district judge for the Southern District of California, initiating his 50-plus-year run as a federal judge. He was elevated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, receiving his commission for that position on June 28, 1972, and was chief judge of the Ninth Circuit from 1991-1996. Judge Wallace took senior status in 1996.

Judge Wallace was one of three judges considered for the U.S. Supreme Court seat that went to Justice John Paul Stevens, and he was under consideration subsequently for two other openings which went to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Justice Anthony Kennedy. Among Judge Wallace’s more recent accolades, he received the 2016 American Inns of Court A. Sherman Christensen Award “for distinguished, exceptional, and significant leadership to the American Inns of Court movement.” The award was presented at a U.S. Supreme Court celebration hosted by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Judge Wallace was instrumental in establishing the American Inns of Court. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy presented Judge Wallace with the 2005 Edward J. Devitt Award which honors judges whose careers have been exemplary, measured by their significant contributions to the administration of justice, advancement of the rule of law, and the improvement of society as a whole.

Justice Kennedy, now retired, who has been friends with Judge Wallace for many years, said it is an honor and a pleasure to congratulate him “for 50 years of such distinguished dedicated service to the judiciary of the United States and to the rule of law.”

“His scholarship and dedication to the rule of law has been important for the Ninth Circuit, for the judges and attorneys in that circuit, and for the rest of the judges in the United States, but also, and this is unique, he has inspired those who love the rule of law around the world,” Justice Kennedy said.

“Some years ago, when my travels took me to Bangkok, Thailand, we passed a certain building, and I asked, what is that building? They answered that that was the building that Judge Wallace had constructed to educate the judiciary. This was in Bangkok. He brought the rule of law, the idea of justice, the ideal of the dignity of judicial service halfway around the world, and he did it in other places around the world. There has been no judge, in my experience, in this country or any other country that has done as much as he has,” said Justice Kennedy. “It is a pleasure because he gave such a warm personal welcome to Mary and me and to our family when we came to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit,” Justice Kennedy added. “We enjoyed talking together about cases, about court administration, about how we could better perform our duties as judges. We became close, close friends.

“Every time he calls, it’s as if his face, smile and friendliness are in front of me. He always makes my day just by those calls. That is why it is a pleasure for Mary and me to congratulate and thank him. He has been a pillar of the rule of law, not just in the United States, but worldwide. He has been an inspiration and has made a difference, and I hope he continues to do so for many, many more years.”

Chief judge and longtime friend of Judge Wallace, Sidney R. Thomas, noted, “I have worked closely with Judge Wallace on matters of judicial administration from the time I first joined the Court. He has been a mentor and a close friend. He has had an enormous and positive impact on the administration of justice in the West. The breadth of his accomplishments in the field of judicial administration—both in the United States and abroad—is simply astonishing.”

Listed in 14 who’s who lists, including “Who’s Who in the World,” “Men of Achievement” and “Who’s Who of American Lawyers,” Judge Wallace is an untiring contributor to the advancement of the rule of law and administration of justice. He has delivered speeches or lectures to over 50 of the most august bodies in U.S. jurisprudence, including the American Bar Association, American College of Trial Lawyers, The George Washington University Law School, American Inns of Court, University of California School of Law at Berkeley, and Stanford University Law School, but his former law clerks, a number of who are now judges in their own right, honor him as a most compassionate man.

Senior District Judge David Campbell, of the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona, clerked for Judge Wallace in 1979-80 and, even after 40 years, remembers “clerking for the judge was a thoroughly pleasant experience. Although he was very efficient and focused on getting the work done, his office was a delightful place to work, with great staff who enjoyed their time together. I am a trial judge, rather than an appellate judge,” said Judge Campbell, “but I have tried to follow his model of getting the work done efficiently in a collegial environment of cooperation and collaboration.” 

Judge Campbell worked closely with Judge Wallace for years on his international work, and he paid tribute to Judge Wallace’s work in the international arena. “It has been very impressive to see what good Judge Wallace has done and continues to do in judiciaries around the world. It’s been a real pleasure to see his remarkable work in many countries. He is held in high esteem in dozens of countries and has done as much as anyone to improve the quality of judiciaries worldwide.”

Judge Campbell noted Judge Wallace has set a high standard. “His energy is remarkable. At 91 he is still going strong – hearing and deciding cases and working with courts and judges from many countries. He tells me he will think of slowing down when he reaches 100. I’ll be surprised if that’s true,” Judge Campbell finished. Judge Joan P. Weber, of the San Diego Superior Court, clerked for Judge Wallace in 1980-81 and noted it “was a memorable year for Judge Wallace and for me. Judge Wallace was one of the three finalists for an opening on the U.S. Supreme Court that year. He went back to D.C. to be interviewed by the Department of Justice and the White House, and all the clerks helped him get ready for those interviews. President Reagan ultimately selected Justice Sandra Day O’Connor for the seat, but we were all so proud of Judge Wallace.”

Judges Weber and Wallace have continuing history with each other. “Before I was appointed to the bench, I was an Assistant U.S. Attorney in San Diego and Judge Wallace was on the panel for several of my Ninth Circuit arguments,” said Judge Weber. “Rest assured I had those briefs and cases memorized.” In addition, “We are both judges in beautiful San Diego, and so our paths cross at many legal events. Judge Wallace and I were also both on the California Federal/State Judicial Council together several years ago. Just to show how my life has gone full circle, my daughter, Allison Scott, is currently a Ninth Circuit staff attorney. She always enjoys presenting her cases in front of Judge Wallace, just like her mom did,” she noted.

As he no doubt did with all his clerks, Judge Wallace taught Judge Weber that writing should be concise and to the point. “That has stayed with me throughout my professional career,” she said. “He also taught me that a judge’s job goes well beyond his/her work on the bench. Look at all the incredible work Judge Wallace has done internationally. He has helped so many countries develop their legal systems. He has spread the rule of law to multiple continents. I have always tried to follow his lead and get involved in my community and with organizations like the ABA, the American Law Institute and the National Association of Women Judges.”

His other clerks still celebrate their time with Judge Wallace, too. “We had a wonderful birthday celebration for Judge Wallace last year when he celebrated his 90th birthday,” said Judge Weber. “We had clerks coming to San Diego from all over the country. It was quite the festive and joyous occasion. You have to admire the commitment of a judge who is still hearing cases after 50 years on the bench.” 

Judge James C. Dever III, now U.S. district judge for the Eastern District of North Carolina, clerked for Judge Wallace in 1987-88. “Judge Wallace is one of the finest human beings that I have ever met,” said Judge Dever. “He is an extraordinary husband, father, citizen and federal judge. I remember the extraordinary care with which he treated each case and the kindness and respect that he showed to everyone.”

Judge Dever has stayed in touch with his former mentor over the years. “I have often benefited from Judge Wallace’s wise counsel since my clerkship ended. I try to remember that each case is the most important case in the world to the parties in that case. I learned that lesson from Judge Wallace. I am so happy to be able to congratulate him on his 50th anniversary on the federal bench, and look forward to our next clerk reunion,” he said.

Among his many activities furthering justice, Judge Wallace has participated in nearly two dozen important conferences, including the 1983 Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies Seminar on International Human Rights Law, the 1985 Conference on Religion and Law: Middle Eastern Influences on the West, and from 1991-1996 participated in 10 conferences of the Judicial Conference of the United States.

Judge Wallace has been a significant contributor to judicial administration, a topic he has been passionate about, for many years. As a summer 1976 scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C., he studied the basic problems of judicial administration, which began a continuing interest in the subject.

Judge Wallace was especially motivated to develop American Inns of Court modeled on the English Inns, following his participation in the 1977 Anglo-American Exchange. English inns have supervisory and disciplinary functions over their members, and provide libraries, dining facilities and professional accommodations.

He shared the concept with then-Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger, who initiated a feasibility study. Following six months of research, Chief Justice Burger recommended the development of the American Inns of Court, and Judge Wallace assisted in developing the pilot program.

An inn’s membership includes judges, lawyers and sometimes law professors and law students. Inns are independent and hold programs and discussions on matters germane to their profession. “When the flood of lawyers occurred from an increasing population graduating from law schools, there was a lack of ability to teach lawyers how to become effective trial lawyers and this ability that we had known was decreasing,” said Judge Wallace. “There was also a decreasing civility among trial lawyers which was equally distressing. I thought the answer was to develop something like how lawyers are under continuous teaching to make the profession more effective in their presentations and to maintain civility. After Chief Justice Burger agreed, I spent 4-5 years building the necessary momentum and developing the structural process. Today there are nearly 400 Inns of Court in the United States which have touched over 30,000 lawyers.”

By 1980, Judge Wallace had been on the bench for a decade. “I think my understanding of my role was enhanced when I understood my judicial philosophy,” said Judge Wallace. “Justice William O. Douglas, who had become a good friend because of our mutual interest in hiking, told me that no one knew their judicial philosophy until they had been on the bench for five years. I had been on the bench 10 years and therefore, with his encouragement, I set out to put on paper my judicial philosophy. The end result of that was an article that was published in the George Washington Law Review, “The Jurisprudence of Judicial Restraint: A Return to the Moorings.”

In the early 1980s, Judge Wallace received a special assignment from Chief Justice Burger to prepare a study on the future of the judiciary. His recommendations were included in legislation resulting in the Three-Branch Federal Court Study Committee (December 1988 to April 1990, Judge Joseph Weis, chair).

Judge Wallace has testified on a wide variety of judicial administration matters, including for the House Subcommittee on Courts, Civil Justice and the Administration of Justice, on judicial tenure and restructuring of the circuit councils in 1979; the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, on the proposed division of the Ninth Circuit in 1995; and the Commission on Structural Alternatives for the Federal Courts of Appeal in 1998.

Judge Wallace is the former chair of the Conference of Chief Circuit Judges, a former member of the Judicial Conference of the U.S. Committee on International Judicial Relations and a board member of the Federal Judicial Center, among a dozen other impressive judicial bodies, many dealing with critical administrative matters.

The Daughters of the American Revolution awarded Judge Wallace their Medal of Honor in 2018, just the latest of a score of awards for his contributions to the federal judicial system. Other awards include the U.S. Department of State award for contributions to judiciaries worldwide (2014); The International Center for Law and Religion Studies at Brigham Young University Award for Distinguished Service in Promoting Religious Freedom (2009); the Judge D. Lowell and Barbara Jensen Public Service Award (2008); and the Boy Scouts Silver Beaver Award (1981).

Judge Wallace has made many other significant contributions to the administration of justice. Along with memberships in local, state and national bar associations, he was on the ABA Special Advisory Committee on International Activities (1997-98), a consultant for the ABA Center for Human Rights (2002-present), and a member of the Advisory Panel to the Rule of Law Advisory Board of the Miller Institute for Global Challenges and the Law at the UC Berkeley School of Law. Judge Wallace participated in the televised debate in 1986 on “How to Interpret the Constitution,” sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, appeared in 1997 televised program on “Justice Delayed is Justice Denied,” sponsored by Worldnet/USIA and was interviewed in 2009 for an hour-long segment of “Conversations with History” for University of California Television on judicial activism and restraint, reforming judicial institutions and the American judiciary as a model.

One of the highlights of his stellar career was Judge Wallace’s chief judgeship of the Ninth Circuit from February 1, 1991 until March 1, 1996. As chief judge, he developed innovative procedures for coping with the needs of a large circuit. Under his administration, the Ninth Circuit developed the first federal appellate long-range plan with a mechanism to set annual strategic goals.

During his tenure as chief judge, Judge Wallace assisted with the first successful federal Gender Fairness Task Force and organized a second Task Force on Racial, Religious and Ethnic Fairness, and developed the mission statement for the Judicial Council of the Ninth Circuit. In addition, as chief judge, Judge Wallace developed a unique appellate settlement program and a civil appeals program that provides separate tracks depending upon the nature and need of the case. These are just a few of the programs he initiated while chief judge.  

While traveling his long path, Judge Wallace made many friends. Cathy Catterson met Judge Wallace in 1977 while working in Washington, D.C., for a U.S. Judicial Conference Committee, assigned to staff a subcommittee on appellate admission standards Judge Wallace was chairing. “After my clerkship with the committee finished, Judge Wallace encouraged me to apply for jobs in the Ninth Circuit,” she said. Catterson began working for the court in 1979 and became clerk of court in 1985. Six years later, Judge Wallace became chief judge.

“What stands out about Judge Wallace in all of his permutations,” said Catterson, who retired in 2017, “is his absolute dedication to improving the administration of justice, to make the courts work better for the people who used them and for the people who worked at them. For example, after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake in San Francisco, court operations were split over six or seven buildings in the Tenderloin from 1989-1991. In 1991, around the time Judge Wallace became Chief, the court reunited in temporary headquarters on the Embarcadero. Chief Judge Wallace rolled up his sleeves and had extensive meeting with staff to figure out what we needed to do to get the cases moving again. 

“I also had the honor of working with Judge Wallace on a number of international projects. I joined him on visits to the India Supreme Court, the Israeli Supreme Court, the Thailand Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights. At each and every one, he was welcomed back as a returning hero. Clearly these visits were not one-time visits; long term relationships were established and the communication and assistance to those courts continued when Judge Wallace returned home. Many of those relationships continue to this day,” she said. 

Over 40 listings or scholarly articles have flowed from Judge Wallace’s pen, including “The United States Courts, The Role of International Courts,” keynote speech, 2008 German Law Publishers; “Three Major Issues of Judicial Reform in the World,” 2007 Journal of Law Application; “Comparative Perspectives on the Office of Chief Justice” (2005); and “Civil Pretrial Procedures in Asia and the Pacific: A Comparative Analysis” (2002). Among his many accolades, Judge Wallace can point to a number of affiliations with some of the finest universities in the U.S. He has delivered a number of commencement addresses, including two at BYU and has been a board member at various law schools. Along with educational institutions, Judge Wallace has been both board member and executive committee member for the Boy Scouts of America, as well as co-chair of the BSA committee to develop scouting in Black and Hispanic San Diego communities.

Participation in his church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has been an important factor in Judge Wallace’s personal life. He has been a Regional Representative of the Twelve training stake presidents; a stake president, akin to managing a diocese; a counselor to stake president; a bishop (akin to parish management); a temple president; a Sunday school teacher; and served in a mission presidency. Judge Wallace has been a frequent speaker at school, youth and other organization meetings.

Perhaps Judge Wallace’s greatest legacy is his contribution to the advancement of the rule of law and the administration of justice throughout the world. He has been using his vacations for nearly 40 years to work with judiciaries overseas. He has now worked directly with judiciaries in over 70 countries on every continent. After taking senior status, he began spending about half his time on these activities.

Among his many accomplishments in this realm, Judge Wallace developed the concept of the Conference of Chief Justices of Asia and the Pacific and has been a participant in those conferences for more than 40 years. He has worked with many countries to develop judicial needs assessments and assisted in the implementation of programs to meet needs. He has given speeches or lectured from Algeria and Austria to Uganda and Vietnam. Efforts included training judges, lecturing at judicial conferences, addressing anti-corruption conferences, advising on developing supreme courts and many other legal topics and activities. Judge Wallace is deeply gratified to have worked directly with over 70 judiciaries worldwide in assisting them in improving their judiciaries so that the rule of law governs their countries.

Developing a structure for judicial administration that would be more effective in the United States and other countries has been one of Judge Wallace’s most cherished accomplishments. The second of his top accomplishments is the development of judicial conferences of judges, which include the aforementioned Conference of Chief Justices of Asia and the Pacific, the Conference of Chief Justices of Central and Eastern Europe and the Pacific Judicial Conference.

His third top accomplishment in which he takes great satisfaction is his work to develop a structure within the Judicial Conference of the United States to have more effective processes by which the Judicial Conference can communicate and assist Congress on issues important to the judiciary. Despite his decades of work in developing courts in other countries, Judge Wallace sees the job as continuing. “I do not even see the end of the tunnel,” he said. “As soon as I am able to fly again, I will be traveling to countries that have asked me to assist in various projects which will make their judiciaries more effective and assist in strengthening the rule of law. For example, next year, I have already prepared for eight projects if I am able to fly. Perhaps the most significant is beginning the work that may well lead to a Conference of Chief Justices of the Middle East.”

A tireless champion of good legal training, the judge created and taught a course in judicial administration at BYU School of Law in 1982, at Salzburg, Austria, in 1985, and at the Institute on International and Comparative Law, King’s College London, in 1987. He was retained as a judicial administration consultant by the courts of Mexico, Thailand, and Israel, among others.  He was a member of the Executive Committee, International Organization for Judicial Training for 10 years, ending in 2009, and from 2002 to the present, he has been a member of the National Committee on United States-China Relations.

With his many years of developing programs to advance jurisprudence, Judge Wallace has formed a clear perspective on the role of judges. “I think all of us have to remember that our role as a judge is not to change the country, which is the responsibility of the political branches, but our duty under Article III of the Constitution is to interpret objectively the meaning of the Constitution and governing statutes, and to provide prompt decisions.

“There is something that I learned that has made me very content with my judicial life in the case decisions and even more importantly with my work in structural development – judicial administration. When we leave this mortal existence, we will not be long remembered. But our work, if done for the right reason, will hopefully have a positive influence on future generations. The best advice given to me, by Harold B. Lee (a leader in his church), was, ‘There is no end in the amount of good you can do if you do not care who gets the credit.”

Finally, Judge Wallace has some advice for today’s law school graduates. “Do not gauge your success as a lawyer by the amount of money you make. Your task is not only to represent clients, but also to help make our judicial system even more effective in properly defending the rights of all Americans. I suggest you remember the words of former Justice Potter Stewart when asked the question after he retired from the Supreme Court: ‘How would you like to be remembered?” His response was “I would like to be remembered as a good lawyer who did his best.’”


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