“Are y’all some kind of thrillseeker?” That was the question to litigants who were stupid or ballsy enough to defy Judge Richard Williams’s courtroom procedures or, God forbid, direct order. I had the honor to clerk for him the year after I graduated, and Tim and I were lucky enough to persuade him to marry us in 1993. Now, with deepest sadness, I mourn his passing.
I can’t begin to list all the things I learned from my clerkship year with Judge Williams. He was a brilliant jurist, a gentle and good-humored teacher, and a hilarious storyteller. Late last year when my friend Laura Hershey passed, I explained how she was part of my Mental Greek Chorus. Well, Judge Williams is right there in my head every time I stand up before a Court or sit down at my computer to write a motion or brief. I aspire to be both smart enough and professional enough that I would not risk his good-natured admonition.
Herewith some random photos and memories.
Chambers the year I clerked: Randy; Spence; Maria; Skip; Mark; and of course, The Judge.
Others will do a better job of telling his story; even the outline is amazing. Raised on a peach orchard in rural Virginia and educated in a one room schoolhouse, he joined the army and ended up surviving the attack on Pearl Harbor. After the war, he benefited from (in his words) “the biggest affirmative action program of all time,” and attended the University of Virginia and UVa law school on the GI Bill. He was in private practice in Richmond, then served on the state bench before being appointed by President Carter to the federal bench.
Learning from the Judge went far beyond the courtroom. In chambers, we heard stories from his practice and his tenure as a judge that were generally hilarious and ultimately provided an education toward the legal Holy Grail: how to be a good advocate, while being professional to your colleagues and opponents, and keeping a sense of humor about the whole business of law. My only complaint is that he completely spoiled us. I left my clerkship after a year expecting the practice of law to be as fair, learned, efficient, and humorous as I had experienced in Judge Williams’s chambers. Alas, this turns out not to be the case.
He was also a learned naturalist, and both during the clerkship and during later visits to Denver, we had long, educational hikes with the Judge and his wife, Gene. I became very comfortable answering the Judge’s Socratic questions about my bench memos. What I didn’t realize is that this this mode of interaction would extend to the natural world, as well. When we hiked near Richmond,
I was happy to learn (= internalize briefly) the names of the local flora and fauna. When we hiked Waterton Canyon near Denver,
it turned out I was actually supposed to know things about the natural world near my adopted home town. The dialog went something like this:
Judge: What is that?
Me: A bird.
Judge: And that?
Me: A tree.
I think he came away very relieved that I had only been his law clerk, and that he had not had to rely on me for Birding Memos. During that visit, we also took the Judge to a Rockies game
and, if memory services, convened an “investment opportunity” — of the seven-card variety — in our apartment with former clerk Sunhee Juhon and her husband, Arthur Hodges. We called the judge “Judge.” Once during an “investment opportunity” at the Judge’s cabin, my co-clerk Mark Batten called him “Coach.” Although it didn’t stick (and probably would not have been preferred) it was accurate. He was our coach, during our clerkship year and after.
Judge Williams was also — for some unknown and, for us, heartwarming reason — a big John Elway fan.
When we sent him a jersey one year, we were very pleased to get back the photo above, which remains one of my favorites of him. But my all time favorite is this:
Of all the wonderful things Judge Williams brought to my life, marrying Tim and me was the one for which I am the most grateful.
Today we attended his funeral and met and heard stories from many of the people whose lives he had touched. It’s hard to believe I’ll never again hear his gravel-inflected voice telling us a rip-roaring tale of the cast of characters who populated his practice and his courtroom.
We’ll miss you, Judge. Thank you.
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