Trailblazing Chicago Judge Ann Williams to testify at Ketanji Brown Jackson Supreme Court hearing

Williams’ storied career as a federal judge speaks volumes as the Senate considers Jackson, who, if confirmed, will be the first Black female on the Supreme Court.

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Retired federal Judge Ann Claire Williams speaks during a news conference with other Jones Day attorneys in the Loop, sharing details about a report on the city’s response to the botched raid of Anjanette Young’s home, Thursday morning, Dec. 16, 2021.

Retired federal Judge Ann Claire Williams will testify on behalf of Ketanji Brown Jackson on Thursday, the last day of her Supreme Court confirmation hearing.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

WASHINGTON — Ann Claire Williams, the retired judge who was the first Black woman to sit on Chicago-based federal district and appellate courts, will testify on behalf of Ketanji Brown Jackson on Thursday, the last day of her Supreme Court confirmation hearing.

Williams’ storied career as a trailblazer speaks volumes as the Senate considers Jackson, who, if confirmed, will make history as the first Black female on the Supreme Court.

Now of counsel in Jones Day’s Chicago office, Williams will appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee in her role as the chair of the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary, which gave Jackson its highest rating.

That ABA panel evaluates the professional qualifications of potential federal judges.

Williams wrote in a March 18 letter to the Judiciary Committee chair and ranking Republican — Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa — “The Standing Committee is of the unanimous opinion that Judge Jackson is ‘Well Qualified’ to serve on the United States Supreme Court.”

Since the Supreme Court was founded in 1789, there have been 115 justices and 108 of them have been white men.

In 1985, Republican President Ronald Reagan nominated Williams for a seat on the Chicago-based U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. Once confirmed, Williams became the first woman of color on the court.

In 1999, Democratic President Bill Clinton picked Williams for the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, making Williams, after confirmation, the first woman of color on that court. Williams then became only the third Black woman ever to serve in any federal appeals court in the history of the nation.

True diversity — meaning second and third and more after the firsts — has been slow.

Last year, when President Joe Biden nominated Candace Rae Jackson-Akiwumi, who is Black, to sit on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, the panel was again all-white, since by then Williams had retired.

Once confirmed, Jackson-Akiwumi marked two milestones: After Williams, Jackson-Akiwumi is only the second Black woman ever on the 7th Circuit and is the only person of color currently on the Chicago appeals court.

Jackson and Jackson-Akiwumi have met.

On April 28, 2021, they shared a confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee — Jackson for her current post as a U.S. circuit judge for the District of Columbia Circuit and for Jackson-Akiwumi to join the 7th Circuit.

Jackson and Jackson-Akiwumi are also the rare federal judges who are former public defenders.

Williams is a former prosecutor, serving in the Chicago-based U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois.

Through the years, when she was on the bench, Williams had been mentioned as a potential Supreme Court candidate.

Now, as a federal appeals judge, Jackson-Akiwumi is in the Supreme Court pipeline.

Most recently in Chicago, Williams led the City Hall probe of the botched police raid of Anjanette Young’s home. Her report, issued in December, found the city failed “to adequately consider her dignity” and didn’t always follow proper procedure, but city officials didn’t try to maliciously hide anything from the public.

According to the Jones Day website, Williams “leads Jones Day’s efforts in advancing the rule of law in Africa. She has partnered with judiciaries, attorneys, NGOs, and the U.S. Departments of Justice and State to lead training programs in Ghana, Indonesia, Kenya, Liberia, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia. She also has taught at the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.”

In a 2021 Duke University oral history, Williams said, “To me, when a door is closed, you find a way to open it, or you move to a new door.”

Williams took senior status as a judge on June 5, 2017, and later fully retired.

At the time, Durbin said in a statement Williams “has been an inspirational leader on the bench. She has served the people of Illinois and the 7th Circuit with integrity, fairness, and unmatched legal acumen. Her trailblazing judicial career has inspired a generation of attorneys in Illinois and across the nation.”

Thursday is the fourth and final day of Jackson’s Senate confirmation hearing. Jackson has enough support from Democrats to be confirmed as the 116th Supreme Court justice.

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