Patricia McGowan Wald ’48, who was the first woman to serve as chief judge of the federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., and who later served on the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague, died Jan. 12, 2019, at the age of 90.
A courageous trailblazer and relentless champion of social justice, she was an inspiration to women around the world and a friend to many in the Connecticut College community. Her extraordinary career spanned decades and presidential administrations, culminating in 2013 when President Barack Obama awarded her the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
A native of Torrington, Connecticut, she graduated from Connecticut College in 1948 as a Winthrop Scholar, the College’s highest academic honor. After graduation, she attended Yale Law School as one of only 11 women in her class. She became the first woman associate hired by the storied law firm Arnold, Fortas & Porter in Washington, D.C. She served as a law clerk for Jerome Frank, a prominent appeals court judge in New York, and worked briefly for some of Washington’s most prominent lawyers before taking 10 years off to raise her family. She and her husband the late Robert Wald were the proud parents of five children.
When she returned to the workforce, she served as a trial lawyer for the Legal Services Corporation and, after working in other capacities, became assistant attorney general for legislative affairs under President Jimmy Carter. Carter later nominated her to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, one of the most influential courts in the country. She was the first woman to serve as chief judge, presiding from 1986-1991, and the second woman to preside over any appellate court. She paved the way for many influential women in law, most notably Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who served with Wald on the D.C. Appeals Court and go on to become the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court.
After retiring from U.S. courts, she held several high-profile positions. She served on the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia for two years. She rendered, among other rulings, judgment that the crime of genocide was committed in Srebrenica and that Gen. Radislav Krstic was guilty of genocide. In 2004, President George W. Bush appointed her to the President’s Commission on Intelligence Capabilities of the U.S. Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, which investigated U.S. intelligence surrounding the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. In 2012, she was named to the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board by President Obama.
In announcing her as a 2013 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the White House called her “one of the most respected appellate judges of her generation.” As she was honored, a representative for the president read aloud, “She always strove to better understand the law and fairly apply it … Hailed as a model judge, she laid a foundation for countless women within the legal profession and helped unveil the humanity within the law.”
She said of the award at the time, “It means a great deal to know that all the efforts of one’s life—the ups and downs, the successes and failures—have contributed in some recognizable way to the advance of our society toward its most precious aspirations, freedom and responsibility for each other.”
Throughout her illustrious career, she maintained a close connection to Connecticut College. In 1972, she received the College Medal, Connecticut College’s highest honor. In 1981, she gave a keynote address at Commencement that has since been recognized by NPR on its list of “The Best Commencement Speeches, Ever.” NPR highlighted a poignant line from her address: “Compassion can not be allowed to go out of style.” Most recently, she returned to campus in 2016 to join a panel discussion about careers in law. “When you see opportunities, go for them,” she told students in attendance. The College paid tribute to her in the most recent CC Magazine essay, “Profiles in Courage” (Fall 2018).
She is survived by her children Johanna, Frederica, Sarah, Douglas and Thomas, and her 10 grandchildren.