Honarable Rya W Zobel
Judge Rya Zobel of the U.S. District Court (MA) to receive Sandra Day O’Connor Award for Outstanding Contributions to Justice

By Ed Cohen

NOTE: Reporters are welcome to attend the award ceremony Nov. 2 in Washington, D.C. But please contact the College for details and a press pass. For security reasons, the College does not publish or widely distribute details about large gatherings of judges.

RENO, NV (Sept. 25, 2023) – Senior U.S. District Court Judge Rya Zobel, who survived a childhood in Nazi Germany to become one of the most respected trial judges in the federal judiciary, has been selected as the 2023 winner of the highest honor of The National Judicial College, the Sandra Day O’Connor Award.

“I am truly honored by this award,” Judge Zobel said.

The formal presentation of the O’Connor Award medal to the 91-year-old is scheduled for Nov. 2, 2023, at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., during the annual Summit (national conference) of the Appellate Judges Education Institute.

AJEI is an affiliate of the nonprofit and nonpartisan National Judicial College, which is the nation’s oldest, largest and most widely attended school for judges. In 2023 the College, based in Reno, Nevada, is celebrating the 60th anniversary of its founding. In 2022 the College interviewed and profiled Judge Zobel as part of its series on Judicial Heroes & Legends.

Judge Zobel, who remains active on the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, became the first woman appointed to the federal bench in all of New England after being nominated by President Carter in 1979.

In 2020, she received the Edward J. Devitt Distinguished Service to Justice Award, the highest honor bestowed upon a federal judge. She was the first woman federal trial judge to receive the award.

All of her colleagues on the Massachusetts court co-signed a letter from Chief Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV nominating her for the award. The letter described her as “the best trial judge in the District and one of the best in the nation of the past four decades.” The letter also said that it was an adage among judges on the court that when faced with a difficult decision, “Just do what Rya does; she is always right.”

An orphaned immigrant

Rya Weickert Zobel grew up in Zwickau, a small town in eastern Germany. Her mother was a concert violinist, her father managed a literary arts publishing company. As World War II neared its conclusion, American troops were the first to reach Zwickau. But the postwar partition of Germany ultimately placed the city under control of the Soviet Army.

In July 1945 Russian soldiers arrested Judge Zobel’s father and, a few hours later, her mother. No reason was ever given, but it was suggested that the Russians thought the Weickerts had been too friendly with the Americans. Judge Zobel never saw her father again. Her mother was eventually sent to a Siberian Gulag for 10 years.

Suddenly orphaned, Rya, 13, and her 10-year-old brother were taken in by family friends. After hearing of the family’s fate, her father’s sister in West Germany sent a messenger to rescue the children. Their escape included several days travelling by train, at times in a cattle car. The train stopped at the Russian/American border, early in the morning. Crossing a barbed-wire fence was the last part of the journey.

In 1947 the children emigrated to the United States to live with one of their mother’s brothers in New York City.

They had come to New York aboard the SS Ernie Pyle, a former troop ship that was used to carry displaced persons after the war. As the ship turned into New York Harbor, the passengers ran to the deck en masse to see the Statue of Liberty.

Seventy-five years later, Judge Zobel said, “I still get choked up thinking about it, … that was just an amazing experience.”

One of her favorite duties as a judge remains officiating at naturalization ceremonies for new United States citizens.

“I can relate to these people, and have such admiration for the hardships which they endured to get to America and become citizens,” she said. “I feel so lucky to be able to share my experience with them.”

After graduation from high school and Radcliffe College, Judge Zobel was admitted to Harvard Law School, where she became one of only 13 women in a class of 500. The school had begun admitting women only two years earlier.

Even with a Harvard law degree, when she graduated in 1956 the only job open to women at law firms was as a legal secretary. But Chief Judge George Sweeney of the U.S. District Court for Massachusetts needed a law clerk and hired her. She remained his law clerk until his death 10 years later.

Her first job after the clerkship was as the first woman associate at Hill & Barlow, one of Boston’s oldest and [most prestigious] firms. Several years later, she joined Goodwin, Procter & Hoar and ultimately became its first female partner.

When, in 1979, she was confirmed as a judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, it was a homecoming because this was the same court where she had served as a law clerk.

Whether handling complex intellectual property cases such as Polaroid Corporation v. Eastman Kodak Company, which involved allegations of patent infringement, to asbestos insurance coverage cases, which established the insurance standard for thousands of claims, or, more recently, a criminal case with 60 defendants, Judge Zobel has earned a stellar reputation for management of complex cases. It is estimated that she has issued about 2,000 decisions. Even in her current status as a senior judge, she continues to manage about 150 cases, civil and criminal.

In 1995, she became the first woman director of the Federal Judicial Center, a counterpart to The National Judicial College that serves only the federal bench. She was chosen by the center’s board of directors, which at that time was chaired by Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist. As director, she instituted new programs and was responsible for training scores of new federal judges.

She also got to know Justice O’Connor. The two of them are said to have “liberated” a portion of the Supreme Court’s gym facilities to make room for a women’s exercise class. 

In 1999, when her term as FJC director ended, she returned to the District Court in Massachusetts.

In nominating Judge Zobel for the O’Connor Award, Boston attorney Alice E. Richmond wrote: “I have been a member of the bar for nearly 50 years. In all that time, I have never encountered a judge who was, and is, so universally admired, respected and beloved as Judge Zobel.”

Read more comments about Judge Zobel below.

About the Sandra Day O’Connor Award

The Sandra Day O’Connor Award recognizes a judge or former judge who has demonstrated extraordinary service and commitment to justice as embodied in the National Judicial College’s Core Values, which are to: “Demonstrate an absolute commitment to justice; deliver and inspire excellence and innovation in one’s work; champion integrity; and practice engaged leadership.”

Nominees for the O’Connor Award are evaluated by a committee, which then recommends an honoree for approval by the College’s Board of Trustees.

The 2023 selection committee consisted of: Chair Angelina Tsu, an attorney in Salt Lake City, Utah, and member of the NJC Board of Trustees, National Judicial College President Benes Aldana; retired Washington Supreme Court Justice Bobbe Bridge; Iowa Court of Appeals Judge Mary Chicchelly, an NJC alumna and faculty member; retired Florida Circuit Court Judge Ilona Holmes, an NJC alumna and faculty member; Medtronic Executive Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary Ivan Fong, a former clerk to Justice O’Connor; and Ohio State University Moritz College of Law Professor Deborah Merritt, a former clerk to Justice O’Connor.

The committee wrote that Judge Zobel’s characteristics strongly aligned with the College’s core values, and the members were especially impressed by her humility and her ability to mentor others and “pay it forward.”

When the O’Connor Award was established in 2021, the inaugural honoree was Justice O’Connor herself, an NJC alumna and the first woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. Justice O’Connor retired from public life in 2018 after disclosing that she had been diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer’s-like dementia.

In her more than 24 years on the Supreme Court, Justice O’Connor established a reputation as a pragmatist rather than someone bound by ideology. She was seen as a swing vote on many major cases, including those involving reproductive rights, legislative districting and separation of church and state.

In 2009 she founded the Sandra Day O’Connor Institute for American Democracy, whose mission is to continue her “lifetime work to advance American democracy through civics education, civic engagement and civil discourse.”

The first competitively selected winner of the O’Connor Award, in 2022, was Senior Judge Bernice B. Donald of the Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit. Among her many other firsts, in 1995 Judge Donald became the first African-American woman to serve on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee.

More comments about Judge Zobel

“[T]he true measure of a judge is the wisdom, humanity and commitment to the Rule of Law embodied in her decisions and measured by whether the bench, bar, and community alike would willingly entrust that judge with the most complex cases of the most far-reaching importance. By these criteria, Rya is simply the best the Judiciary has to offer.”

Judge Leo T. Sorokin, U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts,
a former clerk to Judge Zobel

 “She would … allow us (clerks) to sit in on her lobby conferences with the lawyers. There, we observed her remarkable skill in crystallizing the issues, dealing fairly and openly with the lawyers, and finding a practical solution. It was not unusual for a lawyer to take me aside and say “You do not know how lucky you are to be clerking for Judge Zobel. She’s the best there is.”

Justice Gabrielle R. Wolohojian, Massachusetts Appeals Court,
a former clerk to Judge Zobel

“I can personally state, as a member of the Bar in private practice since 1974, that it is always a pleasure when the wheel spins out a “Z” at the end of the newly assigned case number. At that moment, one knows that the advocates and litigants on both sides of the versus sign will receive respectful, fair, and intellectually rigorous consideration of their claims and defenses. What more could one hope for in a judge?”

Joan A. Lukey, attorney and first woman president of the
American College of Trial Lawyers

“Many years ago, Judge Zobel appointed me to represent a woman defendant in a highly publicized bank robbery case. The trial lasted weeks and Judge Zobel then, as she does now, had very strict rules about punctuality and required conduct in the courtroom. My client said, more than once, that she had never seen or experienced a fairer person in her life, and these comments were made before any jury verdict.” 

Boston attorney Alice E. Richmond

“Though her performance as a trial judge is legendary, many superb trial judges serve the public. Though she has made long-lasting contributions to the judicial system as a whole, many Article III judges have also made important contributions. However, Rya Zobel the person is what sets her apart from the rest as both a judge and a human being. Rya brings a contagious zest to her work that infects all those around her with her delight in the judicial process, her openness to each new challenge, and her seriousness of purpose (but never excessive seriousness of self). Though she survived the Nazis and the Soviets, endured forced separation from her parents, made her way in a new and truly foreign world, and endured the difficulties that beset women entering the legal profession during the 1950s, Rya never utters a cross word. She does not dwell on the hardships of her past. She speaks glowingly of Harvard Law School, her reception in the Boston legal community, and the embrace she received from her male colleagues upon joining the bench. She is the epitome of warmth and civility.”

Chief Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV,
U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts.

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Created 60 years ago at the recommendation of Supreme Court Justice Tom C. Clark, The National Judicial College remains the only educational institution in the United States that teaches courtroom skills to judges of all types from all over the country, Indian Country and abroad. The categories of judges served by this nonprofit and nonpartisan institution, based in Reno, Nevada, since 1964, decide more than 95 percent of cases in the United States

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