Elizabeth A. Wolford in the Western District of New York
By Brian M. Feldman
On December 17, 2013, Elizabeth A. Wolford received her commission as a U.S. District Judge for the Western District of New York. One hundred and forty-one years earlier, less than a mile from Judge Wolford’s chambers in Rochester, New York, Susan B. Anthony entered a polling station to vote in state and federal elections. Because she was a woman, Anthony was arrested and prosecuted.
The district judge sitting in Rochester at that time, Nathan K. Hall, granted the government’s motion to remove Anthony’s prosecution to the circuit court. There, before Associate Supreme Court Justice Ward Hunt, Anthony protested that neither Judge Hall nor Justice Ward was her peer but that, as men, they lorded over her as “political sovereigns.” As Anthony eloquently argued, “under such circumstances, a commoner of England, tried before … Lords, would have far less to complain than should I, a woman, tried before … men.” Justice Hunt, in a tactic that would be deemed unconstitutional years later, directed a guilty verdict against Anthony.
Judge Wolford’s appointment breaks the last-standing gender barrier among the litany of barriers highlighted by Susan B. Anthony in her famous courtroom argument to Justice Hunt. Anthony’s speech stressed the wholesale bias of the all-male judicial system with a list of grievances that have slowly been addressed.
She cited the inability of women to practice law; in New York, Kate Stoneman first obtained that right in 1886.
Anthony’s focus, of course, was securing the ability of women to vote; she succeeded in that aim, albeit posthumously, with the 1920 passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.
In her courtroom speech, Anthony also pointed out the systematic exclusion of women from juries; that problem was addressed much later with the Supreme Court’s decision in Taylor v. Louisiana, 419 U.S. 522 (1975).
Anthony protested that Justice Hunt was riding circuit as part of an all-male Supreme Court, a barrier Sandra Day O’Connor broke in 1981.
Anthony’s last grievance was the gender of her male district court judge, Judge Hall in Rochester, New York. Only with Judge Wolford’s accession to the bench — on December 30, 2013, exactly 141 years after Susan B. Anthony was placed in federal custody for her crime of voting— has Anthony’s last grievance been addressed.
Judge Wolford is the first woman to take the bench as a district judge in Rochester, New York, and the first female district judge in the Western District of New York. Not only does her appointment address the last of Susan B. Anthony’s grievances, but it also means that every federal court in New York can, at last, boast of having had at least one Article III position filled by a woman. Judge Wolford follows in the proud tradition of Southern District of New York Judge Constance Baker Motley (appointed in 1966), Second Circuit Judge Amalya Kearse (appointed to the Second Circuit in 1979), Eastern District of New York Judge Reena Raggi (appointed in 1987), and Northern District of New York Judge Rosemary Pooler (appointed in 1994).
Nearly half a century after the first female district judge was appointed in New York, the Western District of New York finally has a female district judge.
A Rochester Institution
Judge Wolford is firmly committed to the region. She comes to the bench following nearly two decades in private practice in Rochester, with strong ties to the area, including roots in Rochester extending back to her great grandparents and beyond. Her family is an institution in Rochester: The Wolford Law Firm LLP, where Judge Wolford began her practice, is a highly regarded firm in the city. And it is where she continued to practice until her appointment to the district court. Judge Wolford received her undergraduate degree from Colgate University and her law degree from Notre Dame Law School.
Judge Wolford enjoyed private practice in Rochester. She cherished the opportunity to practice alongside her father, Michael R. Wolford, who founded the firm, as well as her brother, James Wolford, who joined her at the firm several years after she started. Judge Wolford was a litigator — primarily a commercial litigator. She also handled employment defense and personal injury matters, including the case of Gronski v. County of Monroe, 18 N.Y.3d 374 (2011), which she successfully argued before the New York Court of Appeals.
Her perspective on the bench is informed by her past career as a litigator. In private practice, she dealt with clients who paid significant sums to brief motions and asked, understandably, why they were kept waiting so long. She thus appreciates the importance of timely decision-making. As a litigator, she juggled a docket, and, as a district judge, she is sensitive to the stresses of other cases that lawyers are handling. From her experience as a litigator, she also understands that, oftentimes, placing a trial date on the calendar is a powerful way to bring parties towards settlement. For that reason, she works hard to keep cases moving.
Judge Wolford believes that most litigators could learn a tremendous amount from spending even a week on the district court bench. They would understand, for instance, why it is so critical to listen to the judge’s questions and answer them. After all, the job of the litigator is to convince the judge. Judge Wolford cautions that, as litigators, lawyers can sometimes become overly focused on arguing with their adversaries — and fighting with them — rather than trying to persuade the judge.
Judge Wolford appreciates, and believes juries appreciate, lawyers who act respectfully. This means never interrupting the judge or one’s adversary, and erring on the side of formality (as Judge Wolford says, “‘May it please the Court’ never offended anybody.”). It also means showing respect for your adversary by avoiding the use of body language while an adversary is making an argument. Judge Wolford believes that the best advocates are the ones who maintain their professionalism no matter how exasperated they become with their opponents, never shaking their heads or making facial expressions to convey their position while their adversaries are speaking.
For her part, Judge Wolford has tremendous respect for her colleagues on the bench, as well as the litigators in her courtroom. She credits her colleagues for her smooth transition, despite a busy schedule travelling back and forth from Buffalo to Rochester for cases. She thinks the federal bar within the Western District of New York is excellent and second to none. So far, she has had five criminal jury trials, three civil jury trials, and three civil bench trials; counsel has been excellent; and the trials have been a highlight for her and her clerks.
The federal bar is incredibly fortunate to have Judge Wolford on the bench in the Western District of New York. As the first female judge on the district court bench, her appointment is historic. Beyond that symbolism however, she is a thoughtful jurist, mindful of the needs of litigants, appreciative of the realities of legal practice, and committed to the aims of justice. Rochester, which helped birth the women’s rights movement, is proud to have Judge Wolford set this historic precedent.