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July 2019Volume 50Number 1PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)

Meet Chief Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer

On July 1, Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer became the first woman to be chief judge in the 200-year history of the Federal District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. Who is Judge Pallmeyer?

Rebecca Pallmeyer was born in Tokyo and grew up in St. Louis, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor. She told me she learned a lot from her parents, whom she described as faithful, dedicated, and humble people. When we sat down in her chambers recently during a break in a criminal trial over which she was presiding she told me “faith keeps a person humble. It makes you realize that you are not so special.” At the beginning of our talk, Judge Pallmeyer wondered why anyone would want to speak with her. The answer is simple; her becoming the first woman chief judge in the Northern District of Illinois is historical.

Judge Pallmeyer told me she is “very fortunate to be in this job,” referring not to her new position as chief judge, but just being a judge. Her career has been a series of events that fit together. She graduated from Valparaiso University. Judge Pallmeyer recalled the time at Valpo when a friend in the line for lunch at the dormitory told her “you should become a lawyer because you like to argue.” Before that, law school was not on Judge Pallmeyer’s horizon. She enrolled at the University of Chicago Law School, graduating in 1979.

Looking at her resume, it would seem she pointed her career to being a judge, but it is really a series of fortunate events, of doors opened, and opportunities taken. After graduating from law school, she clerked for Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Wahl. Then she was a commercial litigator at a large Chicago firm before becoming an administrative law judge with the Illinois Human Rights Commission. On October 1, 1991, she was appointed as magistrate judge in the northern district—a job she terms her “biggest milestone.” President Clinton nominated her to become a judge on the district court and she was confirmed on October 21, 1998. Then this spring, Judge Pallmeyer’s predecessor as chief judge, Ruben Castillo who had become the first Hispanic chief judge of the northern district, decided to do something. He chose the International Women’s Day to announce he would not finish his term as chief, to open the door for Judge Pallmeyer to become the first woman chief judge in the 200-year history of the northern district. Had Judge Castillo not stepped aside and finished the last year of his term the next chief would have been a man because the chief judge is the judge with the longest tenure in the northern district who is under age 65.

She looks back on several mentors who have guided her career. First is Justice Wahl, recalling that they often sat side-by-side writing opinions during her clerkship. While she says all judges have been supportive, Judge Pallmeyer mentioned specifically some of her predecessors as chief judge: Judges Aspen, Holderman, and Castillo. She also mentions former Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary Ann McMorrow, who she called “a real trail blazer.” Other women judges whose accomplishments she deems significant over time are justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sonia Sotomayor. She doesn’t view herself as any sort of role model, but as someone who simply “worked diligently at her career” as a judge. As Judge Pallmeyer put it, perhaps as a guide to others: “Hard work does pay back.” Lawyers who have appeared before her recognize her hard work as a judge. Her immediate predecessor, Judge Ruben Castillo, has described Judge Pallmeyer as often the first judge to arrive in the courthouse in the morning and the last to leave in the evening.

Attorney Martin Greene recalls appearing before Judge Pallmeyer in her first hearing as an ALJ at the Human Rights Commission. Greene said his early impression was that “she was younger than me. She was diligent, hard-working, and determined to make the right decision.” Greene added that in subsequent appearances before Judge Pallmeyer his experiences were always positive “even when she ruled against me.”

During her more than two decades on the federal bench, Judge Pallmeyer has presided over several significant cases. “Any long case is difficult,” she told me. One was the corruption trial of former Illinois governor George Ryan, whom she sentenced in 2006 to six-and-a-half years in prison. Another was the trial of the man who helped plot the murder of Heather Mack’s mother in Bali, whom she sentenced to nine years in prison.

Judge Pallmeyer has some specific goals in mind for her tenure as chief judge. One is the appearance of the Dirksen Federal Building at 219 S. Dearborn in Chicago, which she says must project the dignity of a courthouse, albeit from a black, metal-and-glass box. She wants to be active and continue the Court’s efforts in outreach to “help explain the rule of law to the community.” She also plans to remain active in the district court’s historical display at the courthouse.

Judge Pallmeyer says that “every judge feels he or she has the ability to do the job well” and she made it clear in our conversation that she wants to support all of the judges in the northern district in doing the best jobs they can.

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