Judge Patricia Wald Receives Presidential Medal of Freedom

Judge Patricia McGowan Wald, who served as the founding chair of the board of the Open Society Justice Initiative from 2003 to 2005, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Wednesday.

President Obama awarded the nation’s highest civilian honor to 16 distinguished Americans, including Wald, President Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Gloria Steinem, and Benjamin C. Bradlee.

Judge Wald helped shape the Justice Initiative’s work on international criminal justice, pretrial detention, racial and ethnic discrimination, and access to information, among other issues central to open societies. She served as a board member until 2012.

She played a critical role in launching an extensive program of litigation within the Justice Initiative, which has since yielded landmark judgments at the European Court of Human Rights, the United Nations Committee on Human Rights, the ECOWAS Court of Justice, and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on matters ranging from segregation of Roma in schools to statelessness to CIA torture and extraordinary rendition.

“Judge Wald’s path-breaking career as a public interest litigator, respected judge on the federal appeals and international criminal courts, teacher, and scholar have made her a conscience and example to generations of lawyers young and old,” said James A. Goldston, executive director of the Justice Initiative. “The Presidential Medal of Freedom properly acknowledges her extraordinary contributions to the search for justice and human rights in the United States and around the world.”

Judge Wald was the first woman appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and served as the chief judge of the Court. She also served as a judge at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague.   

President Obama paid tribute to each recipient, including Judge Wald.

“When Patricia Wald’s law firm asked if she’d come back after having her first child, she said she’d like some time off to focus on her family—devoted almost 10 years to raising five children. But Patricia never lost the itch to practice law. So while her husband watched the kids at home, she’d hit the library on weekends. At age 40, she went back to the courtroom to show the ‘young kids’ a thing or two. As the first female judge on the D.C. Circuit, Patricia was a top candidate for Attorney General. After leaving the bench, her idea of retirement was to go to The Hague to preside over the trials of war criminals. Patricia says she hopes enough women will become judges that ‘it’s not worth celebrating’ anymore. But today, we celebrate her. And along with Gloria [Steinem], she shows there are all kinds of paths listening to your own voice.”