Notice & Comment

Stephen F. Williams: Personal Reflections by a Last Clerk

It’s said that becoming a federal judge can change people—and not always for the better. You become the master of your own kingdom, answerable to no one thanks to the Constitution’s effective guarantee of lifetime tenure. Whatever flaws you had before can become accentuated.

It says something remarkable about Stephen F. Williams that his 34 years on the bench left him a kinder, gentler person. We typically laud judges for their intellect and wisdom—and Judge Williams (or “SFW” to all his clerks) possessed all of those qualities in spades. But we rarely praise judges for their humanity, and that’s the part of Judge Williams I will most miss.

Judge Williams got annoyed with me only once during my clerkship. The Judge loved to bike to and from work, sometimes in the rain, often in the cold. On this occasion, SFW—83 years old—had been in the hospital since the prior Thursday and, once they discharged him the following Tuesday, immediately came to chambers. At five o’clock, I saw him putting on a jacket, helmet and his yellow caution vest and, I asked, perhaps without hiding my concern, whether he was biking home. He harrumphed “yes” and stalked off—and I learned never to suggest against biking.

SFW’s constant, unfailing kindness permeated every aspect of chambers, down to how we worked. His clerks didn’t write him bench memos. Instead, he would read the record; you would read the record; and then he’d appear in your office, plop down on a chair, and chat. Sometimes, for complicated matters, you’d email before or after the chat—but chat you always did. Memos would have worked just fine, I’m sure, but then I suppose he wouldn’t have had the same excuse to walk down the hall.

His days in chambers revolved around lunch with the clerks—typically a disciplined salad and a solitary fruit for the Judge. But whatever he lacked in calories, he made up in conversation: Part of my job was forwarding along tidbits of news or op-eds that might interest (or horrify) him, either sparking lunch discussions or another in-office chat.

Judge Williams—giant of the law though he was—didn’t just live a life of the law. He delighted in stories about my (mostly failed) dates in D.C. and was fascinated with how dating apps worked as mini-marketplaces. Lunchtime topics ranged from bitcoin to my co-clerk’s obsession with Tesla to the Judge’s love of pre-Revolutionary Russian history.

When COVID meant we could no longer go into chambers, we started Zooming twice a day, at ten and two, trying to replicate life as normal, despite the Judge having largely finished his work for the term. It confirmed my suspicion that Judge Williams never really needed clerks to help with the workload. Had I and my co-clerk vanished, he would have produced the same opinions or, even more likely, better opinions with fewer errors. What we supplied—and what he supplied to us in return—was friendship.

The life of the mind that SFW did lead was never the solitary kind; as much as he loved an idea, he loved sharing it, and it sometimes led to delightful-if-odd tasks for his clerks. During the COVID lockdown, his book club met by Zoom and prepared to discuss a book he had picked. Did I mind, he asked me, if I could read the book in advance and prep him?

Judge Williams had a wonderfully irreverent streak too. During oral argument, we would chat over Skype messenger. He might request a particular page number in the record; I might urge him to probe counsel on a point. But every once in a while, he’d slip a joke into our thread, one so well timed I would have to stifle a snort. I’d catch his eye and see him suppressing the same laugh.

His life was a constant lesson in how to remain decent in the face of contrary temptations. I watched him, passionate about a dissent, work patiently to “de-snark” his opinion, to be sure he remained agreeable while disagreeing. When I once suggested a complicated scheme meant to influence another judge (on so small a matter, in fact, I don’t remember what the issue was), he calmly replied that he’d never found much success in those kinds of endeavors. It was a gentle reminder to always shoot straight and lead with the ideas. He was kindness and honesty, all the way down.

Judge Williams didn’t just read every single piece of the record—he read every single thing we cited in an opinion. When I gave him a draft opinion, I’d trundle down to the library and assemble a cart with all the cases, agency reporters, and any other sundry materials. SFW would leaf through each one, reading it cover to cover. No matter how easy it might have been to rely on a clerk’s assessment, that just wasn’t his style.

If the Judge had a flaw at all, it was his legendarily-bad disorganization. His office looked like a bombshell had just gone off, with papers piled so high they could obstruct his computer monitor and precariously-perched stacks of files sliding to the floor. But he was self-aware of his weakness. When he was up for the chief judgeship many years ago, the then-chief judge invited him to a “crucial meeting” at which the incoming chief should also be present. What, Judge Williams asked, was so important? The reply: “A meeting of the stakeholders regarding parking on C street.” As Judge Williams retold it, then and there he decided not to become chief.

Stephen F. Williams loved judging. I first suspected he was sick when he hadn’t read a colleague’s circulated opinion for a few days—a lapse so out of character that something had to be wrong. And unfortunately, something was.

His was the kind of clerkship that law students expect in their mind’s eye but don’t necessarily find in reality: One part whimsy, one part family, and one part academic seminar. I never knew any of my grandparents. Whether he realized it or not, Judge Williams became a surrogate one to me. Since he hired me in my first year of law school, he read everything I wrote—as I know he did for his other clerks, past, present, and future. I started to cry most of all when I realized that I couldn’t send him this or anything else. I will miss him, but I think I know how to honor him: To strive to be kind as he was, in all matters big and small, not just as a lawyer but as a human being.

Nathaniel Zelinsky clerked for Judge Stephen F. Williams from August 2019 until the Judge’s passing. He received his J.D. from Yale Law School in 2018.