Alumni Stories

What It Means to Be a Judge

Three years ago at a party in Edinburgh, Judge William Bauer ’49 found himself face to face
with Charles, Prince of Wales, heir to the British throne.

Told during the introductions that followed that Bauer was a senior judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago, His Royal Highness eyed Bauer, then 83 years old, and asked, “Are you
still working?"

“Well, I’m the same age as your mother,” Bauer replied. “And the last time I checked, she’s still working.”

A framed photograph of that encounter, showing the prince nearly doubled over in laughter, now occupies a place of prominence in Bauer’s chambers. And Bauer, should Charles inquire again, is still working.

He is, in fact, one of the most powerful jurists in the United States, outranked only by the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. Bauer has been at his current job in the U.S. Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit, which hears cases from federal courts in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin since 1974, when President Gerald R. Ford appointed him to the lifetime post.

He could have retired long ago, with full pay. He could have reduced his workload to a few token cases. But to this day, Bauer hears as many cases as any judge on the court. He writes about 90 opinions annually.

Bauer has become accustomed to people making a fuss over his productivity, his longevity. He waves a dismissive hand.

“It’s indoor work,” he said one morning behind his desk, 27 floors above Chicago’s Loop. “There’s no heavy lifting involved.”

The comment is typical Bauer: wry and unpretentious and ready to puncture the grandiosity that attaches itself to his profession. Bauer works in a world of pomp. His uniform is a black robe and his workplace hushed as a temple. When he enters a courtroom, all rise. The high ritual of the court enables in some judges a tendency toward arrogance and haughtiness.

In Bauer, it excites a sympathy for the ordinary person caught up in the trappings of the law.

“I try to make people feel at ease,” he said. “You’re in a room with all the rituals, all the formal language, and there’s a man there with a gun to make sure you do everything right.
No one is really used to that.”

Bauer’s kindness extends even to lawyers. He has been known to take pity on attorneys being questioned roughly by one of Bauer’s colleagues. (Judges on the court sit in panels of three.) Bauer may try to give the lawyer a break by tossing him a softball question. Sometimes the ploy doesn’t work. Lawyers are so used to being bullied by some judges that they think Bauer’s softball must be a trick question.

“He is the most constant man you will ever meet,” says John Simon, a partner in the Chicago law firm of Jenner and Block who served as an assistant U.S. Attorney under Bauer in the late 1960s. “Because he treats everyone with respect, they respond in kind.”

Bauer’s humane style on the bench grows out of a philosophy of intellectual modesty.

“A good judge has to be a good listener,” he says. “You can’t be so confident of your own brilliance that you refuse to listen. The law gives us all frequent lessons in humility. I’ve never heard a student tell a teacher that he was full of shit. But in our legal system that happens every day. You are not God.”

The roots of Bauer’s long legal career extend back to the pre-war neighborhood movie palaces of Chicago’s South Side. Born in Chicago on September 15, 1926, Bauer grew up in Brookdale, a tight-knit community sandwiched between Jackson Park and Oak Woods Cemetery. Like a lot of the neighborhood boys, he grew up working odd jobs—everything from washing dishes to delivering the Saturday Evening Post. But Bauer really enjoyed spending Saturday afternoons at the show. There was the Jackson Park Theatre on Stony Island, and the Tivoli at 63rd and Cottage Grove. Watching the double features, he noticed something: A lot of the movies featured lawyers. And the lawyers in those movies talked a lot.

“I knew I could do that,” he said. “Also, they were well dressed and well paid and didn’t appear to do much of anything.”

Bauer began forming vague plans for a life in law. His family moved to Elmhurst in time for Bauer to attend and graduate from Immaculate Conception High School there. A stint in the U.S. Army followed shortly; from 1945 to 1947 he was in Korea and Japan with the Seventh Infantry Division. Upon his return home, he enrolled at Elmhurst College, where he majored in history, played right guard for the football Bluejays, and drove a cab for spending money.

At Elmhurst, Bauer’s teachers included Paul Crusius, who taught history at the College for 44 years. Crusius taught a course called Civilization Past and Present, which covered everything from the dawn of recorded history to the brink of the recently concluded war. Visits to Crusius’s office in Kranz Hall left Bauer impressed with his professor’s intellect, but also with his generosity.

“He listened well,” Bauer recalled decades later. “When he talked, he was interested in your reaction. He wasn’t just talking to impress you with his knowledge, although God knows that came through. He was interested in what you said. What you took away from Paul was a sense of decency and intellectual honesty and the need to keep reading more and more to arrive at a conclusion about a subject.”

It was an approach that would come to characterize Bauer’s own work in the years to come.

Bauer graduated from DePaul University’s law school in 1952 and was soon serving as first assistant state’s attorney of DuPage County. When his boss was appointed to a judgeship, Bauer filed as a Republican candidate in the special election to succeed him as state’s attorney. Bauer’s Democratic opponent was Prentice H. Marshall, who went on to enjoy an acclaimed legal career of his own. Bauer remembers Marshall as “the best Democratic nominee ever in DuPage.” The admiration was mutual. During the campaign, Marshall took to calling Bauer “the Sage of DuPage.” The Sage won.

Bauer spent five years as state’s attorney and another half decade as a circuit court judge in DuPage County before becoming U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. It was there that he demonstrated a knack for hiring and grooming formidable young legal talent. His first assistant was James R. Thompson, later a four-term governor of Illinois. Other members of Team Bauer included two future U.S. Attorneys—Dan Webb and Anton Valukas—and Tyrone Fahner, a future Illinois attorney general. Thompson has said that he was at first reluctant to join Bauer’s office, but changed his mind after spending a few hours talking with him over martinis. The former governor has called the team of prosecutors assembled by Bauer one of the best ever.

Bauer’s crew distinguished itself by its unflinching willingness to attack public corruption, regardless of party affiliations. Years later, Patrick Fitzgerald, the current U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, told the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin that Bauer deserved praise for keeping his office free of politics. “The office owes him a debt,” Fitzgerald said.

Bauer still craves his independence. “I was appointed to two different jobs by two Republican presidents,” he says. “And all I ever promised was that I was going to be the best
possible judge I could be.”

The first of those appointments came in 1971, when President Richard Nixon nominated him to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. Three years later, Gerald Ford appointed Bauer to his current post. He moved into his chambers on the day after Christmas in 1974, and has been reporting for work there ever since.

Bauer works in the Dirksen Courthouse, a glassy Miesian cube set amid the Loop’s windblown plazas. His wide-angle office view is appropriately lofty. It takes in the bobbing leisure craft of Burnham Harbor and the industrial skyline of the South Shore; the tourist bustle of Millennium Park and, almost at eye-level, the bright blue beehive atop what used to be the Encyclopedia Britannica building.

Bauer will guide a visitor into a small antechamber off his main office in search of one of the prized mementos kept on his overflowing bookshelves. Along the way, he may point out his small private stash of single-malt scotch. Every few weeks or so, the judge hosts a pouring for his law clerks. Bauer feels deeply the obligation to mentor the rising generation, and not only in matters strictly jurisprudential.

“It is one of my missions to teach them the joys of singlemalt,” he says.

It’s hard not to notice that when Bauer talks about his own mentors, he uses some of the same words—civil, decent, thoughtful, humble—that his own colleagues and former assistants use to describe him. A small crowd of them assembled last year in Wheaton—the town where Bauer’s legal career began—to see a building in the DuPage County courthouse complex dedicated to Bauer. One of the speakers at the ceremony was Thompson, Bauer’s erstwhile first assistant, who said that he and other prosecutors had been drawn to work with Bauer by his “humility, lack of arrogance, great credibility, wisdom, knowledge and sense of humor.” He also warned Bauer that having a building named in one’s honor carries a certain burden; every time the air conditioning fails, it’s your fault.

Bauer likes to say that law is one of the professions that oblige practitioners to prepare the next generation. One of Bauer’s mentors was a DuPage County judge named Bert Rathje. Bauer’s first appearance as a lawyer before a judge in court came in Rathje’s courtroom, and Bauer still has not forgotten the kindness with which the judge treated a rookie lawyer that day. Bauer also remembers Rathje as a judge not afraid to show leniency to defendants when warranted.

“What a class act,” Bauer says of Rathje. “He was exceedingly kind and fair.”

Rathje’s example was not lost on Bauer. In 1975, Bauer was considering the appeal of Masanobu Noro, a former Chicago police detective convicted of participating in a scheme to shake down West Side taverns. Noro had already been sentenced to 15 months in federal prison, but Bauer decided that Noro had already been punished enough. A Japanese-American, Noro had spent more than two years behind barbed wire in relocation camps during World War II. In 1944 he volunteered for service in the Army and served with distinction in Europe, winning four Bronze Stars. Bauer took that history into consideration in deciding to sentence Noro to probation, not prison.

“I felt that it was time the United States gave him back a piece of what it owed him,” Bauer explained at the time of the appeal. The sentence surprised many and won praise from some. “By his compassion and understanding of the human circumstance, Bauer demonstrated what being a judge is all about,” columnist Bob Wiedrich wrote of the Noro case in the Chicago Tribune at the time.

Having been shaped by role models like Rathje, Bauer has made a point of trying to guide the rising generations. He has been a frequent visitor and guest speaker on Elmhurst’s campus, delivering commencement addresses, lectures and, most recently, participating in a dialogue on justice with journalist Bob Woodward, an old family friend from Wheaton. One of Bauer’s favorite themes is that professional success carries with it the obligation to teach.

It’s an obligation that Bauer has fulfilled for nearly a halfcentury now. He has been at it so long that his students—the dozens of former law clerks, assistants, colleagues and others he has guided—have become teachers themselves.

“In a profession like this, you become a teacher,” Bauer says, leaning forward over his desk. “And most of the time, you teach by example.”

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