In 1999, Ann Claire Williams was appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. She is the first judge of color appointed to the Seventh Circuit and the third woman of color to serve on any United States Court of Appeals. Before that appointment, Williams served on the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. At 35, she was the youngest woman of color ever appointed to the federal bench.
Judge Williams has a long history of service to the judiciary. She was the first woman and first judge of color appointed Chair of the Court Administration and Case Management Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States, was the first judge of color to serve as president of the Federal Judges Association, and served on the Supreme Court Fellows Program Commission for six years. Judge Williams also has a longstanding commitment to education and training, both in the United States and abroad. She has traveled to Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, and Uganda to train judges and lawyers on topics such as domestic and gender violence, judicial ethics, case management, alternative dispute resolution, and trial advocacy, and has served as a member of international training delegations teaching trial and appellate advocacy at the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.
Judge Williams has committed herself to public interest work and expanding the pipeline for minorities and women. In 1977, she co-founded Minority Legal Education Resources, which has helped over 4,000 lawyers pass the Illinois bar at a rate that equals or exceeds the annual passage rate. In 1987, she helped found the Black Women Lawyers’ Association of Chicago, and in 1991, an order she entered in In Re Folding Carton (N.D. Ill. 1991) directed $2.3 million in cy pres funds to create a public interest post-graduate legal fellowship program administered by Equal Justice Works. In 1992, Judge Williams co-founded the Just The Beginning Foundation, an organization that has evolved into a pipeline organization to encourage students of color and other under-represented groups to pursue legal careers.
Judge Williams has been the recipient of numerous awards, including being honored by Newsweek Daily Beast as one of the 150 Fearless Women in the World (2012), the Leadership Institute for Women of Color Attorneys, Inc.’s Breaking the Glass Ceiling Award (2012), the Black Women Lawyers’ Association of Greater Chicago’s Pioneer Award (2012), American Judicature Society’s Edward J. Devitt Distinguished Service to Justice Award (2010), Chicago Inn of Court’s Joel M. Flaum Award (2010), the American Bar Association’s Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award (2008), the National Bar Association’s Gertrude E. Rush Award (2008), the Chicago Bar Association’s John Paul Stevens Award, and the Arabella Babb Mansfield Award from the National Association of Women Lawyers (2005).
Williams serves on the Judicial Advisory Board of the Just The Beginning Foundation, and the boards of trustees of the Carnegie Foundation, the Museum of Science and Industry, NITA, and the University of Notre Dame. Judge Williams began her career as a music and third grade teacher in the inner-city schools of Detroit after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Wayne State University and a master’s degree in guidance and counseling from the University of Michigan. She received her law degree from the University of Notre Dame. Before joining the court, she was an Assistant United States Attorney in Chicago where she served as Chief of the Organized Drug Enforcement Task Force, and also served as a law clerk to Judge Robert A. Sprecher, who served on the court where she now sits.