New judge completes the circuit

Judge Elizabeth Wolford is formally sworn in

Judge Elizabeth Wolford is formally sworn in on May 5, 2014, with the help of her parents, Michael and Beatrice Wolford, and Sen. Charles Schumer (background).

Elizabeth Wolford ’89

Elizabeth Wolford ’89 thought that she would spend her professional career as a litigator. But those plans changed when U.S. Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) recommended her to President Barack Obama to be a United States District Judge. On Dec. 30, 2013, Wolford was sworn in as the first female district judge in the Western District of New York. Here are the facts of the case.

The Colgate political science major had worked at The Wolford Law Firm, founded by her father, since graduating from the Notre Dame Law School in 1992. Early last year, a seat on the western district court came open. “Being a federal judge is an opportunity of a lifetime, certainly not one that I wanted to pass up,” Wolford said.

The first step to an appointment is facilitated by a U.S. senator, who recommends a candidate to the president. So, Wolford filled out an initial questionnaire, designed to help Schumer get to know her better. He learned that, during her distinguished law career, Wolford represented clients like the Rochester Institute of Technology and Eastman Kodak Company. As a partner with The Wolford Law Firm, she was involved in the day-to-day business operations. On the side, she mentored younger attorneys and did pro bono work in the community.

“I handled a lot of complex commercial litigation matters that were very time consuming,” Wolford said. “Pro bono work provided the opportunity to do something a little different. For instance, I represented a grandmother in family court seeking guardianship of her grandchildren after their mother had passed away. This was not the type of work I handled in my private practice.”

Schumer interviewed Wolford in February 2013 and recommended her to Obama that March. Two months later, after an evaluation by the American Bar Association and a thorough FBI background check, Wolford’s name was officially put into nomination. It was time for her to answer another questionnaire — this time for the Senate Judiciary Committee, which called her to testify on July 10, 2013.

“It is a lifetime appointment, and you want to have people who are going to be fair and impartial, apply the law correctly, and work hard.”

“It was an amazing experience. There are probably not many times in your life when you will be called to testify before a Senate committee,” Wolford said. After answering the committee’s questions on her desire to be a judge and the challenges she anticipated in taking on the position, she returned to her desk at The Wolford Law Firm to await the outcome of their deliberations.

Approval came in December, adding another first to Wolford’s entry in the judicial history books: she was the first district judge approved under new Senate rules, adopted in November 2013, limiting the minority party’s ability to filibuster judicial and executive nominees.

As for her 10-month wait, Wolford said, “I’ve had a lot of people say to me, ‘That was really quick.’ But if you’re going through it, it doesn’t feel quick. They want to make sure that they vet the folks who are going into these positions. It is a lifetime appointment, and you want to have people who are going to be fair and impartial, apply the law correctly, and work hard.”

Working hard means shouldering a docket with more than 300 cases and becoming an expert on a wide variety of topics. “You have to be inquisitive and really dive into the case, so that you can recognize what it is you don’t know and need to learn,” she said.

It’s a welcome challenge for a liberal arts graduate, especially when she has another Colgate alumna on the team. In one of her first acts as judge, Wolford hired Caitlin (English) Loughran ’09 as a law clerk.

For all that’s changed in Wolford’s life since February 2013, there are themes that remain the same, precedents that still apply. “Being a judge,” she said, “is really a form of public service that is consistent with how I’ve tried to handle my practice throughout my career.”

— Mark Walden