Judge Rya Zobel to Receive 2020 Devitt Award

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Senior U.S. District Judge Rya Zobel, who grew up in Nazi Germany and later became the first woman to serve as director of the Federal Judicial Center, is the recipient of the 2020 Edward J. Devitt Distinguished Service to Justice Award.

Image: Judge Rya Zobel

The Devitt Award honors an Article III judge who has achieved a distinguished career and made significant contributions to the administration of justice, the advancement of the rule of law, and the improvement of society as a whole.

Recipients are chosen by a committee of federal judges, which this year was chaired by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch and included Judge Thomas M. Hardiman, of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, and U.S. District Judge Christine M. Arguello, of the District of Colorado.

Zobel, 89, came to the United States following World War II, joining relatives who were living in New York. Despite knowing little English when she arrived, she graduated from Harvard Law School at a time when the legal profession was overwhelmingly male. After rising to partner in her Boston law firm, Zobel was part of a historic class of 23 women who were appointed in 1979 to life-tenured federal judgeships. She is profiled in an online series about that class of judges.

“Judge Zobel’s life and service are inspirational,” Justice Gorsuch said in a statement. “It is an honor and a joy to recognize her trailblazing career and countless contributions. As one of her nominators explained, Judge Zobel’s life demonstrates ‘just what it means to be a true guardian of the Rule of Law.’”

Zobel shared credit for the honor.

“Although the award has only my name on it, I fully understand that it reflects the contributions of many to my professional and personal being,” she said. “They include, without limitation, my judicial colleagues in the District of Massachusetts, as well as my chambers staff and all other supporting personnel, my colleagues at the Federal Judicial Center, the lawyers who have appeared before me over the years and, of course, my family and many friends who were always encouraging even when critical. I thank them all.”

The award announcement noted that “during her more than 40 years of service as a federal judge, Judge Zobel has written nearly 2,000 decisions and served repeatedly in prominent roles of special trust.” These included service as first Chair of the Judicial Conference Committee on Automation and Technology, which led the Judiciary into the digital age, and as director of the Federal Judicial Center, the Judiciary’s research and education arm. 

“Judicial temperament is a lack of arrogance born of self-confidence, of a sense of self,” Zobel said in the statement announcing her award. “It is an intuitive respect for all who appear before you. It is both measured restraint and measured intervention. It is fairness. It is equal treatment and open consideration of all participants in the process.” 

Because of the pandemic, the normal full-scale reception and award presentation will not be held. Instead, a special dinner will be held next year at the Supreme Court in Zobel’s honor.  

The Devitt Award is named for the late Edward J. Devitt, longtime chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota. The award was established in 1982.

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