From the Bench: Making History with the Honorable Rebecca Pallmeyer

Post Authored by Kenny Matuszewski

2019 has been a historic year. In addition to the 100th anniversary of Congress passing the 19th Amendment, 2019 saw the Hon. Rebecca Pallmeyer become the first woman to serve as Chief Judge of the Northern District of Illinois.

From the beginning of her career, Judge Pallmeyer has been a trailblazer and dedicated public servant. After attending law school at the University of Chicago, she served as a law clerk to the Hon. Rosalie Wahl at the Minnesota Supreme Court. Fittingly, Judge Wahl was herself the first woman to serve as a justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court. After her clerkship, Judge Pallmeyer practiced at the law firm of Hopkins & Sutter, a firm engaged in business and regulatory work, later acquired by Foley & Lardner.

From the time she was in law school, Judge Pallmeyer wanted to be a judge—a position that she believed fit her skill set, placing her in a neutral position, but also giving her plenty of time in the courtroom.  Because she was not a native of Chicago and had no political contacts or instincts, and because the odds of reaching the bench are always long, Judge Pallmeyer knew that it was not a sure bet.  But opportunity soon knocked for her. The Human Rights Commission in Chicago had an opening for an Administrative Law Judge.  Applicants were required to submit written materials and interview with the Chief Administrative Law Judge. Judge Pallmeyer was surprised and somewhat pleased to learn that the process also involved a writing test.  Confident in her abilities and recognizing that political connections were taken out of the equation, Judge Pallmeyer pursued the position and, after one failed attempt, succeeded.  She became an ALJ on February 1, 1985, and still remembers that first day on the job, drafting a short order concerning expert testimony. To this day, she believes that writing tests are one of the best ways to evaluate candidates, including law clerks, whose work calls for good writing skills.

As an Administrative Law Judge, Judge Pallmeyer was a decision-maker, and presided over bench trials in claims brought under the Illinois Human Rights Act—chiefly, employment discrimination cases, but also claims of discrimination in housing and public accommodations. She also handled disputes over discovery and ruled dispositive motions.  The support staff was overtaxed, and the pay was low, but Judge Pallmeyer loved the work and valued the opportunity to see litigation from the opposite side of the bench and learn judicial skills.

Another great opportunity presented itself.  The judges of the Northern District of Illinois announced openings for the position of U. S. Magistrate Judge.  Her first application was, again, unsuccessful.  But in 1991, Judge Pallmeyer’s persistence paid off, and she was chosen for the position of Magistrate Judge by the District Judges in February of that year.  There are a variety of paths to the position of Magistrate Judge, and Judge Pallmeyer was grateful that her years at the Human Rights Commission exposed her to the work of pretrial supervision and lots of writing.  Experience in both private and public sectors was useful as she learned more about the federal system.  As a Magistrate Judge, she remained heavily involved in pretrial case management and discovery supervision.  She was and remains committed to finding ways to make discovery more effective and efficient while containing the expenses that broad discovery often generates.

Then, in 1997, Judge Pallmeyer was nominated by Bill Clinton to a seat on the United States District Court of the Northern District of Illinois, vacated by Judge Hart. She was confirmed by the Senate and received her commission in 1998.

As a district court judge, Judge Pallmeyer has found that there are no “typical” days, a feature of the job that is both engaging and at times frustrating.  She arrives at the courthouse between 8:00 and 8:30 nearly every morning and begins the day by reviewing all of the filings from the previous 24 hours, as well as the dozens of e-mails that come in.  If there are quick or easy tasks on her docket, she attempts to complete them before her motion call.  The job of Chief Judge, which she holds now, also includes a review of motions and orders that arise out of grand jury investigations.

One of a judge’s most challenging tasks, at first glance, could be writing judicial opinions. Judge Pallmeyer acknowledges that drafting opinions is a big responsibility and very important to the parties.  She also enjoys writing them.  The volume and variety of work are vast, and Judge Pallmeyer does her best to reach the right and fair decision in every case, recognizing that the law is, in the end, a human process.  Judge Pallmeyer notes that many decisions rendered by trial judges are unreviewed and unreviewable, so she attempts to balance the desire to reach the right decision with the need to issue a prompt decision, recognizing that in some contexts, the “perfect is the enemy of the good.”  That means, for Judge Pallmeyer, it is always a challenge to manage a large docket while also ensuring a thoughtful but timely result for the litigants.

Judge Pallmeyer learned in March of this year that she would become the first woman to serve as the Chief Judge of the Northern District of Illinois.  She is honored and very grateful to Judge Ruben Castillo, her predecessor as Chief, whose resignation a few months early made it possible for her to take on the position.  She is very conscious of the significance and sense of history behind her appointment, which was important not only to attorneys but also girls of all ages.

Currently, 60% of all attorneys are women. Judge Pallmeyer noted that while there is still room for improvement in the private sector, especially in litigation, there are many more women who are federal prosecutors and defenders than when she started, and in government in general. She perceives women in private practice as being more confident and less intimidated in the courtroom than Judge Pallmeyer remembers being.  Today, women lawyers, like men, believe they belong, and that they do a good job. As Chief Judge, Judge Pallmeyer made a vow to not only be fair and impartial in her proceedings but also ensure women continue to feel they belong in the practice of law.

About Judge Pallmeyer:

Rebecca R. Pallmeyer graduated from Valparaiso University and earned her law degree from the University of Chicago Law School.  Following a one-year clerkship with Justice Rosalie Wahl of the Minnesota Supreme Court, Judge Pallmeyer practiced commercial litigation with a Chicago law firm. 

From 1985 until 1991, Ms. Pallmeyer was an Administrative Law Judge with the Illinois Human Rights Commission, a quasi-judicial agency responsible for enforcement of the state’s anti-discrimination laws.  On October 1, 1991, Ms. Pallmeyer was appointed a United States Magistrate Judge for the Northern District of Illinois.  She served as Presiding Magistrate Judge from 1996 until 1998.  In 1997, President Clinton nominated her for a seat in the U.S. District Court in Chicago, where she has served since October 1998.  

Judge Pallmeyer serves as the Seventh Circuit’s District Judge Representative to the United States Judicial Conference.  She is an honorary fellow of the College of Labor and Employment Lawyers and a fellow of the American Bar Foundation.  Since 2006, Judge Pallmeyer has served on the faculty for the annual ALI-CLE program, Current Developments in Employment Law, held in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Judge Pallmeyer is past President of the Lawyers Club of Chicago, past President of the Richard Linn American Inn of Courts, and an active member of the Chicago Bar Association, the Chicago Chapter of the Federal Bar Association, the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois, and the American Bar Association.  She is immediate past Secretary to the ABA Labor and Employment Law Section.

Judge Pallmeyer was sworn in as Chief Judge for the Northern District of Illinois on July 1, 2019.




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