The Illinois Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission honored William J. Bauer, 89, a senior judge in the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, with the Honorable George N. Leighton Justice Award on Tuesday.
The Illinois Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission honored William J. Bauer, 89, a senior judge in the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, with the Honorable George N. Leighton Justice Award on Tuesday. — Ralph Greenslade

It took eight years for William J. Bauer’s name to come up in conversations about whose life work merits distinction with the Honorable George N. Leighton Justice Award.

But once it did, former Gov. James R. Thompson said it took the Illinois Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission five seconds to unanimously agree that Bauer would be the award’s fifth recipient.

“I regard Bill Bauer as a pure lawyer,” said Thompson, senior chair and partner at Winston & Strawn LLP and commission chair. “By that I mean whatever job he tackles, he comes without any preconceptions or prejudices that will get in his way. When he was a prosecutor, he acted as a prosecutor. When he was a judge, he acted as a judge — no shaming of philosophy, his decisions driven by the law and facts.”

Bauer, 89, now a senior judge with the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals who still keeps a full case load, was given the award — a gold medal — during a ceremony Tuesday at Winston & Strawn to honor his service in the legal profession.

Several of his colleagues gathered to congratulate a man they agreed has been a role model in the legal community since he started as a partner at Erlenborn, Bauer & Hotte in 1953 and subsequently was elected DuPage County state’s attorney in 1959.

“I wanted that job so badly I could taste it,” Bauer said. “When I finished (running for the position), I didn’t have a dime, but I won and that people trusted me enough to be state’s attorney was enough for me.”

Bauer was first elected to the bench in 1964 when he became a judge in the 18th Judicial District Circuit Court in DuPage County. He held that position for six years until he was appointed to be the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois.

There, Bauer recruited lawyers such as Thompson and Dan K. Webb, a partner at Winston & Strawn, to serve as his assistants.

“Bill began an office in the U.S. attorney’s office that was extraordinary, distinguished,” Thompson said. “He brought people of immense talent together as his assistants without regard to politics, without regard to philosophy, without regard to where they came from, and the office was extraordinarily successful.”

Bauer’s reign in that office didn’t last long, though. Former President Richard Nixon nominated him in 1971 to serve on the federal bench in the Northern District of Illinois.

Three years later, former President Gerald Ford nominated him for the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Bauer served as chief judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals from 1986 until 1993 and then achieved senior status in 1994.

Through the years, Bauer has held a reputation as a law icon.

“Yet, he maintains his humility and his humanity,” Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Rita B. Garman said. “He’s a very easy person to talk to. He’s not pretentious or haughty, and with his many accomplishments, he would have every right to be.”

Friends and colleagues agree Bauer carries with him a warm demeanor that makes him approachable and a sought after source of advice.

“I’m sure I walk in the footsteps of hundreds before me and hundreds behind me who sought his counsel, and he’s always extremely generous with his time,” 2nd District Appellate Justice Joseph E. Birkett said.

Perhaps more importantly, though, they admire his ability to tell it like it is.

It’s an approach he even takes to his opinions, like the time in October 2012 when he began a 7th Circuit opinion on the case United States v. Fluker by writing, “This case proves the old adage, ‘If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.’”

“He’s very candid,” Birkett said. “He will not sugarcoat it.”

That’s part of the reason Birkett has valued his relationship with Bauer through the years. Birkett said he has known Bauer since he began following a similar line of work as the senior judge and has always sought Bauer’s advice whenever he considered a career move.

“I didn’t get into the business of law for the money, and neither did (Bauer). We did it because we have a passion for the law, a passion for justice and he knew that I shared that view,” Birkett said. “There were plenty of opportunities during my career to take a different path, but I took a path similar to his. Judge Bauer had a lot to do with that.”

That passion, Bauer said, stems from his common-sense understanding that law is an instrument of peace.

“The law is set up to keep us reasonably nice so that we can get along without killing each other in either civil or criminal (cases),” Bauer said. “If we can be happy, then that’s the law that makes it work. If everybody could do whatever the hell he or she wants, guess what we’d be doing — bashing each other’s head in.”

Bauer received his award in the name of the 103-year-old Leighton, with whom he’d recently spoke and still considers a close friend to this day.

“So I am doubly pleased — first to get the award from the committee authorized by the Supreme Court of Illinois, and in the name of a man who I think personified justice, decency and humanity. What a lucky man I am.”