U.S. District Judge Mary M. Rowland’s journey from working as an attorney to serving as a federal trial judge with lifetime tenure was a long one.
Speakers at Rowland’s formal installation on the bench Monday used different yardsticks to measure the trip.
U.S. Sen. Richard J. Durbin said it was 10 years, three months and 18 days from the first time he submitted a letter to the White House urging Rowland’s appointment to the day she was formally installed on the bench as a U.S. District Court judge.
“The nomination and confirmation process can be a long and winding road,” the Illinois Democrat told the friends, relatives and colleagues gathered in the ceremonial courtroom of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse for Rowland’s investiture.
“But even so, the road from that letter to the White House to this happy ceremony included more twists and turns than anyone anticipated.”
Executive Director John F. Murphy of the Federal Defender Program for the Northern District of Illinois noted the time between Rowland’s first application to be a district judge and her ceremonial installation was roughly the same length of time it took to build the Suez Canal.
Murphy and other speakers said Rowland ran into roadblocks along the way.
For years, Murphy said, Rowland’s sexual orientation — she is a lesbian — “served as an enormous impediment, a huge obstacle, a Mount Everest really.”
Also standing in Rowland’s way was her work defending poor people against criminal charges and representing plaintiffs in civil rights and terrorism cases, Murphy said.
“Advocating on behalf of controversial or disfavored or simply unlikable individuals,” he said, “doesn’t play well in certain circles, as Mary was repeatedly reminded over the last 10 years.”
Matthew J. Piers of Hughes Socol Piers Resnick & Dym Ltd. had the same take on the matter.
Piers noted his former law partner’s work led to the dismissal of criminal charges against a Muslim charity and a Palestinian American’s removal from the U.S. government’s terror watch list.
“Her black mark, it seems, the black mark against this very courageous woman was that she had so vigorously — and successfully — defended the rule of law,” Piers said.
Piers moved for the administration of the oath of office.
Rowland placed her left hand on a copy of the U.S. Constitution held by her wife, Julie E. Justicz, while U.S. District Chief Judge Rebecca R. Pallmeyer administered the oath.
After others gave remarks on Rowland’s career and ascension to the bench, she had her own comment about her confirmation.
“They call it a process,” Rowland said. “I call it a hazing.”
Rowland earned an undergraduate degree in political science in 1984 at the University of Michigan and a J.D. in 1988 at the University of Chicago.
Rowland and future Chicago Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot met as undergraduates and went to law school together.
“I congratulate you on this moment,” Lightfoot said to Rowland at the investiture. “It is historic. It is important and ground-breaking.”
Justicz was also a law school classmate. She serves as the chief advancement officer for the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights.
Rowland and Justicz held a commitment ceremony on their 10th anniversary in 1997, then married in California in 2008.
They have two children. Thomas Rowland could not be at the investiture, but his sister was among the speakers.
Lilly Rowland joked that her mother is unable to perform simple household chores and cannot set aside her role as a jurist even when she is at home.
Rowland will hurry her and Justicz out the door and then leave them waiting in the car for 15 minutes, Lilly said.
“But like the lawyers who appear in court,” she said, “I cannot rush the judge as she prepares her tea.”
Switching to a serious vein, Lilly praised her mother for having the courage and strength to face up to obstacles and become an advocate for LGBT people.
“I am fortunate to have such an astounding mother, and the court is fortunate to have such an astounding, extraordinary judge,” Lilly said.
Rowland served as a law clerk to U.S. District Judge Julian Abele Cook Jr. of the Eastern District of Michigan from 1988 to 1990.
She then joined the Federal Defender Program. In her 10 years with the program, Rowland served first as a staff attorney and then as the chief appellate attorney.
Rowland joined Hughes Socol Piers Resnick & Dym in 2000. Her practice focused on class-action work and employment and civil rights cases.
In 2012, Rowland was selected by the active district judges to serve as a magistrate judge.
In May of this year, President Donald Trump appointed Rowland to the bench.
Trump tapped Rowland to replace Amy St. Eve, who had been elevated to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
In July, Rowland became the first openly gay person nominated to the bench by Trump to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. She took her seat in August.
At the investiture, Heather C. Sawyer praised Durbin and his aide Daniel Swanson for bringing “another brilliant, compassionate voice” to the federal trial court.
Sawyer is the staff director and chief counsel of the Senate Judiciary Committee and formerly served as senior counsel in Lambda Legal’s Midwest Regional Office in Chicago.
Rowland said her late father, Richard, was a lawyer who “loved that no one was above the law.”
“And we all know how important that is right now,” Rowland said. “And he would be so happy that his little girl, Mary Margaret, has some small role to play right now in ensuring the rule of law in these turbulent times.”