Federal Appeals Judge Mary Schroeder, '65, Offers Insights on a Case's Journey to the Supreme Court

Meredith Heagney
Law School Office of Communications
April 12, 2012

A federal judge who graduated from the University of Chicago Law School before going on to a historic career offered students a “judge’s eye view” of cases that make their way to the Supreme Court.

Judge Mary M. Schroeder, ‘65, is a Senior Circuit Judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. She served as the circuit’s first female Chief Judge from 2000 to 2007. When she graduated from the Law School, she was one of just six women in her class. And as a lawyer in Arizona, she led the committee that drafted the state’s first civil rights law that applied to women.

Schroeder’s April 4 speech was the latest in the Nathan Cummings Family Foundation Judicial Fellow Lecture series, hosted by the American Constitution Society. During the talk, she gave Chicago credit for her strong start in law.

The Law School “certainly changed my life and shaped my life,” Schroeder said. “This law school has a tradition of providing very rigorous education…judges look for clerks from Chicago because they know that.”

Schroeder, who is based in Phoenix, spoke about her day-to-day work on the Ninth Circuit, which she said is the “most reversed court.” In fact, the title of her speech was: “Seldom Confirmed But Never in Doubt: The Unique Nature of the Ninth Circuit.”

“We can’t try to predict what the Supreme Court will do,” she said. “We’re bound by what the Supreme Court has done.”

Schroeder highlighted recent examples, including AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, which was decided by the Supreme Court last year. In that case, the Concepcions wished to join a class-action suit against AT&T for deceptive practices, but a clause in their cell phone contract required arbitration, and only on an individual basis. The Ninth Circuit thought the class-action waiver of the contract was unconscionable under California law and struck it down, Schroeder said.

The Supreme Court disagreed. In a 5-4 opinion, it found AT&T could enforce a contract provision requiring individual arbitration.

“It said not only, ‘you’re wrong,’ but ‘you’re really wrong,’” said Schroeder, drawing laughs from the students in attendance. “So I want you to have a little sympathy for us,” she added, smiling.

Concepcion was far from Schroeder’s only high-profile case. She was chief judge during the so-called “Pledge of Allegiance Case,” Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, in which the Ninth Circuit found the 1950s statute that added “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance to be a violation of the Establishment Clause. In 2004, the Supreme Court decided the parent in the suit did not have standing to bring it, so they reversed the Ninth Circuit’s decision and avoided the constitutional question altogether.

Schroeder also authored the opinion in Hirabayashi v. United States (1987), which vacated convictions of an American man of Japanese descent who refused to follow military orders to enter internment camps or abide by a curfew during World War II.

“This is the most rewarding job I think the law has to offer,” Schroeder said.

Ellie Norton, ’13, is media director for the American Constitution Society’s Chicago student chapter. As a woman, and a future lawyer, she found Schroeder inspirational, she said. It made perfect sense to her that Schroeder didn’t explicitly address being female or a trailblazer.

“I’m so impressed with her accomplishments, and those speak for themselves, without having to mention she’s a woman,” Norton said.