CHICAGO — U.S. District Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer will become the first woman to head the federal court in Chicago, succeeding Ruben Castillo as chief judge on July 1.
"Obviously, it's a huge honor and a thrill," Pallmeyer, noting the historic first for a court marking its 200th birthday in 2019, said Thursday in a telephone interview. "I guess I feel like it's taken a long time, but I'm happy it's happening now."
Pallmeyer, who was nominated by President Bill Clinton, has been a district judge in the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse since October 1998 and served as a federal magistrate in the same courthouse for seven years before that.
She said she hopes to stay in the position until she turns 70.
Castillo, who himself broke barriers as both the first Latino federal judge in Chicago and its first chief judge, praised Pallmeyer's love of the court, dedication and work ethic, saying she is often the first to arrive at work and the last to leave.
A popular figure with colleagues, Pallmeyer is unassuming and patient with defendants and lawyers. She commutes by train and walks to a Metra station in gym shoes. She recently told reporters she is learning to play the cello.
"It's really a shame that in 200 years a female has not been the chief judge of this court," said Castillo, who indicated he's stepping down early at 64. "I told myself there's something you can do."
Castillo said he realizes the Hispanic community may be disappointed, but he hopes it understands.
"I hope that they would understand that I'm doing this for a very important reason," he said. "It's the right thing to do."
Castillo wouldn't say if he planned to stay on the court after he steps down as chief judge.
Pallmeyer, 64, grew up in St. Louis, the daughter of a Lutheran minister. She attended Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, studying history and the humanities.
Her decision to become a lawyer was solidified one day in college while scooping corn and mashed potatoes onto her plate in the school cafeteria.
"You're going to law school, right, because I know you love to argue?" a friend asked her.
"The idea that someday I would be federal judge was unimaginable," Pallmeyer said. "A chief judge? It was just not even in my calculus."
She graduated from the University of Chicago Law School in 1979 and worked in her first job as a law clerk for Rosalie Wahl, the first woman on Minnesota's supreme court.
"I remember sitting at her desk, side by side, as she revised her opinions. She was a wonderful writer," Pallmeyer said of Wahl. "She was really a booster for women and men who worked for her and would encourage them to step forward constantly."
Pallmeyer, a mother of two daughters, recalled that women comprised about one-fourth of her class at U of C.
"We have more women in the pipelines that have served for decades, and that makes a difference," she said. "We (women) can have every expectation that we can be leaders."
She said her experience of nearly three decades on the federal bench — as both district and magistrate judges — will strengthen her in her new role.
"I think I've had some big and difficult cases that were challenges," said Pallmeyer, who presided over the six-month corruption trial of former Illinois Gov. George Ryan. "Well, I got through that. I guess I can get through (this), too."