FEATURES • Fall 2002

As a judge for the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Missouri, alumna Jean Constance Hamilton sees her role as a "helper" and "educator" to those she serves.

By Nancy Belt

For many Americans, other than occasional jury duty, watching Judging Amy, Judge Judy, or Judge Joe Brown may be as close as they'll ever get to seeing a judge and the U.S. legal system at work. That's regrettable, says Jean Constance Hamilton, J.D. '71, a judge for the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Missouri. "Education is lacking when it comes to helping people understand the relevance of the legal system," she says.

The system deals with many cases that have great impact, she adds. The court on which she serves handles cases involving the Constitution and federal statutes, both civil and criminal, and cases involving litigants from more than one state. Some of these cases "often have a very important impact on the everyday lives of many," she observes.

That's why she recommends that everyone gain a better understanding of the legal system. "Attend court proceedings if possible, and look forward to serving on a jury," she says, "because these experiences can help one understand the nature and complexity of our system." She also feels it's very important to help children understand the legal system "not as something onerous but as a process that helps people."

As a child, Hamilton was inspired by her father, Aubrey B. Hamilton, who received A.B. and J.D. degrees from Washington University in 1939, to become a lawyer. "Seeing someone love his work so much had to have an impact," she says. One of her three sisters, Nancy Hamilton, J.D. '82, also is a lawyer. [Another sister, Mary Ellen Hamilton, graduated with an M.S.W. in 1968. And their mother, Rosemary Hamilton, received an A.B. degree from Washington University in 1965.]

Hamilton, who finished a seven-year term as chief judge of the court in June, strongly supports outreach efforts. She explains, "We invite school classes and community groups to come to the building (the Thomas F. Eagleton United States Courthouse, in downtown St. Louis), and we have programs for students. This past spring, for example, high-school students role-played a 'search and seizure' case, with some students playing lawyers and others playing judges. This was a very practical exercise involving a Fourth Amendment case that helped students learn how the Constitution and the legal system deal with real issues. These experiences illustrate vividly what makes our system work.

"Our system borrowed much from England," she says, "but our written Constitution, an extraordinary document that embodies our values, is the centerpiece of how we've organized ourselves. The rule of law informs everything we do, giving citizens confidence in government."

Hamilton does not feel Americans' bent toward litigation has changed much. "We've always been a fairly legalistic society. We're an 18th-century product," she says. "Yes, we have many lawyers, but I don't think that's necessarily bad. Many train in law but migrate to business, public service, and many other areas. Their law degree has taught them a method of thinking and problem-solving that is logical and analytical."

Hamilton, who received an A.B. degree in history from Wellesley College, a J.D. degree from Washington University, and an LL.M. degree from Yale Law School, said that when she was a student, she never thought about being a judge. "That arose later," she says.

After graduating from Washington University, Hamilton, a St. Louis native, became an attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., then became an assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri in St. Louis, and later corporate counsel for Southwestern Bell Telephone Company.

In 1982, the year she graduated from Yale, she was appointed to the trial bench as a circuit judge for the 22nd Judicial Circuit in Missouri, which covers the city of St. Louis, and, in 1988, to the Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District, as the first woman to serve on the court. She resigned in 1990 to accept an appointment to the court she presently serves—the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Missouri.

 

In spring 2002, Jean Hamilton, J.D. '71, was among the judges who addressed first-year law students as part of a School of Law workshop at the Thomas F. Eagleton United States Courthouse, in downtown St. Louis. During the workshop, students learned how the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Missouri, operates on a daily basis.

Hamilton says her career as a judge has been wonderful. "At both the trial and appellate levels, the variety of people and variety of legal issues you encounter make it very satisfying. You have an opportunity to help people, and you get a good overview of what's going on in your community." She adds that good trial lawyers also make the job fun. "Watching good professionals in their field is always a thrill," she says, "and when good lawyers are involved, I feel I'm hearing everything I need to hear to make a good decision.

"A lawyer should be a zealous, ethical advocate for a certain side," she says, "but, to do this well, he or she has to understand the other side's position, too. People can use many avenues to learn to do this. Some gain it through more formal study. Others learn it in other ways."

Hamilton, who has been an adjunct instructor at the School of Law, said she was fortunate to have a very fine education, and she applauds recent innovations in the law school. "Now there are many opportunities to gain practical experience while still a student," she says. "A student, for example, can participate in a clinical program and can serve as an intern with a practicing lawyer. Almost every semester, I have a second- or third-year student as an intern, and several have become law clerks for me. Being able to work on actual cases provides a transition from school to professional practice."

She also touts interdisciplinary programs, in which the law school and other schools at the University collaborate. "The first program with the School of Social Work began the year I graduated, and now there are programs with other disciplines. Washington University has so many strong schools, providing wonderful opportunities to collaborate."

A believer in giving back, Hamilton has helped guide many law students, serving as a role model for aspiring young women and men in the field of law. A very active member of the National Council for the School of Law since 1988, Hamilton was awarded the School's Distinguished Alumni Award in 1994 and the University's Distinguished Alumni Award in 1996.

"She exemplifies the ideal member of the profession, one who goes beyond the requirements of her role and contributes to making this a better world," says Dorsey D. Ellis, Jr., the William R. Orthwein Distinguished Professor of Law and former dean of the law school.

Hamilton's future projects include working in a nationwide effort to implement electronic case filing, which allows electronic access to case files in court and electronic filing of documents with the court. She also will work to enhance outreach activities.

Whatever professional activity she undertakes, she aims to continue to be the best judge she can be as she stays true to her philosophy. "A judge must determine the best method to resolve the dispute at hand, and when a judge is good—being patient, listening well with an open mind, and making judicious decisions—litigants feel that they're being treated fairly. A judge deals with legal issues, but he or she actually is dealing with people. The goal is to help people, not just those in front of you but people in society as a whole."

Nancy Belt is the associate editor of this magazine.