Joanne Lin (1997-98)

Executive Director of Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs
Joanne Lin, smiling, next to Shirley Abrahamson

Twenty-six years after my clerkship, it’s the small things I remember, including:

  • The power of red grapes:  I didn’t know that they were Shirley’s secret manna.  How many nights and weekends did we together feed on those little red things, which kept us going…
  • There is only one way to compose and edit a judicial opinion:  print out the draft in LARGE FONT, triple-spaced, so Shirley could easily strike, write in, rearrange sequences of text.  I wonder if Shirley and her clerks moved to track changes in later years.  But here’s the scary thing – 26 years later I edit and supervise my colleagues in a very similar manner.  Ain’t very green, but I still find it the best way to teach and to work collaboratively.
  • Shirley was the only judge in the universe who answered the chambers’ phone.  I used to get so embarrassed when my then-beau (now spouse) Greg would call in the evenings, and Shirley would answer his calls, essentially acting as my secretary.  But she wouldn’t have it any other way.
  • The 3 Musketeers – Justices Geske, Bradley, Abrahamson – such august figures in their robes, such warm people individually.  And the 3 of them together? A trio of gal pals enjoying laughs and stories, even when they differed on cases.  That was a fellowship I wanted in on, and I felt privileged to see it up close.

The most hilarious moment of the year:  After Shirley and family took a cruise to Antarctica (her first time there), she reenacted the non-stop seasickness that she suffered, how she battled it by standing up at the corner of her cabin, grabbing both walls, bracing herself, and holding on for dear life! And she then described in vivid color how they went out in small boats as dolphins swam under their boats and next to them.  I love imagining Shirley out at sea communing with the dolphins!

The most meaningful moment of the year:  How Shirley reacted when I told her that my sister called at 2 a.m. to tell me that she had a brain tumor.  Shirley looked me squarely in the eyes and told me to do everything necessary to take care of my sister.  That was an order.  Knowing how close she and Roz were, I felt so grateful, and I was immediately freed up to focus on my sister over work.  My sister’s tumor ended up being benign.  And Shirley’s response in the situation – well, now as a manager, I have sought to follow her example, to the T.

The only judge in the universe who makes house calls:  Before my clerkship, I had a general understanding of access to justice, as a concept and ideal.  During my clerkship I learned that access to justice comes in the form of a person.  Shirley showed me that access to justice does not reside in the courthouses.  Rather it resides in primary schools, in police ride-alongs, in community club meetings.  Her vision of access to justice wasn’t limited to opening the courthouse doors to all.  Rather it meant that Shirley would bring herself to the people – wherever they are gathered, no matter their age or circumstance.  I was fortunate to have joined Shirley for a few of these engagements.  Had I been Shirley’s secretary, I would have told her that it was crazy to accept every speaking invitation and to drive hours each way on cold winter nights (I often worried about her driving long distances late at night).  While scholars have commented at length on her extraordinary jurisprudence (undeniably true), I can’t help but think that Shirley’s jurisprudence was shaped by her insistence on meeting people where they are, as they are.  I took comfort in knowing that for Shirley – every case was much more than a red brief, a blue brief, and two lawyers.

Curiosity without judgment:  Of the many Shirley qualities, the one that I am most awed by is her insatiable curiosity.  Shirley was the most curious person I’ve ever known.  She found every case curious, even the not-so-interesting ones – she would call them “puzzles.”  She found all people curious, even the not-so-nice ones – she was always eager to meet people from all walks of life.  And she used every non-work period to travel to remote corners of the earth, even the not-so-comfortable places – to see new sites, meet new people, learn new ways.  I’m convinced that this is the secret to the Shirley magic – and explains why she was never done and why her mind was always razor sharp.  I strive to practice Curiosity Without Judgment in my life every day.