Wagner, Annice 1937–
Annice Wagner 1937–
As chief judge of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, Annice Wagner heads the highest court in the district. She has a reputation as a thorough, painstaking judge, who controls her trials with quiet confidence.
By the time Wagner was appointed chief judge in 1994, she had racked up decades of experience in public service. During the 1970s, she served as chief lawyer for the National Capital Housing Authority, and later as people’s counsel for the District of Columbia, representing the interests of utility consumers. In 1977, she was appointed associate judge of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. In 1990, she was appointed to the Appeals Court, becoming chief judge four years later.
Throughout her career, however, Wagner has had to struggle against public criticism of her abilities. When she was nominated as people’s counsel in 1975, some D.C. consumer groups and politicians questioned her lack of experience in the utilities field. In 1994, when Wagner and another candidate were shortlisted for the position of chief judge, she was criticized for taking too long to decide her cases. Despite the opposition, Wagner managed to win both jobs.
Annice Wagner was born in the District of Columbia and attended public schools there. After graduating from high school, she moved to Detroit, Michigan, earning her B.A. and law degrees from Wayne State University. She was admitted to practice in Michigan and, later, in the District of Columbia.
After earning her law degree, she spent two years working as administrative aide to the president of the Barnstable County Mental Health Association in Hyannis, Massachusetts.
Later, Wagner moved back to the District of Columbia, where she was admitted to the bar in 1964. That year, she took a position in the D.C. law firm of Houston & Gardner, which specializes in civil cases. She was engaged in private practice in the district for nine years, working in a wide variety of legal areas: landlord-tenant disputes, probate, divorce, support and custody of juveniles, real property actions, conservatorships, contracts, and negligence.
In 1973, Wagner was appointed chief lawyer for the National Capital Housing Authority, which runs the District of Columbia’s 11,000 public housing units. She was the first woman to serve as general counsel to the housing authority, which was then a federal agency.
In 1975, Mayor Walter E. Washington nominated Wagner to be the first people’s counsel for the District of Columbia. The office had been created by Congress to represent the interests of utility consumers before the public service commission and the District of Columbia Court of Appeals
At a Glance …
Born AnnieeM, Wagner, 1937, Washington, D.C.; married. Education: B.A., iaw degree, Wayne State University, Detroit, Ml.
Career: Lawyer with Houston & Gardner, beginning in 1964; General Counsel, National Capital Housing Authority, 1973-75; People’s Counsel for the District of Columbia, 1975-77; Associate Judge, Superior Court of the District of Columbia, 1977-90; Judge, District of Columbia Court of Appeals, 1990-94; Chief Judge, District of Columbia Court of Appeals, 1994%
Awards: Charlotte E. Ray Award of the National Bar Association; Honored at Turner Broadcasting System’s Sixth Annual Trumpet Awards, 1988.
Member: Board of Trustees, United Planning Organization, Washington D.C., beginning in 1979; Vice president of UPO Board, beginning in 1988; teaching team, trial advocacy workshop, Harvard University, beginning in 1986; Board of directors of the Conference of Chief Justices; Chair, Joint Committee on Judicial Administration; American Bar Association committee on mediation law.
Addresses: Office—500 Indiana Ave. NW, Washington, D.C 20001,
At the time, Wagner’s nomination was criticized by some D.C. consumer groups and politicians, who argued that Wagner had little experience in the utilities field. She also received some openly hostile press coverage, such as a Washington Post article with the headline,” Advocate Nominee Lacks Experience.”
“I feel that I possess the qualifications that one would need in order to handle these kinds of (utilities) cases,” Wagner was quoted as saying in the Washington Post article. She had dealt with a “wide variety of civil matters” and had the ability to analyze complex legal problems, she was quoted as saying during a press conference.
Wagner’s nomination was defended by the only other people’s counsel in the Washington area: Gary R. Alexander, people’s counsel to the Maryland Public Service Commission. Alexander noted that he also had no experience in utilities when he took office the year before, telling Stephen J. Lynton of the Washington Post that the criticism of Wagner was “unfair and unfounded.” Wagner was able to weather the criticism, and eventually her nomination was approved by the city council. She served as people’s counsel for the District of Columbia for two years.
In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed Wagner as an associate judge of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, a position she would hold for 13 years. While in Superior Court, she served in all of its divisions—civil, criminal, family, probate and tax—and she was the presiding judge of the court’s probate and tax divisions for two years.
During her years on the Superior Court, Wagner served as chair of the court’s advisory committee on probate and fiduciary rules. She was largely responsible for the implementation of new rules that simplified and clarified procedures concerning people who were missing, protected or incapacitated. She also served as chair of the committee on selection and tenure of hearing commissioners. She was a member of the Superior Court rules committee and the sentencing guidelines commission, and she was chair of various subcommittees.
In addition to her judicial duties, Wagner found time for community service and teaching. In 1979, she became a member of the Board of Trustees of the United Planning Organization (UPO), which provides social service programs designed to improve the quality of life for the poor in the District of Columbia; these programs include day care, the Head Start program, food programs for children, and services for the elderly. In 1988, she was appointed vice president of the UPO board, helping to oversee all aspects of the organization. In addition, Wagner has been a member of a teaching team for the trial advocacy workshop at Harvard Law School since 1986.
In 1989, Wagner was among the candidates chosen by a D.C. commission to fill a vacancy on the district’s Court of Appeals. According to the laws that govern the District of Columbia, the commission develops a short list of three candidates; the president of the United States then makes the final choice, who is subject to confirmation by the U.S. Senate. President George Bush selected Wagner, and she took her seat on the bench in 1990.
While on the trial bench, Wagner gained the respect of prosecutors and defense attorneys as a no-nonsense judge who did her homework and controlled her trials with confidence. “She didn’t appear to need to flex her judicial muscles to let the boys know who is running the courtroom,” one trial lawyer, Michele Roberts, was quoted as saying in the Washington Post “Here she was, both black and a woman. If she had any concern about perceptions, you didn’t see it.”
In addition to her work as a judge on the Court of Appeals, Wagner served on numerous committees. She was chair of a task force on gender bias, which conducted a comprehensive study of bias in the courts. She also chaired the committee on arrangements for the District of Columbia judicial conference in 1992.
In 1994, Wagner and another judge on the Court of Appeals, John M. Ferren, were shortlisted for the job of chief judge on the court. As Saundra Terry noted in the Washington Post, the work load in this position is extremely demanding: the chief judge handles a full load of cases, while also overseeing the court, dealing with budgets, and managing myriad other duties.
“Both are smart, respected by their peers, and considered thoughtful and pleasant to work for,” Terry wrote in the Washington Post. “But because the court is saddled with a crushing backlog, some say the candidates’ experience, speed in making decisions, and ability to inspire quick action by colleagues are crucial factors.”
In the run-up to the final decision, Wagner was criticized for taking too long to decide her cases. According to a Washington Post survey, Wagner took an average of 14 months to decide a case. Under the court’s own rules, judges are required to circulate their proposed opinions within 180 days after a case is argued orally or submitted on paper.
“Some Wagner admirers offered explanations for her backlog,” Terry wrote in the Washington Post ; they suggested that her additional duties, such as heading the task force on gender bias, had sapped her time and energy. In addition, unlike many appellate judges, Wagner insisted on drafting her own opinions, rather than relying on assistants. “She is incredibly thorough, considerate, and considered about everything she does,” Karen Burke, one of Wagner’s former law clerks, was quoted as saying in the Washington Post.
Wagner managed to overcome the criticism—just as she had earlier in her career —and was named chief judge for a four-year term. In doing so, she became the country’s first African American woman chief justice.
The D.C. Judicial Nomination Commission, which made the final decision, explained that three factors had been critical to the decision: Wagner’s experience as both a trial and appeals judge, her “continued commitment” to the district, and her “experience and ability in working with other agencies of government” (quoted as saying in the Wash ington Post). Wagner told the Wash ington Post that she looked forward to working with the other judges, court personnel, and the community “in our continuing effort to improve the administration of justice.”
Wagner is a member of the board of directors of the Conference of Chief Justices, an organization of chief justices and judges from the 50 states, the District of Columbia and various federal territories. She also chairs the joint committee on judicial administration, the policy-making body for the District of Columbia Courts. In 1998, Wagner was chosen to be a member of an American Bar Association committee dedicated to developing a uniform mediation law throughout the country.
Wagner has received numerous awards for her accomplishments. In 1998, she, along with the five other black chief justices of state supreme courts, was honored at Turner Broadcasting System’s Sixth Annual Trumpet Awards. She has also received the prestigious Charlotte E. Ray Award of the National Bar Association, in recognition of her outstanding contribution to the law and the community.
Washington Post, June 15, 1994, p. B3; June 11, 1994, p.A20; May 16, 1994, p. BIZ 7; Oct. 11, 1989, p. D5; Feb. 22, 1975, p. E2; Feb. 20, 1975, p. E3.
Webpage, the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws and the American Bar Association Section on Dispute Resolution. http://www.stanford.edu/group/sccn/mediation.
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