Bethany Krajelis Sep. 26, 2013, 6:30pm

U.S. Judge Diane Wood of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals said she was just a “baby lawyer” when she first met former U.S. Supreme Justice John Paul Stevens.

Wood, who will take over as chief judge of the federal appeals circuit on Oct. 1, met Stevens while serving as a law clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackman from 1976 to 1977.

She was a recent law school graduate and Stevens was a relatively new addition to the high court, a position he was appointed to following a distinguished career in Chicago that included practicing law, investigating allegations of corruption by state Supreme Court justices and serving on the 7th Circuit.

Saying that Stevens had a “way of putting people at ease,” Wood confessed that she and her fellow law clerks referred to him as the “wild card” on the court. It may have been tough to predict how he'd rule, but Wood said Stevens always thought everything through and had solid reasoning to back up his decisions.

Those characteristics, along with many others, made Stevens someone who Wood said she and her colleagues on the federal appeals panel “look to as an example.”

And on Thursday, the Chicago Bar Association (CBA) and Chicago Bar Foundation (CBF) presented Wood and William Conlon, a partner at Sidley Austin LLP, Cook County Circuit Judge William Hooks and former First District Appellate Court Justice Warren Wolfson with an award named after Stevens.

The four award recipients were met with standing ovations at the 14th Annual Justice John Paul Stevens Awards Luncheon, which took place at The Standard Club.

The event brought out dozens, if not hundreds, of members of the state’s legal community, including Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride and Justices Ann Burke and Mary Jane Theis, as well as several other well-known judges and attorneys.

Jesse H. Ruiz, a partner at Drinker, Biddle & Reath LLP who serves as first vice president of the CBF, said recipients of the annual award truly represent “the hall of fame of Chicago’s legal community.”

CBA President J. Timothy Eaton said the award was established by Stevens’ former law clerks in 2000 as a way to honor attorneys who best exemplify his commitment to public service and integrity while practicing law.

All four of this year’s award recipients, he said, “certainly meet that definition.”

Eaton, a shareholder at Shefsky & Froelich Ltd., said those who nominated Conlon, a partner at Sidley Austin, for the award referred to him as a “pillar in the legal community.”

His nominators, Eaton said, stressed that Conlon stands for all of the qualities of the Justice John Paul Stevens Award and has earned the respect of fellow lawyers, judges and law clerks alike.

Conlon focuses his practice on complex financial litigation, corporation investigations and professional responsibility matters. Prior to joining Sidley Austin, he worked in the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

On top of his dedication to the legal field, Eaton said Conlon has served on the Glencoe Elementary School Board, the Illinois State Board of Ethics and the Illinois Judiciary Inquiry Board. He also serves as this year’s president of the CBF, the charitable arm of the CBA.

Conlon said he felt privileged to join the list of attorneys who have received the award and thanked his family, as well as his firm’s leadership, “for allowing me to do what I do.”

Hooks, a Cook County circuit judge who also received this year’s award, said he finds public service rewarding.

While he has given to and taught others, Hooks said he has gotten a lot back and learned a lot in the process. He said he hopes others experience the pleasure and joy that he has found in public service.

Hooks, Eaton said, is “a public servant in the truest sense of the word.” He served in the U.S. Marine Corp for two decades before practicing law and joining the judiciary. Hooks has also been active with several associations and court committees throughout his career.

Eaton said one person who nominated Hooks for the award said his heart and values have remain unchanged since becoming a judge and that he has never been afraid to do well by others.

Hooks, who hears felony matters in the court’s Criminal Division, said regardless of whether someone is facing a felony charge, “we need to embrace everybody no matter their circumstances.”

Warren Wolfson, a former appellate court justice who now serves as a distinguished visiting professor at DePaul University College of Law, was the fourth recipient of this year’s Justice John Paul Stevens Award.

Eaton said those who nominated Wolfson stressed his service to the Lawyers Assistance Program, which aims to help lawyers, judges, law students and their families with alcohol abuse, drug dependency and mental health problems.

One of Wolfson’s nominators, Eaton said, said he is “a shining example of integrity” and serves the public in “a quiet and humble way.”

Wolfson told the crowd that someone once asked him a tough question: “Have you used your time well?”

Saying that this occasion has helped him finally answer that, Wolfson said “for the most part, yes. Why else would I be standing here today?”

Wolfson said he has learned a few things in his more than five decades as an attorney, including that “we must never stop caring about justice.”

Thursday’s luncheon also included a keynote speech from U.S. Judge William Bauer of the 7th Circuit.

Not only did Bauer briefly serve on the federal appeals bench with Stevens, but he was one of the first recipients of the Justice John Paul Stevens Award in 2000. Bauer said the two are also friends.

“He is one of the kindest men I’ve ever met,” Bauer said of Stevens, adding that he’s “also one of the smartest.”

Bauer told attendants that he is  proud of the four award recipients, but is also proud of them and proud to call himself a lawyer.

While the legal profession often finds itself the butt of jokes, Bauer said it is also to thanks for making the United States a place that “has more justice than anywhere in the world.”

Lawyers, he said, are responsible for the freedoms provided under the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation.

And although perfect justice is hard to obtain, Bauer said lawyers, by the profession they chose, have the responsibility to “keep fighting.”

As Stevens would say, Bauer told the crowd, “God bless you all and keep up the good work.”

Above photo (from left to right): Eaton, Hooks, Bauer, Wood, Conlon and Wolfson.

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