A Caribbean Bench Mark
Federal Judge Wilma Lewis ’78 is back to the islands in a big way
One of the most distinctive professional attributes of recently appointed federal judge Wilma Lewis ’78 is her fervor for her profession—a quality she found in rich supply at the College.
“[Swarthmore professors] had a passion for developing students to their full potential,” says Lewis. “I think it was way back then that it dawned on me [that] if you have a passion for what you do, extra work isn’t like work. It’s like continuing to do something you enjoy doing.”
Nominated as the first woman judge to the District Court of the Virgin Islands by President Barack Obama in March 2011 and confirmed by the U.S. Senate in June of that year, Lewis has been a sitting judge since July 2011. For the St. Thomas native, the appointment was nothing short of ideal.
“From the time I was a baby lawyer I always thought, ‘If I had the opportunity, I would want to serve on a federal district court bench,’ ” says Lewis. “Moreover, I always wanted to return to the Virgin Islands prior to my retirement. When this opportunity came up, it seemed like the perfect opportunity, because it married those two long-held desires.”
Lewis’ career trajectory has taken her to some pretty impressive heights and includes a whole string of “firsts.” Her most recent advancement is her fourth presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed post. Before her federal judgeship, she became the first African-American woman to serve as the U.S. Department of the Interior’s assistant secretary of land and minerals management (another Obama appointment). From 1998 to 2001, she was the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, the first woman to hold that position, and, in the three years before that, she was the first African-American inspector general for the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Despite the disparate nature of each of those positions, Lewis says there have been key professional skill sets she’s come to rely upon.
“The common thread for me was the skills I developed coming along as a lawyer,” she says. “There were differences among those positions, but I always came back to those basic lawyering skills—they held me in good stead.”
As a federal judge in St. Croix, Lewis hears civil and criminal cases and manages a complicated docket of more than 250 cases with a keen eye toward ensuring justice.
“To be entrusted with the duty to fairly and impartially [make critical decisions] and independently address the matters that are brought before the court … is an awesome responsibility, because important interests are always at stake. It’s an incredible honor and privilege,” she contends, to be a part of the judicial system and involved with the administration of justice.
While Lewis seems relaxed as she discusses her role in the judicial system, her voice perceptibly speeds up and grows more animated whenever the topic of Swarthmore emerges.
Throughout her career, Lewis has served on various boards and commissions, including Swarthmore’s Board of Managers. She also has maintained ties with the College through her participation in the Swarthmore College Alumni Gospel Choir.
Quoting from her essay in the 2004 book The Meaning of Swarthmore, Lewis describes her driving force: “Whatever the combination of factors, the rich Swarthmore experience has fueled a continuing desire to develop my own talents and abilities, a passion for reaching deep within to give my very best, and the courage to face new challenges with a strong belief in myself and my possibilities.”
She fondly remembers one person who exemplified that passion—her beloved math professor, David Rosen. Besides teaching math three days a week, he made time to hold open study groups twice a week—an opportunity of which Lewis took full advantage. Lewis says that “Professor Rosen’s undying commitment to his students was illustrative of the kind of selfless devotion to professional pursuits that was so characteristic of members of the Swarthmore faculty and administration.”
Likewise, “Over the years,” Lewis says, “I have grown accustomed to comments about how hard I work. I think a big part of it is that I enjoy what I do, so I put a lot into what I do.”