By The Hon. Sarah Evans Barker, United States District Court, Southern District of Indiana
The unexpected, unwelcome, unhappy news of the death of Patricia Gifford has left all who knew her bereft. This is such a huge loss of a colleague and friend. History records that she occupied a special place in our legal profession as well as in our hearts for more than 30 years prior to her retirement in 2008. In 1979, she had become the sixth Indiana woman elected to a trial court bench, taking her place within the elite ranks of the five other, extraordinary, pioneering women jurists—Judges Shields (1964), Barteau (1975), Chezem (1976), Dwyer (1976), and Mears (1978).
It is important to remember the kind of courage and spunk it took for a woman lawyer to seek and then to serve in such a position during those early years. It required a special measure of self-confidence and dedication, a strong intelligence and work ethic, a willingness to take on the challenges of managing a busy trial docket and enough independence and thick skin to overcome the resistance of others who resented or objected to her being there. Such opposition often surfaced in blunt and unkind and unfair ways.
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Judge Gifford’s secret to success at the beginning remained her secret to success throughout her long and distinguished judicial tenure: she worked hard, she knew her stuff, she understood other people and was sympathetic to their circumstances, she never lost her sense of humor or perspective, she found ways to push aside the things that didn’t matter in order to focus on the one thing that always mattered—finding the path that led to the most just result. She really was a remarkable person and judge.
In describing the qualities of character in persons who live lives that leave their mark on others’ in good and lasting ways, David Brooks, in his book “The Road to Character,” writes that such people possess an impressive inner cohesion, a kind of inner integration. “They are calm, settled, and rooted. They are not blown off course by storms. They don’t crumble in adversity. Their minds are consistent and their hearts are dependable. Their virtues are not the blooming virtues you see in smart college students; they are the ripening virtues you see in people who have lived a little and learned from joy and pain. ... they radiate a sort of moral joy ... they get things done...They just recognize what needs doing and they do it.”
Pat Gifford was such a person. All of us whose lives were graced by hers were made better by that connection. We will miss her dearly. Having died just a few days before reaching her 80th birthday, she left behind a long and rich history full of reminders of how special a judge and human being she was. As lawyers and judges, we all owe her a deep debt of gratitude for so effectively and courageously confronting and overcoming the gender barriers that at another time would have prevented her from making the extraordinary contributions she was able to make to our community and state and, most importantly, to the cause of justice. Hers was a thoroughly productive and inspiring and joy-filled life. Weren’t we lucky to have known her and to have had a front-row seat from which to watch it all unfold?