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Elder Christofferson praises Judge Wallace for making ‘a difference for good’

Ninety-two-year-old Latter-day Saint Judge J. Clifford Wallace — who just received the Bolch Prize for the Rule of Law for his distinguished service in the United States and around the world — is described as “an accomplished and remarkable man by Elder D. Todd Christofferson.

The member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles spoke in a Friday, March 18, ceremony in San Diego, California, honoring Wallace, who served for more than 50 years in the U.S. federal court system, including as chief judge of the Ninth Circuit. He was known for using his vacation time for 40 years to assist lawyers and judges in at least 70 countries.

Elder Christofferson cited the Savior’s exchange with a lawyer in Matthew 22 and said Wallace “fully internalized” the lessons taught in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

“He is one who appreciates his own blessings and recognizes the ultimate source of those blessings,” Elder Christofferson said. “Consequently, he has a refined sense of accountability to God for his life and what he does with his life.”

David F. Levi, director of Duke Law School’s Bolch Judicial Institute, said Wallace took interest in “judicial administration to help the system become as responsive as possible.”

Both Levi and Elder Christofferson said that this responsiveness was part of Wallace’s deeply held belief that justice delayed is justice denied.

Learning to listen

Wallace continues to be respected and sought out for his opinions by judiciaries around the world, Levi said.

“He has a following around the world — in Pakistan, Uganda, Singapore, Malaysia and many more,” Levi said.

But the reason for Wallace’s success wasn’t just his keen sense of justice or innovative administrative processes, Levi said. Wallace was revered by many because he listens first.

“He hears problems. He learns a great deal. He offers advice. But he’s also a terrific listener, and that’s most important for any of us.”

I never thought of myself as an innovator, Wallace said. I was just trying to find the right way to do things.

In an interview after the event, Wallace said he agreed with Levi’s assessment.

“Listening is indispensable,” Wallace said. “When you go somewhere, you think you can quickly see a problem to be solved.”

Wallace said he doesn’t divide his life into professional, family, church or other compartments. Lessons learned can apply to all areas of life — including that of listening.

“You need to listen to what they think their biggest problem is and then take steps to resolve that first,” he said. “And the second part is to get out of the way.”

Elder Christofferson said Wallace adapted his advice to other judiciaries to local circumstances. Those adaptations “decreased delays substantially and better implemented the rule of law” around the globe, Elder Christofferson said.

Judge J. Clifford Wallace receiving the Bolch Prize on March 18 in San Diego.

Judge J. Clifford Wallace receiving the Bolch Prize on March 18 in San Diego.

Credit: Alan Gibby for Church News

Wallace’s ability to regularly advise judiciaries around the world came partly through the respect others gained for him because he was always learning the religions and customs of those he served and worked with, Elder Christofferson said.

“You need to understand what nudges people internally,” he said. “They need to feel it is right and that it is the right time. You can’t just tell them.”

Rough start

Wallace knows something about being nudged internally.

His father was an alcoholic who hadn’t gotten past elementary school. Home life as a young man wasn’t easy for young Cliff.

At age 14, some friends who he called “the good kids in the high school,” asked what he was doing on Saturday night. He said his only thought in that moment was “not going home.”

The friends invited him to join them at their stake center — which he disappointingly interpreted as “steak.” He went with them and found a good number of teenagers dancing together. He said he had a good time and obliged again when they asked if he would read some of the Book of Mormon.

“I did,” he said. “And it didn’t take long after I started reading to find myself praying about it.”

He attended his first Church meetings around the same time, and he chose to get baptized.

“There weren’t many missionaries around at that point,” he said. “The war had been going on, so the only missionaries were the other teenagers through their examples.”

Wallace graduated high school and went straight to the United States Navy, where he served for three years.

“The first book I ever read was in the Navy,” he said. “The Navy taught me discipline.”

While in the Navy, he made the decision to go to college to become a lawyer. He said his school counselors tried to dissuade him based on his high school grades. They told him he’d be better off in a trade, but he knew what he wanted to do and worked hard at it. He eventually graduated from the University of California-Berkeley with his law degree.

He said he could have been happy as a trial lawyer, but he felt called to move to the judiciary side of the profession to have a broader impact.

“I became interested in the machine itself,” he said.

Levi’s observation that Wallace was innovative in his methods when working in that “machine” is something Wallace doesn’t completely agree with.

“I never thought of myself as an innovator,” he said. “I was just trying to find the right way to do things.”

That’s part of the reason he took such an interest in working with international judiciaries.

“I wanted to protect human rights,” he said. “Courts have to be functional and effective without leading to things being settled in the streets.”

Wallace said that seeing people around the world as God’s children helped him stay driven past the age of 90.

“I think they’re all my brothers and sisters. I shouldn’t treat them or want them treated any differently than He would,” he said.

Long life of dedication

“It is truly amazing to consider what one man’s persistent efforts can yield,” Elder Christofferson said.

He then quoted King Benjamin from Mosiah 2:17 and said this teaching both motivated and guided Wallace throughout his life.

Elder D. Todd Christofferson speaks about Judge J. Clifford Wallace receiving the Bolch Prize on March 18 in San Diego, California.

Elder D. Todd Christofferson speaks about Judge J. Clifford Wallace receiving the Bolch Prize on March 18 in San Diego, California.

Credit: Alan Gibby for Church News

In the courtroom, in his Church service, in his home, Wallace, “appeals to the innate goodness in all of us, and with a smile, persuades us that we can do better and follow the better path,” Elder Christofferson said.

Wallace is the fourth recipient of the Bolch Prize. The first to receive it in 2019, Justice Anthony Kennedy, retired Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, was also scheduled to present at the ceremony for Wallace. Due to illness, his comments were read by Levi.

When asked why he continues to work to improve judiciary systems long after many of his peers have retired, Wallace said, “Work should be something we think is productive.”

“I won’t be disappointed when I leave the bench. I’ll keep on doing what I know I’m supposed to be doing.”

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