Judge Rya Zobel ’56 of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts was among 23 women appointed in 1979 to the federal judiciary, more than double the number of women appointed as federal judges in the previous 190 years. In a group of pioneering women lawyers, her journey to the federal bench was perhaps the most remarkable.
As a child, Zobel grew up in Nazi Germany. In July 1945, Soviet troops arrested her father, and she never saw him again. “As he was leaving, he turned around and said to me, ‘Rya, take care of your mother and your brother,’” she said. Hours later, soldiers led her mother away, to spend 10 years in Soviet prisons.
And yet Zobel describes her life story as one of extreme good fortune.
A Hungarian American uncle hurried to Germany and helped Zobel and her brother escape, initially to the Allied zone and eventually to the United States. Zobel, still a young teenager, was taught to speak only English in her new home in Long Island. Just two and a half years after arriving in America, she enrolled in Radcliffe College, and then later in Harvard Law School.
“I’ve been incredibly fortunate. I had this amazing, loving family that just took us in, cared for us, and provided us with an education,” Zobel said. “It was just an extraordinary and highly intellectual household.”
A Harvard professor encouraged Zobel to study law, which led to a 10-year stint as a law clerk for U.S. District Court Chief Judge George Sweeney. She then entered private practice and became the first female partner in one of the large Boston firms. When four new federal judgeships were created in the same courthouse in Boston where Zobel had clerked, she was intrigued.
“I knew this was something big, and I was eager to do it,” Zobel said. “I really loved this court. I had a sense that I could do the work. Judge Sweeney was a very decent, practical fellow. He also was a very good judge, and I had learned a lot from him.”
The first time she took the bench, to preside at an arraignment to a superseding indictment, “everyone in the courtroom, including the defendants, knew exactly what to do except me,” Zobel joked. But she learned to trust her judgment and keep lawyers on track.
In 2002, the American Bar Association honored Zobel with the Margaret Brent Award, which celebrates outstanding women lawyers. In 2014, she took on senior status.
“I am not Pollyanna,” she said about women lawyers’ and judges’ progress in the profession. “I do not believe that we have arrived; I do not pretend that women have fully equal opportunities; I do not ignore the reality that discrimination remains alive and strong. But … I wish to celebrate how far we have come.”
This piece first appeared on the U.S. Courts website on Aug. 28, 2019, as part of a series on women judges who in 1979 reshaped the federal judiciary.