Arleigh M. Woods '53
Pioneering Justice Makes Mark on History
Justice Arleigh Maddox Woods ’53 did more than just open doors for women and people of color pursuing careers in the legal profession. She blew those doors off of their hinges.
The Los Angeles native was the youngest woman admitted to the bar at the age of 22, and only the third African-American woman admitted. She was the first black woman senior partner in a law firm, the only female supervising judge on the Los Angeles Superior Court, and the first African-American woman on the Court of Appeals.
During an interview with the California Appellate Court Legacy Project in 2012, Justice Woods recalled what it was like to break barriers.
“Part of a consequence of being first is simply the fact that other people hadn’t been given an opportunity,” she said. “It’s more a sense of a responsibility than pride. You feel that you must excel to not embarrass anyone and to make it less difficult for the next person who comes along.”
Justice Woods earned a bachelor’s degree from Chapman College. After completing her law degree at Southwestern, Justice Woods set up a small private practice. She later went to work for a firm, working her way up to partner at Levy, Koszdin & Woods. She specialized in civil law, representing clients in cases related to construction accidents, medical issues, and labor and workers' compensation.
She also handled tort litigation and employment law cases related to wrongful termination, insurance coverage conflicts, environmental issues, and real property.
After a stellar career in private practice, then Gov. Jerry Brown tapped Justice Woods in 1976 to serve as a judge for the Los Angeles Superior Court. During her four-year appointment, she directed the pilot program for fast-tracking cases on the calendar, as well as overseeing hundreds of settlement conferences in the civil trial department. Woods also served as supervising judge of the North Central District from 1978 to 1980.
Judge Woods was appointed to the Second Appellate District as an associate justice in 1980, the first African-American woman to receive this honor. While serving on the appeals court, she created a settlement program. In 1983, the California Trial Lawyers Association named her “Appellate Justice of the Year.” During her appellate court career, she authored several hundred published opinions.
The Black Women Lawyers Association recognized her as a pioneer in 1984. Other honors include the Outstanding Judicial Officer Award from Southwestern in 1987, Appellate Justice of the Year from the Los Angeles Trial Lawyers Association in 1990, and the John M. Langston Hall of Fame Award in 1995.
Judge Woods, who also has an LL.M degree from the University of Virginia, believes in giving back.
She served as a member of the California Commission on Judicial Performance from 1986 to 1993, taking on the role of chairwoman from 1998 to 1996. Judge Woods served on multiple court committees on various issues including cameras in the courtroom, state ethics, gender bias, and mental health.
She formerly served on the board of directors of the American Cancer Research Foundation and was vice president of the board of directors for the Constitutional Rights Foundation.
Judge Woods was an author on the Original Appellate Court Practice Manual for Law Clerks of the 2nd District. She has lectured at a variety of legal and judicial seminars on civil law, discovery, and writs. She has guest lectured at Southwestern (where she served on the Board of Trustees), USC, and Loyola University.
Since retiring, she has served as a mediator and settlement judge. The Daily Journal selected her as one of the top 20 mediators in California.
Her late husband Bill Woods, also an attorney, graduated from Southwestern in 1957.