Full Circle

From clerking in to presiding over a federal district courtroom, Boyd Law professor emerita Anne Traum elevates access to justice

By Stacy Willis

She is smart. You can tell that early in the conversation. Not only is she precise and knowledgeable, she also is able to see things from multiple perspectives, as many good attorneys do.

But the issue U.S. District Court Judge Anne Traum keeps foremost in her mind is that the law is made for everyone. And without equal access to justice, the law loses some of its power and intent.

“The overarching motivation for me throughout my career has been access to justice,” says Traum, a professor at the William S. Boyd School of Law at UNLV from 2008 until earlier this year, when the U.S. Senate confirmed her nomination to the bench.

“Access to justice” generally refers to ensuring that people get the appropriate level of legal assistance as well as a fair and efficient process to resolve disputes in court. Although the law is written to be applied fairly, it doesn’t always play out that way. Issues such as money, time, and their understanding of legal rights often prohibit some people from experiencing equal access to justice.

Traum, 53, first gained this perspective after finishing law school at the University of California Hastings Law in San Francisco and beginning a clerkship for Judge Stanwood Duval in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. There, she began to better appreciate how the court’s work affects people’s lives.

“One of the beauties of working as a clerk in the district court is I saw that trial courts are the shopkeepers of justice,” she says. “[Judge Duval] brought to his court a lot of humility, and he realized he was a public servant. He used to say the courtroom is for all of the litigants, not just for the judges or attorneys.”

As her career progressed, that humility—as well as an interest in helping the disadvantaged— emerged in Traum. She saw that people who cannot afford an expensive attorney or take the time off of work to be in court often end up quickly settling the matter in a way that may not benefit them. She wanted to help.

"I always knew I could make a contribution,” says Traum, who now presides over

her own courtroom in the federal district court in Reno. “And I thought helping those in greater need makes the most sense.”

A Variety of Roles

Traum grew up in northern California. Her dad was a physician, and her mom, who graduated from college when Traum was in kindergarten, worked several jobs before settling into a career in tech. Traum majored in history and German studies at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. With initially no intention of becoming an attorney, she was considering graduate school when she had a life-shifting conversation with a friend’s mom.

The woman told her that if she had her life to do over again, she would become a lawyer because lawyers are “closer to where the decisions are made.” Traum decided to pursue law because she wanted that access and she felt that she could make a contribution to society as an attorney.

Now her career has come full circle, from that early clerkship to her current position as a district court judge, and she has made many contributions along the way.

She worked as an attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., assistant U.S. attorney in Las Vegas, assistant federal public defender for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Las Vegas, special counsel to the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., and professor at the Boyd School of Law.

In each of those spots, she was able to apply her intellect and natural sense of empathy to her interest in the way the law affects the lesser privileged.

“That’s a uniting passion I have,” Traum says. “As a law professor, I ended up doing two different aspects of that—working directly with students and clients, educating them on the value of [building relationships with clients], and then also working on indigent defense and being an advocate for pro bono programs to make sure the law is working for everyone.”

At UNLV, Traum ran the Appellate Clinic; she and fellow professor Eve Hanan later founded and ran the Misdemeanor Clinic. The professors supervised law students handling misdemeanor cases from the initial charge through trial and sentencing.

“It opens (students’) eyes to the way in which people without means experience the world and the justice system. It opens their eyes to the challenges that they face in asserting their rights and defenses,” Traum says.

“When you have that unique opportunity to give voice to people, and to represent them, you feel the importance,” Traum says. “I also wanted to teach students about understanding and developing a relationship with [the client]—that’s part of practicing law.”

Hanan says that is exactly what Traum accomplished as a professor. She characterizes Traum as hard-working, conscientious, and invested in every student.

“Anne remembers all of her students. We couldn’t walk 15 steps into the courthouse together without a former student saying, ‘Hello, professor Traum.’  She had such a positive regard and appreciation of her students. She is a mentor, and she is highly engaged with them,” Hanan says. 

“If you ask her about any of her students, she would get a big smile on her face and remember details of that student,” Hanan says.

Why Proper Representation Matters

When people are not well represented by an attorney, it not only affects that particular case but also has a broader effect on the law itself, Traum says. When people aren’t represented adequately, there is often undeveloped law. Ultimately, law develops quicker with strong advocacy, she explains.

“Generally the law tends to evolve when someone has an advocate who can get traction in court,” Traum says. “In many lower court proceedings, what happens quickly in the courtroom is mostly it.”

The ability to litigate an issue often requires money, persistence and not only a tolerance for conflict, but a penchant for it.

“It’s actually really hard to get a spotlight or test legal rules in lower court proceedings,” Traum says. “It doesn’t happen a lot at that lower level because people don’t have the time, energy, money, or stomach to fight, and they don’t understand their rights.”

As a professor, Traum implored students to dig around and learn about the legal ecosystem and the price of expediency.

Getting to the Federal Bench

Another entirely different ecosystem is the political ecosystem involved in confirming federal judges.

Traum was first nominated for the open federal judge seat by President Barack Obama in April 2016. However, since Republicans had halted judicial confirmations to keep open the Supreme Court vacancy when Justice Antonin Scalia died, the Senate never voted on her nomination. She was nominated again by President Joe Biden in 2021 and was confirmed this year. She received her judicial commission in April.

“You leave the politics to the politicians,” Traum said of the confirmation process. “I do what I do, and they do what they do. I’m extremely honored to have been chosen twice—it feels like two lightning strikes—and in the intervening time, I just tried not to let the politics of judicial nominations get to me personally.”

Traum loved being a law professor but expressed interest in the federal district court opening because of that element of public service.

“I really do love the law,” she says. “My role at the law school is a wonderful part of my career that I’m very proud of. There are not many jobs I would leave being a professor for, but there’s an aspect of public service that’s near to my heart. I think I can make a contribution and while it’s a huge learning curve, I find it so rewarding.”

Once on the bench, she said, the level of responsibility is immense. While the public considers judges the authority, she has a more nuanced view: She sees it as possessing an extra level of responsibility to the public.

“It’s not that I’m the authority; it’s that I’m entrusted with a lot of authority under the law,” she says.

Even after more than than 14 years as a law professor, the learning curve on the bench has been demanding. The types of cases in district courts vary widely, and she says she has relied on the collegiality of other federal judges as she adapts.

“The diversity and volume of cases means there is extra pressure to do your homework and get it right,” Traum says. “Fortunately, I have my colleagues who are all wonderful, and they are an incredible source of practical knowledge and wisdom.”

“It’s funny because every judge says, ‘I know that ultimately you’re going to do it your way,’ while still helping. It’s a really lovely ethos that’s transmitted judge to judge. You’re going to find your way, but they are there to support you finding your way. It’s an interesting balance between community and independence.”

Retired longtime federal public defender Franny Forsman, a friend and mentor, has known Traum for about 20 years.

“What runs through Anne’s experience is a clear public service theme,” Forsman said. “She always approaches things from the public service and indigent defense point of view. She could’ve gone with any big national firm and made a whole lot more money, but she chose not to.”

When Traum was nominated for the federal bench, Forsman said, “I was thrilled, of course.  Federal court is the perfect place for her in terms of the quality of cases and quality of work she sees in front of her. … Another thing that motivates her is doing really good work. Producing excellence.”

What’s for Fun?

“I was an academic person then, and am still—in terms of loving to read and write, and history and books,” Traum says.

But it’s not all books for Traum.  “My family loves to be outside. We hike and camp and backpack.”

They also love to cook. Traum’s husband is an accomplished baker, and Traum has recently begun to explore the art of fermentation with pickles and kimchi.  “It’s a stinky craft. But it’s fun to experiment,” she says.

A Message to Young Attorneys

Her advice to those just starting their careers?

“You have to do what brings you joy,” Traum says. “In law, some people like to be talking and going places, and others like to be noodling through a complicated research issue.”

One way to help figure out one’s specific passion, Traum says, is by moving around to a few different positions over time, if it’s possible.

“Being willing to move [jobs] over time keeps you learning,” Traum says. “Every job is an education. It teaches you what you do and don’t like, and what you are and aren’t good at.

“These are such important lessons.”