A common theme woven throughout the life of J. Clifford Wallace is service — to the community, to the Church and to his family.
In addition to serving as an active judge on the nation’s largest federal appellate court and as an esteemed jurist, judicial administrator and advocate to the rule of law, he has also served as a bishop, stake president, regional representative, temple president and temple sealer. He is also a husband, father, grandfather and, now, a great-grandfather.
Yet for all his distinguished service and long list of accomplishments, the 88-year-old says, “I’m still a work in progress.”
In an interview with the Church News, Judge Wallace said he believes each individual has a mission to accomplish in this life, certain tasks given to them from their Heavenly Father. His own mission — tasks and service he has been guided to perform — has been revealed as he has sought inspiration day by day from his Heavenly Father.
“My experience has been that the only way we can come close to discovering our mission is to be close to Heavenly Father, to make prayer an important communication, to feel inspiration, attend the temple and receive direction,” he said. “Life is far too complicated to work things out on our own but there’s something here He wants us to achieve. I think the great reward in this life will be when we’ve fulfilled the mission we were sent here to do.”
For him, that process of discovery began in his youth. He was not raised in a religious home, Judge Wallace explained. As a teenager growing up in San Diego, California, he typically spent his Sundays at the beach or going to movies. In high school, a group of kids befriended him and invited him to attend an activity at their stake house.
“I came from a very poor family and the idea of going to a steak house was very appealing,” Judge Wallace said. He remembered being very hungry that evening, but “they only had green punch and store-bought cookies to eat.”
Still, he enjoyed his association with the new group of friends and eventually accepted their invitation to go to church and then to read the Book of Mormon and then to be baptized.
Learning about the plan of salvation completely changed his outlook, he said. “Before, you’re thinking of the here and now and you don’t make any plans, but suddenly the future is important. You begin to think about what you can do to make corrections and where are you going to fit into this process of development.”
After high school, he served in the U.S. Navy for three years before attending San Diego State University. In high school he had been a C- student at best, but in making the transition to the university, he became an A student and completed his undergraduate degree in three years.
He then went on to receive his law degree from Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California Berkeley and began his professional work with a law firm in San Diego.
Soon after graduating from law school, he met and married Virginia Schlosser. They were married for 27 years and raised four children when she died of cancer. He then married Elaine Johnson who added her five children to the family.
“We don’t believe in ‘steps,’ ” Judge Wallace said. “They all became my children.” She died when he was serving as president and she as matron of the San Diego California Temple. He then married Jenee Robison Zenger who brought six more to the family. Together they have 15 children and 51 grandchildren.
In 1970, he made the jump from a civil trial lawyer to become a federal district court judge. “We prayed about it and concluded that there would be a greater opportunity for service. It was a hard decision for me to make but it’s one that was good for me and, in the long run, it was good for my family,” he said.
In 1972, he was nominated by President Richard Nixon to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and served for 24 years as an active judge.
Trying to juggle the demands of his profession with his responsibilities to his family and Church calling was not always easy. He recalled being asked to serve as a counselor in the stake presidency as a 29-year-old trial lawyer with a young family. Elder LeGrand Richards of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who was the presiding priesthood leader assigned to reorganize the stake, told him, “Your first obligation is to your family, second is to the Church and if you have any left over you can earn a living.”
That “remarkable statement” wasn’t telling him to fail as a lawyer, Judge Wallace explained, but teaching him about priorities. “My experience has been, you can do all you should do if you keep your priorities in line.”
Through the years he has benefited from many mentors, he said, both in and out of the Church. Judge Wallace recalled being asked to work for a Fortune 500 company as he was serving as a regional representative. He sought counsel from his supervising priesthood leader, then-Elder Gordon B. Hinckley.
“He never told me what to do,” Judge Wallace said. “He gave me direction in how to find out.” When Judge Wallace later told him of his decision to turn down the position, Elder Hinckley told him he had done the right thing. “Now, he could have told me months before and saved me a lot of consternation but I think he realized that I needed to go through the growth, not him. So he pushed me to receive inspiration.”
Later Judge Wallace also benefited from his association with men such as Hugh B. Brown and Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and many others.
This past November, Judge Wallace was presented the prestigious A. Sherman Christensen Award by the American Inns of Court. Nearly 40 years ago, he was instrumental in both coming up with the idea to adapt the British Inns of Court to the American situation and in creating the pilot program. Just as he learned as a young trial lawyer from the example of his senior partner, the Inns of Court pairs experienced lawyers and judges with novice professionals to teach professionalism, ethics, how to prepare for trial and other skills. The organization now has 360 chapters with more than 130,000 members across the United States.
The award is named for Sherm Christensen who Judge Wallace described as “a wonderful human being and example as a member of the Church and as a district judge. I really enjoyed his friendship.”
Judge Wallace said it’s nice to be recognized but he acknowledges the thousands of professionals who carry out the work.
In addition to applying principles of mentorship to the Inns of Court, Judge Wallace continues to travel the world using his decades of experience to help developing countries improve the rule of law. To date, he has visited more than 60 nations, from Russia to Australia, China to Peru.
One of his heroes, President Harold B. Lee, once said, “There is no limit to the amount of good you can do, if you don’t care who gets the credit.” As he has worked with judiciaries across the globe and in the Inns of Court, he has found that to be true. “If you’re there to help others so they can move forward, you’re almost limitless in what you can accomplish,” he said.
In 1996, he assumed “senior status,” which denotes a semi-retirement for some judges, but, in addition to his consultant work around the world, Judge Wallace continues to hear appeals and fulfill other court responsibilities.
The 88-year-old said he has no plans to retire. “I told my wife at 95 we’d re-evaluate.”
He still considers every morning “a new day to accomplish something” and prays every day to seek the inspiration of the Lord.
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