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All Rise for This Aztec

The Honorable J. Clifford Wallace, '52, has worked to strengthen the judiciary in more than 60 countries.
By Coleen L. Geraghty

This story is featured in the summer 2014 issue of 360: The Magazine of San Diego State University.

The shadow of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution had barely receded when the Hon. J. Clifford Wallace, ’52, first met China’s chief justice at a forum in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

J. Clifford Wallace
Judge J. Clifford Wallace

Judge Wallace was new to the ranks of the Asia Foundation, and the near-celebrity status he enjoys today was still years ahead. He introduced himself to the Chinese official with the words “you don’t know me,” and to his astonishment, the chief justice replied, “Oh yes, Judge Wallace, I know all about you.”

Like most high court officials in China during the 1980s, the chief justice was a former national security official.

Thirty years later China is a country transformed, and Wallace, a senior judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, can rightly claim a sliver of credit for the nation’s shift toward a more open society.

His steadfast resolve to strengthen judiciaries worldwide has taken him from his home in San Diego to China, Israel, South Africa and more than 60 other countries on six of the seven continents.

A cover profile of him in the August 2009 issue of California Lawyer quotes retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

"It’s staggering,” she said. “No one has done what he has done in terms of improving judicial systems around the world."

The healing process

At its most basic and understated, Wallace’s role has been that of an author of guidelines for reform. But he has also acted as crusader — Wallace was a key figure in creating a judicial institute in Bangkok, Thailand, to train new judges in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

His current work in Uganda will help define the role of the courts in developing tolerance for the country’s diverse religious groups.

“The judicial system has to be part of the healing process in countries wracked by political and religious unrest,” Wallace said.

Growing up in a poor, dysfunctional San Diego family, Wallace drifted through high school, “getting by with Cs by reading the dust jackets of my textbooks.”

Three years in the Navy tapped a reserve of “horsepower” he never knew existed. For reasons he still can’t explain, he decided to become a lawyer and San Diego State accepted him through the GI Bill.

National champion

“I was very fortunate at San Diego State to meet Professor Generales, who was teaching a course about the United Nations. He spoke several languages and he opened my eyes to the world,” Wallace said.

With newfound resolve, Wallace received top grades as he earned an economics degree with a minor in political science. He joined the debate team, partnering with Richard Roddis, a lifelong friend who later became dean of the University of Washington Law School. The two were undefeated nationally as juniors and both went on to study law at University of California Berkeley.

At his SDSU commencement, Wallace received an honors ring, awarded to graduates who brought national or international distinction to the university.

The senior judge is 85 now, but his zeal for upholding judicial reform burns as bright as ever.

Though some have criticized him for failing to push developing countries harder and faster toward democratic reforms, Wallace’s steady efforts should not be underestimated.

“In developing countries, the freedom of the people depends upon a sound judicial system as a check on a strong executive,” he said. “Although we’re just putting in one brick after another, this is the basis of the democratic process and of a better way of life. Unless someone shows me a shortcut, I will continue with my long, slow process.”