With a commanding presence and flowing robes, the judge takes her seat and sets a precedent.
Nancy Rosenstengel was confirmed by the Senate last May to serve as an Article III U.S. District Judge of the District Court for the Southern District of Illinois, making her the first woman ever to hold the position.
For Rosenstengel, the distinction holds special meaning.
“I have felt for a long time that it was time for it to be a woman,” she said. “I just never dreamed that it would be me. I’ve worked in the court now for 16 years.”
Rosenstengel says she believes the bench should reflect society.
“Society as a whole is not comprised of white men,” she said. “I do think that is important because it gets people used to the idea of women being in positions like these.”
Rosenstengel has lived in Southern Illinois for most of her life, graduating from Alton High School in 1986.
“I went to the Alton public schools from kindergarten through high school,” she said. “I think I got a great education at Alton High School.”
She then went on to the University of Illinois in Champaign, where she initially studied medicine.
“After about a year and half, I didn’t really enjoy that,” she said.
Instead, writing appealed to the ambitious young woman, and she moved into the fields of sociology and criminology. After graduating with a degree in sociology and criminology in 1990, Rosenstengel attended law school at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, thinking she would be a prosecutor.
“The ironic thing is I’ve never been a prosecutor,” she said. “I did work at the state’s attorney’s office one summer after my first year in law school and I enjoyed it.”
During her second year of law school, Rosenstengel was offered a summer job doing litigation at Sandberg, Phoenix & von Gontard in St. Louis.
“I liked that, even though it was civil defense work and not criminal law,” she said.
Rosenstengel graduated with a juris doctorate in 1993 from Southern Illinois University School of Law and served as a law clerk under Judge Patrick Murphy.
“The law clerk has to do the research and writing for all the cases,” she said. “You help the judge get ready for the hearings.”
From 1998 to 2009, Rosenstengel worked as clerk of court of the Southern Illinois District.
“The clerk of court is in charge of all the administrative aspects,” she said. “Information technology, the budget, jury administration ... it’s the non-legal side of the court.”
After Judge Murphy retired in 2012, the possibility of Rosenstengel becoming the district’s first woman judge eventually became a reality following a long selection process.
Sen. Dick Durbin formed a committee of six people to interview a number of candidates, including Rosenstengel. Durbin interviewed Rosenstengel and sent her name, along with four other candidates, to the White House. Rosenstengel also had to go through a thorough background investigation by the Department of Justice, the FBI and the American Bar Association.
The Senate confirmed Rosenstengel May 8 by a vote of 95-0. President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder signed her commission, which she keeps in her office.
“It’s pretty cool to know that your name passed the president’s desk even at that early stage,” she said.
Rosenstengel was informally but officially sworn in at the courthouse on May 19.
“The judges promptly transferred 300 civil cases to me and put me in the wheel, so to speak, for criminal cases,” she said. “It took me about two weeks to hire staff and get up to speed.”
Juggling family and law is a big task, but Rosenstengel says she is up for the challenge.
“There are days that you’re not really sure how everything is going to get done but somehow you do it,” she said. “I think the big challenge is how to balance it. I have a wonderful husband who helps; we’re a team and I think that’s a big part of it.”
Looking back in her earlier career, Rosenstengel often reflects how she transitioned from job to job.
“I think sometimes you never really know where you are going to end up,” she said. “You just do your best with what’s given to you and then different opportunities open up.”
Rosenstengel lives in Belleville with her husband and three children.