Stephen F. Williams

Judge Stephen F. Williams in 2008. A Democrat who voted for George S. McGovern for president in 1972, he became a born-again conservative.

This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic.

By Sam Roberts, New York Times

Stephen F. Williams, an erudite lapsed liberal whose opinions reverberated from the bench of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia for three decades, died on Aug. 7 in a Washington hospital. He was 83.

The cause was complications of the coronavirus, his daughter Susan Ellis said.

Judge Williams had been a Democratic environmentalist who voted for Senator George S. McGovern for president in 1972 and had joined a vigil against the Vietnam War before becoming a born-again conservative later in the ’70s.

“‘When you’re young,’” Ms. Ellis quoted her father as saying, “‘it’s foolish to be conservative, and when you’re older, it’s foolish to be a liberal.’”

His son Geoffrey described him as “a classic liberal with a free market view of the world.”

After volunteering to work for President Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign in 1984, Judge Williams, a former federal prosecutor, was named to the prestigious appeals court by Reagan in 1986. He worked full-time on the bench until 2016, when he turned 80, and had continued to oversee cases this year.

Judge Williams was known to express gusto for legal arcana (as in oil and gas regulatory cases) that might daunt law clerks and some colleagues. He was known for his good humor and a tendency to pepper his opinions with references ranging from Greek mythology to quantum mechanics. (“A federal receivership is not Schrödinger’s cat,” he once wrote, referring to a famous thought experiment involving a cat trapped in a box.)

“There is no one with whom I’d rather disagree,” David S. Tatel, who was named to the court by President Bill Clinton, said in 2006 when Judge Williams’s portrait was unveiled at the courthouse. (Judge Williams called the ceremony “the hanging.”)

“Steve defends his positions tenaciously and respectfully and gently, but always with an open mind to the views of others,” Judge Tatel said. “When we disagree, Steve challenges me to think far more deeply about my own positions and to confer weaknesses that might otherwise have gone unexamined. On occasion, his reasoning has even changed my mind.”

Stephen Fain Williams was born on Sept. 23, 1936, in Manhattan to a family that traced its lineage to the Mayflower. (A grandfather died in the 1918 flu pandemic.) His father, C. Dickerman Williams, was a lawyer who had been a law clerk to William Howard Taft, the chief justice of the United States and earlier the 27th president. His mother was Virginia (Fain) Williams.

After attending Millbrook School in Dutchess County, N.Y., Judge Williams graduated from Yale College in 1958 and Harvard Law School in 1961 and was assigned to military intelligence in the Army Reserve.

He married Faith Morrow, a school librarian, in 1966. In addition to his daughter Susan, he is survived by his wife; another daughter, Sarah; three sons, Geoffrey, Timothy and Nicholas; two sisters, Joan Farr and Honor Ishida; and nine grandchildren.

Before his appointment to the federal bench, Judge Williams practiced at the New York firm of Debevoise & Plimpton from 1962 to 1966, served as an assistant United States attorney in Manhattan and taught at the University of Colorado Law School.

While on the bench, he joined in or wrote opinions that rejected the dissolution of the Microsoft Corporation; overturned a cornerstone of the Clinton administration’s air quality standards as arbitrary; and allowed cable television companies to expand and broadcast more of their own programming.

In dissenting opinions, Judge Williams declared that the government’s sentencing of Jonathan Jay Pollard, a Navy analyst convicted of spying for Israel, was a “miscarriage of justice.” And he foreshadowed a United States Supreme Court ruling by declaring in 2012 that the latest statistics on voter registration, turnout and the election of Black officials suggested that some safeguards imposed by the 1965 Voting Rights Act were no longer imperative.