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12 Oct

The Gavel Gap: These Black Women Judges Talk Navigating

Ketanji Brown Jackson‘s appointment to the US Supreme Court signaled a historic milestone within the country’s judiciary system. As the primary African American woman to take a seat within the position, the feat was a glimmer of hope that the nation was on the right track to healing the socio-racial wounds it suffered through the Trump administration.

But make no mistake, there’s still a terrific deal of labor to do in furthering diverse representation within the high courts, particularly behind the bench. Judges (and friends) Shequitta Kelly, Amber Givens, Lisa Green, and Stephanie Huff can attest to this.

They’re among the many 26 Black women in the present Dallas, Texas judiciary, and recently sat down with ESSENCE to share how they navigate their careers in probably the most politically divisive states within the country, all while existing as double minorities.

Before being elected as judges, Givens served as assistant district attorney and Green and Huff started off in the general public defenders’ office. All of them saw how the school-to-prison pipeline operated. “I’d see a number of the same clients come back over and all over again,” Green said. “Especially those who were young. It at all times hurt me essentially the most seeing them come through the system, so in an attempt to essentially affect change from the highest down, I went out on faith, ran for the judge’s seat, and won.” She assumed the office of Dallas’s Criminal Court in 2014.

Much like Green, Kelly said she built a profession in law to make a difference in underserved communities, but her dreams didn’t initially reach beyond being a lawyer. “Unlike my colleagues here, I’ve never had aspirations of being a judge,” Kelly shared with ESSENCE. She explained that as a former prosecutor, she too saw how the results of systemic racism and oppression ravaged the Black community but didn’t imagine she had the ability to actually do anything substantive about it.

“I didn’t even think I could do it,” Kelly said. “I didn’t think that this was a spot for me, someone that like me, who was poor and got here from humble beginnings. I never saw myself on this level.” Raised in a small town in Indiana where essentially the most successful Black person she’d ever seen was her preacher grandfather, Kelly said she’d felt rather a lot just like the troubled youths within the courtroom who couldn’t imagine themselves going beyond the confines of their community.

That limited considering modified when after winning a capitol murder case for the state as a prosecutor, a colleague’s easy query shifted the trajectory of her life perpetually.

“That case was a giant win for me as a lawyer, and as I used to be walking out of the courtroom smiling from ear-to-ear, this defense attorney congratulations me after which asks, ‘so I’m assuming the judgeship is next?’ That stopped me in my tracks because that wasn’t even on my radar. He read my puzzled facial features and tells me ‘you don’t dream large enough.’”

A brief after that conversation, in a hard-fought victory Kelly was appointed because the presiding Judge of Dallas County’s Criminal Court #11 in 2015.

Similarly, Givens, Green and Huff all said they fought significantly tough battles on their option to the bench, but once they made it, the challenges didn’t let up. “We’re Black women in positions of power in Texas only a 12 months out from Trump’s administration,” Huff said. “Racists have been much more emboldened and we’ve definitely felt the brunt of that.”

Givens identified that at their 2013 campaign run, greater than a dozen other Black women were also on the ticket, which drew ire from a big a part of the constituency. “They dubbed us the ‘indignant Black women’ {behind the scenes} and we got targeted in ways that you just couldn’t even begin to fathom,” Givens said, suggesting that her opponents have continued to “make up lies” about her.

Huff even shared a situation during which supporters of a competitor were caught red-handed within the thick of a smear campaign against her. “I used to be accused of slitting the tires on the vehicle of a judge I used to be running against,” she said laughingly. “The one thing was, I used to be in a foreign country on the time.”

The ladies said these hurdles are an indication they’re on the correct track and truly imprinting meaningful signs of change of their communities. But that wasn’t enough. They desired to create impact beyond the bench in order that they launched their non-profit, Pipeline To Possibilities, a company geared toward equipping at-risk youth with leadership tools through focused mentorship to maintain them distant from the judges’ courtrooms.

Launched in 2020 after the ladies watched The thirteenth, a documentary about how the Thirteenth Amendment led to the US’s mass incarceration crisis, they’ve already made huge strides. Amongst their supporters is the movie’s director, Ava Duvernay.

It began when the team at Apple TV discovered concerning the organization’s incredible work and reached out to the judges for his or her recent show Dear… a docuseries that profiles how public figures’ work impacts lives far and wide.

“We were elated once they reached out and asked us to put in writing a letter to Ava because she was truly a giant inspiration for our work,” Huff said. “We actually try to show these young people concerning the ins and outs of legal system and hopefully compel them to dream beyond their circumstances. We’re products of that.”

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