The Gavel Gap: These Black Women Judges Talk Navigating The Judiciary Post-Trump

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

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

They are among the current 26 Black women in the Dallas, Texas judiciary, and recently sat down with ESSENCE to share how they navigate their careers in one of the most politically divisive states in the country, all while existing as double minorities.

Before being appointed as judges, Givens, Green and Huff started out in the public defenders’ office and saw up close how the school-to-prison pipeline operated. “I would see some of the same clients come back over and over again,” Judge Green said. “Especially the ones who were young. It always hurt me the most seeing them come through the system, so in an attempt to really affect change from the top 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.

Similar to Green, Kelly said she built a career 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 effects of systemic racism and oppression ravaged the Black community but didn’t believe she had the power to truly do anything about it.

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

That limited thinking changed when after winning a capitol murder case for the state as a prosecutor, a colleague’s simple question changed the trajectory of her life forever.

“That case was a big win for me as a lawyer, and as I was walking out of the courtroom smiling from ear-to-ear, this defense attorney congratulations me and then 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 expression and tells me ‘you don’t dream big enough.’”

A short after that conversation, in a hard-fought victory Kelly was appointed as 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 way to the bench, but once they made it, the challenges didn’t let up. “We’re Black women in positions of power in Texas just a year out from Trump’s administration,” Huff said. “Racists have been even more emboldened and we’ve definitely felt the brunt of that.”

Givens pointed out that at their 2015 campaign run, more than a dozen other Black women were also on the ticket, which drew ire from a large part of the constituency. “They dubbed us the ‘angry Black women’ {behind the scenes} and we got targeted in ways that you couldn’t even begin to fathom from the party,” Given said. Adding that her colleagues have continued to “make up lies” about her.

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

The women said these hurdles are a sign they are on the right track and truly imprinting meaningful signs of change in their communities. But that wasn’t enough. They wanted to create impact beyond the bench so they launched their non-profit, Pipeline To Possibilities, an organization aimed at equipping at-risk youth with leadership tools through focused mentorship to keep them far away from the judges’ courtrooms.

Launched in 2020 after the women watched The 13th, a documentary about how the Thirteenth Amendment led to the US’s mass incarceration crisis, they’ve already made huge strides. Among their supporters is the movie’s director, Ava Duvernay.

It all started when the team at Apple TV found out about the organization’s incredible work and reached out to the judges for their new show Dear… a docuseries that profiles how public figures’ work impacts lives far and wide.

“We were elated when they reached out and asked us to write a letter to Ava because she was truly a big inspiration for our work,” Huff said. “We really are trying to teach these young people about the ins and outs of legal system so they get negatively ensnared and hopefully compel them to dream beyond their circumstances. We’re products of that.”

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