A PIONEER JURIST IN IDAHO
Richard D. Eadie
Ida Leggett was born and raised in a small town in the middle of Alabama. Her father was a sawmill worker and her mother a schoolteacher. These were the days in Alabama of separate water fountains. Her parents paid a poll tax to vote. There was a white and a colored entrance to the courthouse. Young Ida was not allowed to use the all-white city library, which was quite a blow to a child who liked to read. She adjusted, she says, by reading anything and everything that she could get her hands on. One of the magazines that she found as a seven-year-old was an issue of Ebony with an article about Thurgood Marshall arguing Brown v. Board of Education. Ida asked her mother about Thurgood Marshall, and was told that he was going to change the schools because he could argue in court. That was when Ida decided to become a lawyer and help change the schools as well.
Ida Leggett graduated from her segregated high school (where she at least had a library) and went on to Tuskegee Institute. After a year and a half, she married and dropped out of school. She became a mother, and then single mother, to three young children before she returned to college When she sought financial aid, a counselor told her that because she had married and become a mother, she had chosen her career and funds were not to be had for another career. In typical fashion, Ida found a way, without the financial aid, and returned to college later, graduating from the University of South Florida in Tampa, the first integrated school she had attended.
Ida Leggett applied to a number of law schools and received a telegram offering a fellowship to Gonzaga Law School. She had to pull out a map to see where Washington was, but agreed to accept the offer. With her three children, she hied off to Spokane. She attended summer terms and finished law school in two and one-half years. During that short period, Ida Leggett participated on two moot court teams that won regional championships and one that placed third in the nation. She also worked for the U.S. Attorney in Spokane, and after graduation, accepted a clerkship with Chief Justice William Williams of the Washington Supreme Court.
Next, attorney-at-law Ida Leggett took a job with Lane Powell where she worked as an associate in civil litigation, including insurance defense and construction law. After two years, she received a call from a Gonzaga classmate and an invitation to move to Coeur d'Alene, Idaho to start a new law firm. She accepted and practiced civil law there for several years. When asked how she felt as an African American woman lawyer opening a new practice in a state which (along with Washington) is well known for the activism of white supremacists, she responded in characteristic fashion that she didn't think about barriers until after she was established and earning a living.
Within a couple of years, the young lawyer came to the attention of the Governor of Idaho and she soon found herself appointed as a member of the Idaho Commission of Pardons and Parole. In this position, she found herself in a new role as decision-maker, seeking and finding consensus and convincing her fellow board members.
In 1992, Governor Cecil Andrus appointed Ms. Leggett to a position as a trial court judge in Lewiston, a mill town and ranching center with a population of about 30,000. Attorney Leggett enjoyed litigation, but was not a contentious person by nature. She enjoyed the intellectual parts of trials, but not some of the game playing, and being a judge better fit her personality.
In Lewiston, Judge Leggett was highly visible as an African American woman, a woman professional, and an African American woman judge. The lack of privacy made her vulnerable to threats and she received them. She felt unable to fully relax from her professional role while in public. If she was working in her yard, she could not run down to the local hardware store in her working clothes without everyone noticing and talking.
Judge Leggett had plenty of work to do on the bench to keep her occupied. Her first murder trial was memorable; high profile, to say the least. The defendant was a former deputy sheriff, well known in the community, who killed two persons he accused of drugging and abusing his teenage daughter. A book was written about this trial: "A Father's Rage" by Don Davis. In the book, Judge Leggett is described as "one tough cookie." This description was apt, considering what she had accomplished.
In 1998, Judge Leggett decided the isolation and fishbowl nature of her life was too much. She resigned her position as judge and moved to Seattle to be nearer her daughter and grandchildren. One of her sons also lives in the area and the other is a student at the University of Montana. A business venture did not develop as she had expected, so now the Honorable Ida Leggett is again looking at her options in the law.
What gave Judge Ida Leggett the strength to accomplish what she did? She says it was her strong family. She was never pushed to accomplish, but she always understood that she was expected to live up to her potential. She was also taught independence at an early age. Her family always told her she could do anything that she wanted to do, but to plan on doing it on her own. "Find a way" she was told, "Never count on anyone doing it for you.
She worked in college. She worked in law school. She supported her children and obtained her education. Her mother worked as a live-in maid to get through college, and with that inspiration, Ida felt that she could work her way to success. When I asked her how she was able to come through all her adversities and remain a person of such good humor, she said that maybe it is being of good humor that enables you to get through.
Here is a quiet but determined woman who has endured poverty, racism-both overt and subtle-and the challenges of education and employment as a single parent and sole support of three children. She is an accomplished lawyer and jurist; a person with dignity and class. She has faced enormous challenges, but always found the inner strength to overcome.
Richard D. Eadie is a judge of the King County Superior Court.