OF COLOR SPEAK
Mary Alice Theiler
Judge Judith Hightower, elected on a write-in vote in 1990 to the Seattle Municipal Court, decided to pursue a judicial career because she observed that the background and experience that she could bring to the judiciary was lacking or poorly represented. However, particularly in her first years on the bench, she experienced disrespect and rudeness. Most disturbing was an assumption that she would favor Black litigants and disfavor Whites because of her ethnicity. She handled the situation by taking the high road and by taking the high road and maintaining appropriate judicial demeanor. Judge Hightower has observed that the increase of people of color on the bench and bar and the continued work in education around diversity and culture has improved the bench and bar's awareness of bias, discrimination, and cultural diversity. She states that she is proud of our State and the efforts we continue to make to eliminate bias in our courts and profession.
Judge Patricia Hall Clark was appointed to the King County Superior Court by Governor Gary Locke and ran for election without opposition in 1998. Judge Clark reports that she went to law school later in life, and became interested in the role that judges play in seeing the whole picture, weighing the evidence and making impartial decisions. Certain aspects of the judicial role came as a surprise, including the high level of administrative involvement required of the judiciary, the need to develop a keen sense of awareness about the tremendous impact of one's words and actions, and the duality of being isolated, yet extremely visible, "almost like a fly in an ice cube." Judge Clark has been frustrated by the overall lack of resources to provide adequate services to a growing population of pro se litigants. Her experience as a woman judge of color has been mostly positive, which she attributes to several other women who preceded her to the bench and smoothed the way, although she does still occasionally detect a condescending attitude from older white male attorneys, perhaps related both to race and to gender. Judge Norma Huggins of the King County Superior Court (one of the women whom Judge Clark refers to as a trailblazer) was initially appointed and then elected in 1988, after first serving in the Seattle Municipal Court. Judge Huggins cites as her biggest disappointment or frustration the lack of resources to offer more effective sentences, and as the biggest surprise, the need to run for office and the increasing costs of doing so. She states that "on many occasions" she has perceived a reaction from litigants, and occasionally from attorneys, a reaction to her status as a woman judge of color. It is her belief conduct will not change until the culture is changed nationwide.
Commissioner Bonnie Canada-Thurston was appointed a commissioner of the King County Superior Court and writes that she sought a judicial career to make a difference in the lives of people in her own way. The biggest surprise was how disrespectful some attorneys are to the office. The biggest disappointment has been not being able to resolve all the problems for all people As a woman judge of color, she has experienced litigants telling her that they did not have to obey an order of a black judge, but she simply explained the process for seeking revision of a commissioner's ruling, and ended the conversation. Despite such experiences, Judge Canada-Thurston loves her work, loves people, and believes overall that there are occasions where she had "made a difference in the life of a child."
Judge Monica J. Benton was appointed to the King County District Court in 1995 and ran successfully for election the following year. She decided to pursue a judicial career to ensure that the court reflect the ethnic population it serves, and to ensure that judicial education addressed the concerns from people of color who have the least confidence in the courts. When asked what has surprised her the most about being a judge, she cites the receptivity of a majority of judges to learning about the state's diverse ethnic and racial communities.
In court, Judge Benton has noted subtle messages of disrespect sent by lawyers and the general public who perceive bias if a ruling favors a woman or person of color, rather than accepting responsibility or understanding the merits of the ruling.
Judge Benton emphasizes the importance of bar activities and continuing legal education seminars giving opportunities for judges of color to speak and make presentations, thus being visible role models for all communities, not just for communities of color. On March 1, 2000 she will assume responsibility as a United States Magistrate Judge.
Mary Alice Theiler is an attorney with Theiler Douglas Drachler & McKee. She also serves as a member of the Washington State Minority and Justice Commission.