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‘Every judge’s dream:’ Ketanji Brown Jackson gives hope to Black female judges

The first Black woman confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court will inspire kids who otherwise wouldn’t see themselves occupying the country’s highest spaces, said Black women who are Dallas judges.

By Krista M. Torralva

Judge Shequitta Kelly, Judge Tammy Kemp, Judge Audra Riley, and Judge Carmen White
A composite of Judge Shequitta Kelly, Judge Tammy Kemp, Judge Audra Riley, and Judge Carmen White. They are all judges in Dallas County.(Vernon Bryant / Staff Photographer)

Shequitta Kelly was a straight-A student when her high school counselor told her she couldn’t go to law school.

The white adult in Michigan City, Ind. told the then 15-year-old Kelly, who is Black and was pregnant at the time, that she should settle on a trade instead.

Perhaps she could be a beautician, Kelly recalled the counselor suggesting.

Now a judge in one of Dallas County’s criminal courts, Kelly said Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman to be confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court, reminds her of one of the most difficult times in her own life.

Fifteen years ago, criminal courts in Dallas County were dominated by white men and women. Today, more than half the criminal courts judges in the Frank Crowley Courts Building are Black and most are women.

To Kelly, Jackson’s advancementto the nation’s highest court on Thursday is symbolic of overcoming.

Criminal court Judge Shequitta Kelly
Criminal court Judge Shequitta Kelly (G.J. McCarthy/The Dallas Morning News)

Kelly said she could relate when, in the weeks leading up to the Senate’s historic confirmation, Jackson shared that her high school counselor advised her to “set her sights lower” than Harvard University, where she ultimately graduated.

“There are going to be other kids that look like her, and that don’t look like her, who are going to have that exact same experience,” Kelly said. “And she’s going to be the reason why they continue moving forward.”

Black women who are judges in Dallas County, many of whom are trailblazers in their own rights, said Jackson represents hope – for them, their kids, their profession and their country.

“I think that’s every judge’s dream, to be nominated to the highest court,” said Audra Riley, a state district judge in Dallas.

Judge Audra Riley
Judge Audra Riley of Criminal District Court No. 3, poses for a portrait, Thursday, April, 7, 2022 at Frank Crowley Courts Building in Dallas, Texas. Previously, Riley has spent over 10 years working as an attorney.(Rebecca Slezak / Staff Photographer)

Though she had great role models at home, Riley said, she didn’t see Black women in high occupations in the legal field until she was a prosecutor in the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office. That’s when she observed former state district judge Elizabeth Frizell.

Frizell was first elected to a Dallas County misdemeanor court in 2006 and a state district felony court in 2014.

“To me, she just exemplified what it means to be a Black woman in that position,” Riley said.

judges circa
Dallas County’s felony court judges circa 2005. (Courtesy photo)

Being told you can be anything you want, and seeing yourself reflected in those spaces are two different things, said Carmen P. White, a criminal court judge. White’s parents always told her she could accomplish anything she set her mind to.

Like Jackson, White also graduated from Harvard Law School. The women just missed each other. Jackson graduated in spring 1996 and White arrived on campus that August.

White didn’t grow up with Black women role models in the legal field. Even to this day, the shelves in her office hold photos of Black civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. She has mementos of legal pioneers, former associate supreme court justices Thurgood Marshall — the first black justice — and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

But no Black women — yet — are on her shelves, save for a Black Judge Barbie. She hopes to add a photo of Jackson on the campus of their alma mater.

Of all the ways Jackson’s confirmation is meaningful to White, the most important is that she serves as proof to her 13-year-old daughter that she can become whatever she aspires to.

Kailyn, White’s daughter, thinks she might want to one day become a lawyer, too.

“What was a dream to me gets to be a reality to her,” White said.

Judge Carmen White
Judge Carmen White of Criminal Court 8, poses for a portrait in her chambers, Thursday, April, 7, 2022 at Frank Crowley Courts Building in Dallas, Texas. White was elected in 2019 to serve her first term.(Rebecca Slezak / Staff Photographer)

The victory did not come without pain. Kelly said she felt exhaustion for Jackson while watching the Senate Confirmation hearing, in which her qualifications were questioned and her past rulings were attacked.

“I knew that process — that painful process that she was going through — was going to birth something beautiful if we can just get that seat,” Kelly said.

Tammy Kemp
Judge Tammy Kemp thanks the jury for their service following the 10-year sentence of Amber Guyger at the Frank Crowley Courts Building in Dallas, Wednesday, October 2, 2019. Guyger shot and killed Botham Jean, an unarmed 26-year-old neighbor in his own apartment last year. She told police she thought his apartment was her own and that he was an intruder. (Tom Fox / Staff Photographer)

State District Judge Tammy Kemp said she recognized microaggressions waged against Jackson that she has received “on a daily basis.”

Both she andKelly said they have had to work harder and exercise more patience in the face of, usually, white male lawyers whothe judges say have challenged their legal knowledge with attitudes they would not use with other judges.

“It’s just part and parcel of being an African American person in America,” said Kemp, who is the first Black person — man or woman — to preside over the 204th District Court.

Kemp said that while she hopes change is coming in America, she believes that it will take more time. Seeing Jackson on the bench won’t be enough. It takes interacting with people of different races and cultures to improve society, she said.

“While we won’t be interacting with the Supreme Court justice, her other colleagues will,” Kemp said.

“And she’ll bring a fresh perspective and she’ll bring some life experiences that might enlighten them on some things they had never thought about.”

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