Shifting the Seat

At a time when the focus on the need to repair the criminal justice system is stronger than ever before, the conversation has shifted to encouraging young minorities protesting in the streets to "become the system" and be the change they wish to see.

The Howard University School of Law has a longstanding legacy of producing minority lawyers who have left their mark on the world and opened the door for future Black lawyers to join the judiciary and continue breaking down barriers.

Judge William Henry Hastie, former dean of the School of Law, was a vocal civil rights advocate and became the first African- American federal judge for the Virgin Islands in 1937, and later, the first Black governor of the U.S. Territory. Judge Spottswood W. Robinson III (J.D. ’39) was one of the lawyers who argued in one of the cases under Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and was the first African American appointed to D.C. Court of Appeals.

And, of course, the first African-American Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall (LL.B. ’33), who was instrumental in winning the Brown v. Board of Education case as legal counsel for the NAACP, and worked to uphold equality in every case that came before the Supreme Court, often being a dissenter.

Judge Loretta Copeland Biggs (J.D. ’79), knows the importance of recognizing those who made the way for her to be where she is today. She was the first Black woman hired as a staff attorney for The Coca-Cola Co. in 1979, the first Black woman state district court judge in Forsyth County, North Carolina, in 1987, and, since her appointment by former President Barack Obama in 2014, currently serves as the first Black woman appointed as a federal district court judge in North Carolina. She said that attending Howard’s School of Law was one of the most critical building blocks in her career of firsts.

“It builds your confidence when you know you stand on the shoulders of so many strong, active folks who fought hard for you to take advantage of these opportunities,” Biggs said. “I feel very blessed to have been within the halls of Howard’s law school and believe that it has absolutely shaped my thinking about my career.”

Her 2014 appointment as a federal district court judge meant she was sitting in the seat created for fellow Howard grad Judge Richard Erwin (LL.B. ’51), who Biggs said blazed trails for her. The Howard legacy and her legal education prepared her for a career she describes as having a lot of blessings and opportunities.

“In addition to teaching me the law, [Howard] really helped develop my consciousness for social justice,” Biggs said. “It instilled in me this belief that our responsibility is far greater than our own personal professional advancement, but that we had a greater responsibility on the social level.”

Judge Calvin Hawkins (J.D. ’70), a superior court judge of Lake County, Indiana, has taken on that social responsibility from the beginning. He went to Howard during the Black Power movement and has advocated for many causes throughout his life. He participated in the March on Washington; he protested former President Richard Nixon’s positions on civil rights while he was working as an attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil rights division, before Nixon’s resignation; he’s campaigned to fight the high school dropout rates in Indiana; and, before he became a judge, he advocated for more diversity in the judiciary.

“You really can’t have justice unless there is representation of all the people,” Hawkins said. “If it’s all White, all male, that’s not a representation of your citizenry.”

He was even arrested while protesting with Father Michael Pfleger against drug paraphernalia in Chicago, which is one of the reasons why he often says that there’s no reason he should have been appointed in 2007 and that it must have been God’s will.

“Being a judge was really not on my radar, other than ego; there were no Black federal judges in the state,” Hawkins said.

Judge Tanya Walton Pratt (J.D. ’84), also in Indiana, earned the appointment as the first African-American federal judge in the state. Like Biggs, she was appointed by Obama to the judiciary in 2010. She said she faced more barriers being an African American than being a woman, but it never stopped her from overcoming those hurdles and becoming another first in American history.

“I do believe, with respect to the bench, that it matters very much that each branch of the judiciary is diverse, especially in the federal court systems where I am now,” Pratt said. “A diverse judiciary does enhance the quality of justice, and it makes it deeper and broader and more credible and really aids the legitimacy of the court system.”

Pratt is a firm believer in the power of HBCUs, having attended Spelman for undergrad. She said she thrived at and was empowered by Howard University, without which she would not have had the courage to go through the process of becoming a federal judge. Having role models who look like her and professors who have had similar experiences as her helped prepare her for what she does every day, she said.

“Being a federal judge, one of my goals is the advancement of jurisprudence, and I’m really grateful for the opportunity to help make this nation a more just society through the legal system,” Pratt said.

Judge Ann Elise Thompson (B.A. ’55, LL.B. ’64) loved being a lawyer, and she rose through the ranks to become a senior U.S. federal judge for New Jersey. She’s always had a love for theater, and she was one of the Howard Players in undergrad. For Thompson, all the world’s a stage, and she appreciates how everyday drama comes into play at her job as a judge, where she likes to explore “the human condition.”

“The vast varieties of how people think, all the various conditions into which people are born, the struggles that they have in order to live their lives, how they contribute, how they interact, how they help each other, how they destroy each other—all of it is kind of dramatic,” Thompson said. “I enjoy a career that focuses on all the variety of human existence.”

For Judge Anna Blackburne-Rigsby (J.D. ’87), a love of the law runs in the family. Her mother, Laura D. Blackburne, was a New York Supreme Court justice, and her husband, Judge Robert Rigsby, is currently the associate judge of the D.C. Superior Court. Blackburne-Rigsby was fi rst nominated to the D.C. Court of Appeals by former President George W. Bush in 2006, and in March 2017, she was sworn in as chief of the court of appeals.

“I was very honored and proud to become the chief judge,” Blackburne- Rigsby said. “It’s a big responsibility, but it’s one I’m honored to take on.”

She said that her Howard education prepared her for her role in public service. Her father, Elmer Blackburne also had a career in public service. Blackburne-Rigsby spoke on the legacy that the Howard School of Law has had and said it will be carried on, will improve the justice system and will empower it through diversity.

“Howard law school was very special to me because some of the key legal minds in the Civil Rights movement came from Howard law school,” Blackburne-Rigsby said. “I feel like the law school still has a strong tradition of training lawyers to use the law to serve people, especially to promote fairness and access to the law for everybody.”

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