Photo by Felix Sanchez.
Judge Angela Graves-Harrington is one of those rare people who knew even as a child that she would be a lawyer. She excelled at mock-trial competitions while attending Jim Hill High School in Jackson, Miss., and earned her degree from Jackson State University, then applied to law school.
But you never know what life has in store for you, as Graves-Harrington knows all too well. After she was accepted to Thurgood Marshall School of Law (TMSL), she and her husband, Darryl, discovered they were expecting their first child. She met with the deans of law school, discussed it in depth with Darryl, and prayed about it, before deciding to postpone law school for a year. Ten months after giving birth to their son, Daylen, Graves-Harrington began her law school journey. When she enrolled, her son, Daylen, attended school right alongside her, sometimes sitting in class or hanging out with the professors. At TMSL, she found a support system she could never have foreseen.
Her career has unfolded as a series of “you just never know what will happen.” From getting her foot in the door of a local law practice that offered her free space, to developing her own clientele, she became a force in the Houston legal community. Just one example of her impact was the recent declaration of November 19th, 2021 as Judge Angela Graves-Harrington Day by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee.
As she contemplated what was next, however, a situation presented itself that she felt the need to address. As a family law attorney, Graves-Harrington was accustomed to addressing the plethora of issues litigants deal with in court. But one of her clients in particular, a mom with custody of her children, had faced what Graves-Harrington considered an outrageous situation with the previous judge in the Harris County 246th District Court – he had jailed her client for 180 days for not “assisting her children in returning a phone call to their father.” She decided that, instead of getting angry, she needed to do something productive about it. She’s always had a thirst for justice.
Lawdragon: Tell me what you were like growing up as a child. Did you have any thoughts of becoming a lawyer?
Angela Graves-Harrington: I look back at my pictures when I was a little kid, and I just knew that that’s what I was going to be. I’ve wanted to be a lawyer since, oh my gosh, before I can even remember. But I know in middle school was when I really started to hone in on that and participate in different competitions. By the time I got to high school, I was doing the state-level mock-trial competitions, and my team actually won.
AGH: And it was the first time my school had ever won. So I knew that it was for me. And just seeing some injustices that were happening. Even as a young student, I was very perceptive and realized there were situations where this just doesn’t seem right. Where one person did this, but they didn’t get suspended or kicked out of school, but another person did this, and they got kicked out for the entire year. I was not shy about asking questions, and I asked questions of my teachers and my principal.
I grew up in Gulfport, Miss., which is relatively small. So my math teacher was also my brother’s godmother. And the principal was a really good friend of my mom. They kind of fostered that in me, and they didn’t mind me asking questions and challenging things. And it just stuck with me. My dad wanted me to be an engineer. He pushed me into the tech field, but my heart was just in law. That’s where my heart was and still is.
LD: What school were you debating for?
AGH: Jim Hill High School. It’s an IB [International Baccalaureate] school now, and they were converting to an IB school when I was there. But it was probably 95% African-American, and it’s what they would call Title I schools. There wasn’t a lot of wealth in the school. There weren’t a lot of opportunities, but there was a lot of desire. My classmates, and alumni were just really determined. It was a great experience for me because the local legal aid organization sponsored our team, and we would spend every weekend at their office preparing, as if we were preparing for a real trial.
LD: Were the attorneys mentoring and coaching you?
AGH: Oh, yes, yes. They were our coaches, they were our mentors, and they saw us through the entire process. But when we actually competed, it was just us. I still have a picture of us all sitting at the table, me and my favorite high school teacher, Ms. Barbara Hilliard, and all of my classmates. I guess she was what they would call the teacher mentor.
When I ran for judge, I posted that picture and the story about how I’d always wanted to be an attorney. She’s still alive, and she’s just been a force in my life. She recognized my talent, and really pushed me. I’m glad she made me do that, because I wanted to be a lawyer, but I didn’t want to give up my whole weekend, every weekend, as a teenager.
LD: You need to be a kid, too, you know? So did you enjoy law school?
AGH: My law school experience was a little different than most people. Well, I’m not going to say most, but a lot of people. I was married, and I had a 10-month-old when I started law school.
I was actually supposed to start law school in 2002, but we found out we were expecting a baby. I was living in Dallas at the time, so I came to Houston to meet with two of the deans. They told me how challenging law school was, and because my baby was due in October, which is right before finals, they said, really wanted me to take some time and consider all of my options. Dean Hill said to me, “it’s your choice. It’s your decision. You’ve been accepted. Apparently, you have the ability, but just think about it.”
I thought about it, prayed about it, talked to my husband about it, and I said, “We’ll just wait. I’ll just sit out, and I’ll start the following year.” And I had a 10-month-old, but I never in a million years expected to have the type of support system that I had at Thurgood Marshall. Oh my goodness, just unbelievable. It’s like my child was a student at that school. He grew up in that school.
LD: What’s your child’s name?
AGH: Daylen, and he graduates from high school next week. And so I’m just going through all of these emotions.
Daylen would come to class with me. There are two judges who were actually in my section in law school that ran with me, Toria Finch and Erica Hughes. So we would all be in class, and Daylen was right there. Dean Fernando Colon-Navarro let him sit in the class, and Dean James Matthew Douglas let him sit in the class. And then one of my really, really good friends, Meredith Lilly, was a 2L, and she would come, and she’d take him to McDonald’s. Some professors, if I was taking a test or I needed to study, they would get him and take him to the playground. There was a lot of support. I never anticipated it. I thought it was going to be a lot tougher than it was. It was tough, but it was made easier by the community within the law school.
I also have another son named Aiden. He’s nine years old, and absolutely loves having a mom who is a judge.
LD: That’s beautiful. So when you graduated from law school, how did you go about building your practice?
AGH: When I graduated from law school, I had some job offers in states where I just really did not want to move. Nothing against Wisconsin or Nebraska, but I’d never been there before. And when I flew out and interviewed at these different firms, it was beautiful, but it was just so unfamiliar to me. I didn’t know where I was going to work.
I called this criminal defense attorney here who was representing my mayor from back home, and I told him that I read about the case and was wondering if I could help out. He responded, “Who are you?” So I told him, “Well, I’m a recent graduate of Thurgood Marshall, and I’m just kind of unsure where I’m going to be, and I don’t know what I’m going to do. I really am passionate about civil rights and family. So I just need someone to mentor me, and I’d love to work on this case with you.”
After I [met] with him [in person], he said, “Okay, when can you start?” I really feel like it’s God’s will – everything works out, even when [it seems like] it’s not supposed to. Sometimes I don’t know if I’ve taken risks or have just been listening to what God’s direction is for my life. I just saw the newspaper, Googled his phone number, and called him.
He gave me beautiful office space. I just couldn’t believe it. He said, “I can’t pay you right now, but you’re free to work on any case in here. The paralegals will give you whatever you want, and then you can help with the Frank Melton case.” And so I started working. Eventually his paralegal came in my office one day, and she said, “Your work is impeccable, and there’s no way you should be working for free.” And I said, “Well, I don’t think it’s free. I’m getting a lot of experience.” And she said, “Well, experience can’t pay your bills. You’ve been here long enough. With your permission, I’m going to go and talk to Mr. Washington and tell him that you need to be paid.” And that’s what she did.
So I ended up being there for a few years and got a lot of courtroom experience. He did not handle family law cases at all, so he sent all of his clients with family-law cases to me. I built my practice that way. I think I got kind of burnt out a little bit with family law because it is taxing.
LD: So that changed your direction for a while?
AGH: It did. I started doing contract work at Shell, which was supposed to be for just maybe a few months. I ended up being there about two or three years and made some really good contacts there. Then I went back out on my own and started practicing family law. By then, Mr. Washington had cut back on his practice and was close to retiring. The paralegal from his firm had joined another firm and she said, “There’s some office space over here. You need to come look at it.” After seeing the space, I told the owner there was no way I could afford it. And he said, “Just pay me what you can.” I couldn’t believe it.
I worked there until I took the bench in 2019. I made really good connections at that law office and worked on some really good cases that broadened my horizon in terms of what I was willing to do. I became a little bit bolder in my representation of my clients because there were some excellent attorneys there that I learned a lot from.
Then I decided to run for judge. I’ve learned in life that you should always know your “why.” And if you don’t know your “why” for doing something, you need to sit and figure it out before you go down the path. When I initially decided to run for judge, my why was spur of the moment. I was angry, and I said, “This can’t sustain me because once I get on the bench, I can’t just keep saying I’m here because I was angry at this judge. What is my purpose? What is God putting me here for, or why is He pushing me forward to run?”
LD: Why were you angry?
AGH: The bench that I currently sit on was held by a judge who had presided over one of my cases. And I just felt like the ruling he made was not just unjust, it was damaging. It was devastating for my client, for her family. It was just unbelievable. It was over phone calls, my client not assisting her children with returning phone calls to their father, and he sentenced her to 180 days in jail for it.
AGH: I was so just blown away by this that I could not sleep until she got out of jail. I would go up to the jail and visit her. And I said, “This isn’t right.” If my client did something to deserve being in jail, that’s one thing. But to put her in jail, take her away from her children, who had never really spent time away from her like that to the point where they couldn’t talk to her, they couldn’t see her. She dropped them off at school, and then she’s just gone. And so I was angry.
LD: That’s shocking.
AGH: Oh, my goodness. Once I told my story, people were like, “Why are you surprised?” They had their own stories about him. I remember talking to my dad and crying because I was just so frustrated. I probably said that about 10 times in our conversation that he should not be on this bench. And then my dad said, “Well, then just take his bench then.”
LD: Yay, dad!
AGH: And so I said, “Oh, OK. Well, I don’t know how to do that, but we’ll see about it.” And-
LD: But I can learn.
AGH: Yes. I put my hat in the ring and just did it. I ran. I had a primary opponent, and I campaigned extremely hard on my promise of returning compassion, integrity and respect to the bench. I was successful in my primary with 82% of the vote. In the general election I got about 57% of the vote.
It’s been a blessing. I never imagined that my career would take off like it has since being on the bench, just being afforded so many wonderful opportunities to make quantifiable changes in people’s lives. I didn’t foresee it. I just thought I would go to the bench and rule on cases and be fair. I was appointed to do work with the Supreme Court of Texas Children’s Commission. And I was just elected the administrative judge over all of the Harris County Family Law Courts.
I just finished the Judicial Institute academy today. I was selected as one of five judges in Texas to attend this leadership academy. It’s just been amazing to be able to really put my print on the changes in our child welfare system that are so drastically needed – to have a seat at the table and have my voice heard.
And that’s why I said God has directed this, because there is no way this little black girl from Mississippi is supposed to be sitting at the table with the Supreme Court justices of the state of Texas and U.S. Congresspeople and making changes in our child welfare system. So I’m blessed. I’m extremely humbled by all of God’s graces and opportunities that have been afforded to me.
LD: It’s just beautiful that sometimes that day comes. Now everybody that comes before you and women and girls that see you and know you’re a judge, it’s like their role modeling is just totally changed.
AGH: Yes. That’s another thing, being able to be a role model just by being there. And I’m so amazed at how astonished these young ladies are, these little girls and sometimes teenagers when they say, “I’ve never seen a woman judge before, and you’re black, or your hair’s just like mine.” Oh my God! It’s an amazing feeling.