Photo by Felix Sanchez.
From prison guard to Grand Marshall of Houston’s Pride Parade, Judge Shannon Baldwin’s life has been a remarkable tale of quiet integrity, hard work and impact. Raised in Houston by a single mom, she joined the ROTC in high school, and the Army Reserves after graduation.
Law enforcement was a clear path for her, as was service. But the shooting of an officer caused her to rethink her plan and enroll in law school. She spent two decades in prosecution and private practice at Baldwin Williams & Associates concentrating in criminal defense before deciding to run for Judge of Harris County Criminal Court at Law #4. She was elected in November 2018 and also presides over one of five SOBER courts, helping individuals with alcohol dependency issues. Baldwin was the first African American woman to run and preside as an out member of the LGBTQIA community in Harris County
She remembers well her first day on the bench, a momentous day when all 19 African American women who ran for judgeships took their new posts. Folks would peer through the window into the courtroom and, in many instances for the first time, see someone presiding who looked like them.
Lawdragon: Why did you become a lawyer?
Shannon Baldwin: Over the years, I wished I had a great story to tell. I wish I could tell you that I was interested in Perry Mason, or maybe even the Matlock. I’ve got a funny story about how it came about, but I had no magic moment.
I thought initially that I would be a police officer, and I went to undergrad at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville. Of course, there are a lot of prisons there. So a lot of students got jobs at the prison. It was a lucrative job to have as a college student so I got a job at the prison. My undergrad degree is in Law Enforcement & Police Science. I thought I was going to be a police officer, or something to that effect. But then one day I literally saw some news report where a police officer was shot. And I had a light bulb moment and said, “This is not for me.”
LD: That’ll do it.
JSB: I realized I’m not that person. And God bless them, we need them. But it was not me. I had served in the military and that did not even involve getting shot at. In that moment I think I was coming out of the school’s library and passed this bulletin board and I saw something that said LSAT Review. I peeled off the little ticket and I said, “Well, I guess I’m going to go to law school.” And I never looked back.
LD: When you got into law school, how did you figure out what kind of law you wanted to practice, and kind of what your future looked like as a lawyer?
JSB: Truly, I was drawn to criminal law from the beginning. And I knew that I would be a prosecutor at some point in time in my career. I was even the president of the Criminal Law Society. So I knew that would be a part, I just didn’t know how. I had not envisioned being where I am now. It’s just what I gravitated to, and it’s what I found I have a real passion for.
LD: Did you practice criminal law once you got out of law school?
SB: I did. In my third year, I was awarded a position with the Governor’s Internship Program. I got an internship at the Solicitor’s Office, it’s the equivalent to a misdemeanor prosecutor’s office here. They call their misdemeanor prosecutors “solicitors”. And so I interned there and it was a paid internship, which was fabulous.
I got to do that in my third year and sort of got immersed in all things criminal law at that point. I was a prosecutor there for a while but went out into a private practice because I was young and such a risk taker. If I had I to do it all over again today, I wouldn’t have. I would’ve thought that planning for retirement was more important. But I wasn’t smart enough back then, so.
LD: Few of us are.
SB: Well, right, right. But you think, “I could make more money,” and it was substantially more money if you do that versus just working for the county.
But that was Georgia. I was brand spanking new with my Georgia license. I later moved back home to Houston. And when I did that, I knew that being a prosecutor was a way of sort of getting a crash course in law. I needed to have that update if you will, so I was a prosecutor in Texas as well so that I could get some quick trial experience.
LD: Also practicing as a prosecutor for a while, it kind of gets you in the stream of going before the judges, who the players are. And so, it kind of gets you back in speaking the language of that court.
SB: I really knew that it would be a crash course in Texas law because I hadn’t practiced in Texas. But I found that I did not enjoy it, as well. The market is really different from Georgia to Texas. Maybe had I still been in Georgia, I could have gotten back into it and even made a career out of it. The climate is different per office and maybe had I had an opportunity somewhere else I would have liked it better, but it was not for me.
LD: So then you moved to private practice at your own firm, Baldwin Williams?
SB: Yes, and did criminal defense. I practiced for more than 22 years before I became a judge.
LD: You really saw what was going on and how people were being treated. Are there any memories you have of those times that inspired you when you decided to run for the bench?
SB: Definitely. There were, honestly, and particularly in Harris county, situations where the atmosphere was routinely – I don’t want to call it hostile – but always just an unnecessary uphill battle. It was difficult to feel as if you were working amongst your colleagues. And I would laugh to myself and say the defense counsel really don’t enjoy much more respect than the defendant.
SB: Just a hair bit more.
LD: So maybe if not hostile, certainly not collegial.
SB: Not at all. There’s always nice people, those who understand how to be adversarial without being rude and without being disrespectful. But there were so many that didn’t. And it just transcended, it passed down. And, I’m really sad to say it, but it was always based on the culture that the judge created. So the tougher the judge, then DAs know that the defense counsel has nowhere to go. They don’t have to be reasonable when they’re negotiating with you. They can say and do what they want, and they’ll always have support from the judge.
LD: You really saw firsthand, intricately, how that was playing out?
SB: Definitely. I’ll tell you this, in taking up that challenge, I was one of a million in Harris county in that predicament. But it meant that I needed to sort of learn the inner workings of the county. I had to garner better relationships. It meant I had to dig in, and really get good relationships with prosecutors. The good, the bad, and ugly, all of the above. As well as judges.
And I wasn’t much of a social person in the workplace. But I learned that I needed to step that aspect up, and it worked. The climate was probably still the same, it’s just that I had better relationships with people in better places so they would respect me more. Also, I was never shy about setting a case for trial. You had to be someone who, not that you’re feared, but to show that you weren’t afraid. They don’t fear you, but they know that you’re not afraid of pressing the issue and going to trial.
Even if that meant we would lose and lose bad, those things happen. And sometimes you’re supposed to. But they also know that you give a good fight. And that’s all it took to, in a sense, earn their respect. It took time to cultivate those relationships but I was intentional about it. I had to sit back and get some help, and take some advice from other people. I began to really watch. And I really studied the craft. And it wasn’t until when you kind of come out of it, and you think, “Okay, now I’m a real player in this situation.” You start thinking, “Now I need to figure out how to change this.”
LD: I’m starting to see the pieces connect because you have so many relationships and such a network, and were such a leader when you ran for judge. Because of how you put together your network to be successful as a criminal defense lawyer in that environment, it sounds like you used many of the same skills to be an effective candidate for judge.
SB: Well, one thing’s for sure: I was not a stranger for having to dig in and work hard. And my expectation was to win because I wanted to. I hoped for it, really worked hard for it, but I had low expectations because it had historically been nearly impossible.
Very few people were successful at it. It was all Republican. There was not going to be anyone successful from another party. Just wasn’t going to ever happen. And there was no light shining at the end of the tunnel telling me that this was the year that it would happen. But I knew I had nothing to lose at that point. I had done, at that point, everything I thought I wanted to do, meaning I had tried a capital murder case. So this was like, “OK, you’ve done what you can do in a criminal court. You need to either figure out something else to do, or figure out something more challenging, or take on the cause.” And it just made sense. Change the system.
LD: And so, in taking on the cause, you made your decision. And then how did you come to know of the other 18 who were making their decision?
SB: We didn’t. The only person I knew was running at the same time was my law partner, LaShawn Williams. And that’s because she was my law partner. Once I decided, I had to go to her and say, “Hey, this is something I need to do.” And I said, “I think you should, too.”
It’s funny, in our firm I led all of the criminal stuff, she handled all of the civil stuff. I was always second chair to her, she was always second chair to me. So I was like, “I think you ought to run for a civil bench. Let’s just go do this.”
She thought about it, not long, and came back and said, “You’re absolutely right. Let’s do it.” And here we are. We didn’t know. None of us knew until we walked in the room after the primaries and you looked up and you thought, “Wow!” In a county that maybe had one or two African-American women on the bench at one time, we have 19 in this room. It’s unheard of.
LD: It’s incredible. Since you’ve been on the bench, is there a memory or an experience that really continues to speak to you confirming, “Oh, this is why I did this. This is why I’m glad I’m on this bench?”
SB: There are probably a lot of situations like that. In fact, I run a SOBER court. In the SOBER court recently I’ve had some very job satisfying moments where you see people coming in and they’re in shambles, clearly addicted. And everything about their lives is in shambles. And they commit to the program, sometimes we’re dragging them through. But they commit to the program and they come out on the other side and now they’re about to graduate. I had one in my last sober court setting who almost had me in tears. I just thought, “This is what this is for.”
When you can see them turn it around, you find that alcohol or alcoholism is just the byproduct of whatever else is going on. And when that light finally clicks and they start thinking, “Oh, it’s this toxic relationship. And now I have a better relationship with my kids.” When you see all of that fall into place, you think, “Who knew? Who knew I could be a part of something that changes, not just this person’s life, but that of his entire family.”
LD: The inter-connectedness of all of it.
SB: It helped a lot that I had experience on both sides. Again, the climate I often encountered was like the judge was the other prosecutor in the room. And it would wear on you. Every day is a new level of exhaustion that was beyond, “I got 10 clients today.” It’s, “This is the exhaustion of just being beat down,” and constantly having to carry those rocks on your back, unnecessarily so.
LD: You’re supposed to have an opponent and a neutral, right?
SB: Right. And it wasn’t that. You’re playing tug of war with two people on the other side pulling against you. And over a period of time, something had to give. And I did know that in making that decision it was I either had to run for judge or get out of this business altogether.
LD: What do you find most meaningful about the 19, and your role in it, in creating a more just system?
SB: I’m reminded of when we all first took the bench, and I think we all had a common experience. And that is that you’re sitting on the bench for the first time, or maybe within that first week or so, and there were people coming by and looking through the windows. Looking at you. Staring and looking like, “I just had to see it for myself.” And also people in the audience who may have been a party or defendant in another court, who wanted to come up and say, “Hello, I just wanted to speak to you.” All of a sudden the courts were not the worst place in the world that you could be.
LD: That’s powerful.
SB: It wasn’t the worst place. Obviously it’s not a pleasant place, but it wasn’t the worst place you could be. No one’s walking on pins and needles. You need only come in with the same level of respect that you expect. That what you give, and you’re going to get it back. And know that as long as that is the case, you’re likely to walk out of here that day. Period.
LD: A whole new day.
SB: A whole new day. That’s funny, that was the song I think they played when we were coming out, when they were swearing us in. A brand new day. And it was true. Everybody talked about the difference in the feelings that we all could breathe a little bit better.
LD: What you’ve done, it could be seen as an assembly of little things, but it’s such a big thing. It’s a huge thing and -
SB: It’s huge, but not... Here’s the thing that’s so funny about it though. I understand I’m a part of a bigger thing. I totally embrace that. The other side of it is that I also feel like I haven’t really done anything special. And by that I mean, shouldn’t this just be the norm?
LD: Yes. It should.
SB: I appreciate all of the accolades, and it makes you feel real good. But at the same time, this should be the norm. It should not be that in 2018, 2019, we were seeing these changes for the first time. And that’s the other side of it. So yes, I fully accept jumping up and down for joy and saying, “This is great. This is wonderful.” But what we did was what should have been normal, that’s why it’s important.
LD: Right. And it shouldn’t have taken until 2018.
SB: That’s my lifetime for this to happen.
LD: Exactly. And now you can know at least in your daughter’s life, it’s going to look normal, right?
SB: It’s going to look normal. She knows so many judges, and she was a campaign baby. She went everywhere with me. So a judge is just going to be no big deal to her.
LD: And for her and others to have seen so many extraordinary women taking a risk.
SB: You’re right about the risk, but I don’t think we understood the risk at the time. I think everybody just made what they thought were calculated decisions that were best for their lives at that time. And then it comes together and it became something bigger. Certainly with the 19 of us, it really became risky. I still think we’re targets and I still think there’s legislation right now that’s being passed, quite frankly, and it’s intended to ensure that that does not happen again. Sad to say.
LD: The people who would try to shut down equality and voices and representation, they’re hanging on to a past and they will work very hard to keep it.
SB: We are definitely seeing it. But I feel some level of hope we’ll come out on the other side of it, and in the end see it in a better place.