Photo by Felix Sanchez.
Judge Erica Hughes comes from a proud military family with a tradition of service. But although she knew from a young age she wanted to be a lawyer, she initially studied engineering and intellectual property. The sciences came easily to her, and she realized the impact she could make as an African American woman helping others protect their creations.
However, an internship with state Senator Royce West focused her on the help she could give to minority communities in more direct ways – getting out the vote and addressing disparities in housing and food. Hughes changed course and dedicated her law practice to helping individuals achieve justice and fair treatment. Practicing law in Houston for more than a decade, she couldn’t help but observe how not everyone was treated the same when they went to court, often because of their race or ethnicity.
Not one to sit on the sidelines when there is work to be done, Hughes ran for Criminal Court at Law #3, a misdemeanor court, where she presided helping those before her change their behavior before they progressed to more serious charges. The four years she served as an active JAG officer and membership in the Texas National Guard made her work with the Veteran’s Court a point of particular pride.
In January, Hughes was appointed by Attorney General Merrick Garland as an Immigration Judge.
Lawdragon: Tell me about your journey to becoming a lawyer – what inspired you?
Erica Hughes: I became a lawyer because I wanted to help people, specifically my community. I have an engineering background and held several internships while at Prairie View A&M, including one focused on intellectual property. There were not enough minorities in the intellectual property and patent division for some companies that I worked for. And so my initial idea was to create some diversity and to help individuals who have ideas, those who were maybe not able to get them in front of someone who could assist them.
LD: Great insight. Can you tell me about going to law school at Thurgood Marshall and your career after you graduated, before you ran for judge?
EH: When I got in law school, I interned and worked for State Farm and their patent and intellectual property division in Bloomington, Ill. After that, I did a rotation in Austin and then Dallas. My goal was to go to work for State Farm after law school and to do intellectual property law.
In Dallas in 2003, I had the opportunity to be in a summer program with state Senator Royce West. He still holds office. He’s a prominent African-American Senator in Texas, and he’s still in that seat. Long story short, I worked with him on a summer initiative to get out the vote in minority communities. I also got to work addressing some disparities as far as housing and food issues for people who were my age and younger than me.
That gave me a desire to help more than just being in an office. I kind of wanted to be on the ground after I had the opportunity to help. And so, my trajectory changed after that.
I did everything right after law school. My main income at first was doing fee attorney work and closings on property. I also was serving my community in the areas of housing initiatives, food programs and education in minority communities by assisting with the grant processes and getting money for those efforts.
I started to build my practice as it relates to criminal and personal injury as well. That is how I continued to pay the bills and feed the family. And that is how I was able to fund my helping of hands. I also had the opportunity to serve in the military as a JAG officer.
LD: Tell me about that experience.
EH: I was commissioned in 2015, wanting to serve in a greater way. I felt like it would be better to reach out and to be able to assist the United States on a grander scheme so I went and served in the military.
LD: You have such a strong service ethic. Did you grow up in a military family?
EH: My dad actually served in Vietnam, but by the time I was born, he had honorably discharged. They were stationed in Alaska and moved to Dallas, and that’s where I was born and raised. So, my sibling got the benefit of the travel and being stationed in different places. I’ve lived in Dallas my entire life. My dad after military service worked at the post office and retired from there.
LD: What inspired you to run for the bench?
EH: From 2006 to 2018, I had practiced here in Houston and saw discrepancies in the way attorneys were treated and the outcomes of cases for defendants. There were discrepancies in the way defendants were treated. The main thing that made me throw my hat in the race was the bail reform lawsuit that was initiated, O’Donnell v. Harris County.
I’ve always felt like criminal justice reform was something that our country could do better. And the criminal justice system affects the minority community the most. So, my heart just kind of went out for that cause. And I thought, “Man, they’re spending a lot of money on something to me that seemed simple as it relates to low level misdemeanor offenses.” I threw my hat in the race specifically because of criminal justice reform.
I saw an opportunity here in Harris County to change the narrative in a large county. I thought if people saw that Harris county could do it, then definitely they could do it elsewhere. I chose the misdemeanor bench specifically because it’s where low-level offenders come. I wanted to change the narrative for the criminal justice system and also help low-level offenders. Maybe, they haven’t gone off the deep end; they just need some help to try to turn their situation around, and get their life back on track to be a productive citizen.
I also knew they had the Harris county misdemeanor Veteran’s Court, which I presided over for all 16 courts. I felt like there was a special calling there, too, because I had served in the military.
LD: Tell me about that court please.
EH: We have the second-biggest population of military veterans in Texas, behind California. The felony court for veterans started in 2010, and the misdemeanor courts were started seven years after. It was just getting started and didn’t really have the energy or the funding behind it. My goal was to put it on the same trend line as the felony court and make it as good as that program. One of my favorite parts of the job was to be able to do that docket.
I loved it. Oftentimes, these people suffer from mental illness, PTSD or traumatic brain injuries and medicate with drugs or alcohol. Then, unfortunately, they commit some type of criminal act. They can qualify for veterans court if they have served in the military or are currently serving. What that does is give them resources from the VA and other military partners that we partner with for providing benefits.
We also lined them up with a treatment program and mentors, and maybe put them not back in the military atmosphere but with a structure to help them become productive citizens. We just had a report done that showed 90% of our veterans have completed the program successfully. And as it relates to recidivism, they’re not repeat offenders. They’ve gotten jobs and they’re doing well for themselves after completing the program.
LD: Congratulations. Do you have specific cases or people that come to mind from either the military division or regular misdemeanor that really speak to you in terms of why you wanted to be on the bench?
EH: Definitely. Of course, the goal is to get them to come through the program and graduate. We do an entire ceremony. Sometimes you’re sad to see them go because you’ve seen them from the beginning, and now they’re here, and you’ve got to remember what they went through – almost like your kid growing up. So yes, there are definitely people, names I can recall, specific cases that stand out, and folks that are graduating that I hate to see go, but I’m happy. This is what we signed them up for, to graduate this program.
LD: It must be like you see them at this crossroads where things could get worse, or they could get better. And to feel like what you’re doing on the bench has led to the better pathway.
EH: Yes, for their life. They spent maybe a year to two years with me, but the rest of their life is set in a positive direction when they graduate. Sometimes they come back and mentor other veterans in the program, so I’ll still get to see them. And to continue to see them do so well with their family lives, with their jobs. Everything is going well. Not that they don’t have problems, but they have beat their addiction, and they continue to work on their addiction every day. And they’re being a positive influence in their community. It’s definitely rewarding.
LD: What do you consider the most meaningful part of being a judge?
EH: The most meaningful part is that you see an individual’s life turned around. Maybe not because of you as the judge, but from some things that you have shown them or given them the opportunity to have – to offer individuals these resources that maybe no one gave them before, or maybe no one thought that they deserved. Some people just need resources or an opportunity to do the right thing. For example, I can give a 17-year-old kid an HCC, Houston Community College, booklet and say, “You deserve this option. Maybe you can go to college.” I make people bring their report cards. It’s about providing resources to give those folks new opportunities.
LD: Amazing. And what do you find most meaningful about the 19? What you’ve done as a group and individuals with your hopes of creating a more just system, and the progress you’re making?
EH: A picture says a thousand words. A lot of people say that, or you’ve heard that saying before. I think that 1,000 words could be written down into the accomplishments that we made. Not only did we take a picture that everybody thinks is great, but the actual work that’s being done from that picture is literally a thousand words.
Beyond the picture, I think it’s most meaningful that we actually made a commitment to make a better justice system for criminal justice reform. And we are actually doing what we said we would do. A lot of times people make promises when they run for office, and they never make good on those promises. So, I think that’s the most meaningful thing is that our picture says a thousand words in our actions every day on the bench.
About the author: Katrina Dewey (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the founder and CEO of Lawdragon, which she and her partners created as the new media company for the world’s lawyers. She has written about lawyers and legal affairs for 30 years, and is a noted legal editor, creator of numerous lawyer recognition guides and expert on lawyer branding. She is based in Venice, Calif., and New York. She is also the founder of Lawdragon Campus, which covers law students and law schools. View our staff page.