Photo by Felix Sanchez.
Judge Toria J. Finch made history in July when she was elected the first African American female presiding judge of the Harris County, Texas, criminal courts. Her focus on fairness and equal treatment for those who come to her court reflect her long dedication to dignity for everyone.
One of “The 19” African American women who successfully ran for judge in November 2018, shaking up a judiciary that many considered set in its ways and lacking compassion, Finch has made her mark with a commitment to helping individuals turn their lives around.
As a child in Nashville, she loved sports and aspired to be a star basketball player. She was known for traveling around to small churches with her mother and father, the late Pastor Harold W. Finch Sr. She would introduce her mother when she was asked to be a guest speaker, which helped her develop the presence that would propel her to success as a juvenile justice advocate in the juvenile public defender’s office in Austin and then the district attorney’s office in Houston.
Lawdragon: What inspired you to become a lawyer?
Judge Toria J. Finch: I honestly am not someone who always wanted to be a lawyer or knew that I would be a lawyer. I had totally different aspirations. I often dreamed that I would be one of the first women in the WNBA. This was before the league was even discussed. Isn't that crazy? In fact, before they named it the WNBA, I would call it the WNBA.
I used to be a true athlete. I played basketball and was an all-star in softball. I also played volleyball and ran track. I was very much so into athletics. I attended McGavock High School. While in high school, the University of Tennessee Lady Volunteers basketball was known for having amazing teams. I would go down there and play in basketball tournaments and participate in trainings. I often wished that I could one day be a part of their team. But life happens.
LD: How did you go from all-star athlete to all-star lawyer and judge?
TJF: I suffered an injury. I was really good but just could not recover after the second injury. So, I said, "Okay, well, what will you do next, Toria?" I wanted to remain close to the sport. I thought about being a sports agent. That was during the era of Jerry Maguire, “Show me the money.” I did a little research while attending college and learned that many successful sports agents either had a legal background or they had a marketing background, and sometimes both. So, while attending Alabama A&M University I received a Bachelor of Science degree in Buiness Marketing, and interned with the Huntsville Flights, a basketball team in the National Basketball Development League, Chick-fil-A and had so many other wonderful internship opportunities.
I was raised in a blue-collar background that emphasized service to others. I'm a preacher's kid. My father was a manager of a neighborhood U.S. Post Office, and the pastor of a small church located in place which was often referred to in south Nashville as “The Bottom”. My mother worked in education and became the President of a college. My family has always worked in public service and focused on helping people. While I enjoyed basketball, and working closely with the sport, it really was not the environment or industry that maximized what I believed my strengths and abilities were, which was helping people.
My mother had a premonition. She would always speak at different churches in different places in Tennessee and Alabama, and she would have me introduce her. She told me during our drive to a church down in Alabama, “You know what, Toria, I just had a vision that you're supposed to be an attorney.” During our drive back home after she finished speaking I thought about it, but I doubted that it was possible because I was not accustomed to interacting with attorneys or judges.
After having the conversation with my mother, I took a business law class in my senior year of college. It was during that class when I received my first opportunityto interact with a lawyer. My instructor was a practicing attorney. I abdolutely loved the class. During the semester he said, “You know what, you're really good at this. You might want to look into working in the legal field.” So my interest in law took off from there. After graduating from college I attended Southeastern Paralegal Institute in Nashville, TN. I graduated and received a Paralegal Certificate. Immediately following school, I worked as a paralegal, for a large firm in Nashville, Tenn. Within two years of working as a Paralegal I decided to apply to law school. Three years later I graduated from Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University. The rest is history.
LD: Amazing. Tell me about your career between when you graduated from law school and decided to run for the bench?
TJF: I accepted an offer from one of my externships when I was in law school. I became a Juvenile Public Defender. I loved my job because I love kids. At the Juvenile Public Defender's office in Travis County, Texas, I worked with so many at-risk kids and came to realize how broad that definition is. We tend to reduce it down to marginalized communities, but there are so many kids, even in well-to-do homes, that are at risk for various reasons. I've advocated for kids that were charged with everything, from truancy to sexual assault cases and murder. My first case was a murder. My client was charged with murdering her parent.
I'll never forget my experiences as an Assistant Juvenile Public Defender. I loved the fight. It’s different in the juvenile world. You're fighting to save a young person and give them opportunities for rehabilitative treatment and secure the possibility of a future. During my time with the Juvenile Public Defender’s Office I grew as an attorney and received my board certification in juvenile law.
Approximately six years later, I decided that I wanted to expand my experiences and continue to improve my litigation skills. So, I decided to return to the District Attorney’s Office in Houston, Texas where I interned while attending law school. They offered me an opportunity to work in their juvenile division. So, I returned to Houston and became an Assistant District Attorney. I prosecuted cases in juvenile court, as well as in the adult courts. After practicing on both sides of the bar and witnessing concerns within the court system I decided that I was ready to take it to the next level.
During law school, I thought about being a judge, but then I quickly realized that I didn’t like politics. Ultimately, politics is what deferred my deferred dreams or further aspirations of becoming a judge. I practiced for almost 12 years before I decided to run for the bench.
LD: Were there things that you saw or experiences you had while practicing law that especially spoke to you about why you wanted to become a criminal court judge?
TJF: Absolutely. It was what I saw and experienced as an attorney in the courtroom every day that resonated with me. When you are a public defender or an assistant district attorney you're in court every day. That's your world. My aspirations of becoming a judge also impacted from my life as a preacher's kid. My father would advocate for young people all the time. When someone's child is in trouble, who do they call – the preacher, right?
TJF: Seeing him advocate for people from the church's perspective was instrumental in what I do today. Putting it all together made me realize that I could have a greater impact on the criminal justice system if I ran.
The main reason I finally decided to run for a judicial office, after waiting so long, stems from one of my last conversations with my father before he passed away. He kept saying, “Toria, why don't you do it?” I played with the idea for so many years but it wasn't until he passed away that I had to make a decision. While deciding my path forward after my father’s death, I had to make some decisions. At the time, I did not have any biological family that resided in Texas. All of my family basically resided in Tennessee or in Atlanta. It was important to me be with my family and to take care for my mother. We are a very close family. I had to decide whether it was best for me to move back home to Nashville and leave everything in Texas.
There was something in my heart. The desire of being a judge was still there and resurfaced. I talked to my mom and my family about it and said, “I'm willing to do whatever I can do to support you mom, and the family. But I just need to ask you for one more thing.” I expressed to them that I wanted the chance to run for office so that at least I could leave Houston with closure. Leaving Texas meant leaving years of laying foundation and networks. I’m from Nashville, but there they don't know me as Attorney Toria. They know me as little Toria. It would have been a whole new world. I felt like God had me in Texas for a reason, and it was in my heart for a reason. We prayed about it as a family. I said, “If I don't win, I'll come home.” They said, “You should run. You’ll be great and You will win.” I appreciate their love and support, because I could not have done it without them. My father passed a few days before Christmas. His passing was very tough on my family.
LD: I'm sorry.
TJF: It's okay. The New Year comes and I'm still home. I took off of work and stayed at home until February or March with my family and I announced in May. A few months after returning from Nashville, I met with the Harris County Democratic Party. I announced my judicial campaign on my father's birthday, July 28.
LD: When you think about different experiences or maybe different parties that have been before you, since you've been on the bench, are there any that come to mind that really signify why you wanted to become a judge?
TJF: Yes. The strange thing is, in every case that comes before the court, I’m always reminded of why I ran. Everyone is there for a reason. It's not always about guilt and innocence, sometimes it about simple humanity. When the prosecutor reads the officer's report and you hear allegations that the accused made racially explicit statements to the police officer or to their neighbor, etc. Then, they come to the court and they see me sitting there. To see their faces is kind of interesting. The opportunity to show compassion and positivity, is just amazing. I think that's an important reason to be there.
TJF: There are some stereotypes or hard feelings that may have happened in the past with the people in court. If it's a young person, whether they're white, black or Hispanic, it’s important to take time and try to help them. I've worked with young people. I like to say: "Hey, what do you need to be successful? Who told you that you couldn't be? And I tell them that, “I expect you to be successful. As long as you're coming to this court, I'm not giving up on you. Even if you give up on yourself."
Or having that single mom that comes in with her child. She says, “I don't know what else I can do.” I say, “Ma'am, I'm going to help you and do everything that I can to help your child. Because I want the same things that you want for your child.”
It could be the person who has an addiction to drugs and or alcohol. They just don't know it, or they don't want to admit it. Or maybe they do want to admit it, but no one's taking time to help them and say, “Hey, you know what? I'm not going to accept the time served on your case. We're going to give you an assessment, see what the experts think you need to help you be successful because where you are doesn't have to be the rest of your life.”
I think a lot of that comes from my spiritual foundation. I understand that no one is perfect. Everyone has flaws and can use the help of somebody. And nothing is a coincidence. For the people in my court, we were destined to meet: “We’re meeting for a reason and I want your life to be different just because of this encounter.”
LD: That's beautiful.
TJF: There are cases where there might be a dismissal. Sometime before the dismissal, I will still take time and say, "Hey, you know what? In the state of Texas marijuana is illegal. I know the DA's office is not testing it right now, but you will continue to be arrested for it here. That means you're going to have to take off from work. You have to spend money. You have to come down here and see me. You have to go through the booking and fingerprinting process. Now it’s on your record, is that really worth it? I mean, is that how you want to spend your time?" I always try seize the opportunity to have that conversation to say, “Stop, and look at what's happening.”
For every person that comes in, I try to find some human connection, beyond the cause number, because everyone has a story. Everyone. I just try to figure out what that is and see it from their view.
LD: It's really remarkable to look at people holistically. Not just saying, “Top down, here's what you did wrong. Let's process you through.” It's, “Well, you're here for this, but it seems like you've got an issue with this.” Really working, using your role as the judge with people as people, right? They’re not just parties.
TJF: Correct. Just trying to reason with them and to help them see themselves as they are, and how they could be. I'm going to take a leap and say that everyone has challenges.
As a black woman, I believe black women in general experience intersectional discrimination. For that reason, it is easier for me to relate to the humanity of all people. I can tell you, I’ve felt it. I don't necessarily have an obvious privilege that would prevent me from not experiencing it. I have so many stories.
One in particular that will stick with me forever was when my teenage brother, my mom, my aunt and my little cousins and I were in Alabama visiting one of my great aunts for her birthday. We were returning from the bowling alley. It was 8:30, almost nine o'clock at night. My brother was driving, and I was sitting in the back seat with my aunt and my two cousins.
My mom was sitting in the front seat. None of us had been drinking alcohol. But we were driving and a police officer pulled behind my brother and pulled him over. The officer approached my brother and pulled him out of the car immediately, on a dark dusty road. He began to interrogate him about the reasons he was driving too slow.
We had the windows down and we were listening. My brother said, "I didn't realize we were driving so slow." The officer radios for backup. I want to say at least three patrol cars come out and they began to take my brother through all this interrogation and moving him to the back of the vehicle, and pointing flashlights at him and in the car. It was absolutely insane and very scary quite honestly. All for driving too slow in the deep south of Alabama.
LD: That is insane.
TJF: Imagine if we weren't there, what would have happened to my brother? The way they were treating him was not right. That is not the only experience I could point to. But the point is that I can understand what it feels like to be either invisible or to be underestimated or be discounted. I don't like that feeling, so I don't want it to happen to anyone else.
Having those experiences has been very helpful. Do I make all the right decisions? No. I think everybody, including black people, we still have implicit biases. I think that's something we have to remain conscious of and continue to work on. But I do think ultimately it's our experiences that helps us see the humanity in the people that we serve.
LD: We all have implicit biases. Right? We're all just trying to learn, but it's like when you only have one set of implicit biases judging everybody else. I think every black man who's a lawyer whom I've interviewed in the past few years has a story about being pulled over, and what would have happened if. And when you think about that before there were not many black judges or black female judges in Harris County. Now there are, so the defendants come before you, but so do the police officers.
TJF: Right. It's an awesome blessing, and a curse. It definitely is a wonderful opportunity to bring balance and attempt to make things right for everybody. I just really believe in my heart that our judges, especially in Harris County, have to accurately reflect the people that we serve. We need to have more Hispanic judges. We need Asian judges. We have to have the representation. We learn from each other. Many times, when we have our judicial meetings, we will communicate with each other about what happened in court. It's interesting to get the feedback from other judges, as to, "Hey, consider it this way” or “Have you ever heard of this before?”
It's really helpful to have input from everyone at the table. It changes things. We vote on procedure and policy all the time. It’s good for us to have the experiences of everybody so we know whether this policy has some inherent discriminatory feature that we're not even considering.