Photo by Felix Sanchez.
Michelle Moore has always been a firm believer in personal responsibility.
It’s why, when she thought a high school friend was being treated unfairly by the legal system, she began to contemplate becoming a lawyer: Not a defense attorney, but a prosecutor.
Years later, the same personal credo prompted her to run for a Harris County, Texas, judgeship when she heard former President Barack Obama advise people dissatisfied with the state of their government to seek elected office themselves.
A child welfare attorney, Moore had long imagined becoming a judge but planned to pursue that goal after retiring as a lawyer. Obama’s comments made her reconsider.
“I thought, ‘You know what? I don't like what's happening,’” she said. “Why am I waiting until I'm 65, 70? Now is the time to do something about it.’”
Which is how, in the fall of 2018, voters ended up choosing Moore as one of 17 new Black women jurists for a bench that previously had only two, giving her a unique influence on the lives of young people who run afoul of the law and land in her courtroom.
“When I'm talking to the kids who come in front of me, I tell them, ‘we all have choices, and whether you make a good choice or bad choice, there's a consequence,’” she says.
On the good days, that clicks with the young people facing charges, and they acknowledge her point, in a way she can tell is more than lip service.
It’s not lost on Moore that some of the advice she gives in court is the same that she doles out at home; she says the successes feel a bit like “Mom-ing.”
Her children recognize it, too. Her six-year-old now refers to her as “Judge Mommy,” and when he’s upset, he drops the “Mommy.”
Lawdragon: It’s fascinating to watch how children respond to the people around them.
Michelle Moore: It is. I hear him talking to his siblings and he's like, "Well, the judge told me …" I try and create that separation, though. I remind him that, “I am the mommy, whether you are mad or not, I'm not ‘the judge.’”
LD: That’s such a cool story. Tell me a little about your own childhood and how you decided to become a lawyer, what your influences were.
MM: I grew up in Houston, Texas, in a neighborhood called Spring Branch, with my parents and my sister, who’s two years older than me. I went to the same elementary school, the same middle school, and the same high school; just lived a very stable, sheltered childhood. I didn't know anybody who was an attorney and never stepped foot in a courtroom.
My first introduction to the criminal justice system was when one of my girlfriends got into trouble in high school. What was interesting about that is that I wanted to be a prosecutor. Obviously, some people would think wanting to help translates into becoming a defense attorney, but I was thinking about fairness, thinking that the system was being a little heavy-handed on her since she was a first-time offender. And since I’m really big on personal responsibility – I don’t like excuses whatsoever – I was looking for a way to balance those beliefs by creating a fairer system in terms of punishment and rehabilitation. That's how I decided, "I can be the prosecutor," because it just didn't feel good to my soul to make excuses for bad behavior.
I was a teenager, of course, so I wasn’t considering the issues that deeply and the possibilities of a mistaken identity or someone being railroaded by the system never crossed my mind. I didn’t yet have the concept that some people who were thrown into jail were innocent; I was assuming that if you were arrested and were charged, then you were guilty, that you really had done it. Now, of course, my perspective has broadened and it’s not the same as that teenage girl’s.
LD: Even so, you were very insightful for a teen-ager. Being a prosecutor would let you weigh events and circumstances even while insisting that people take responsibility for their actions. So what did you study in undergrad?
MM: I studied criminal justice and I worked at the Harris County jail, while I was in law school.
LD: Did what you saw in the jail further shape your idea of what you wanted your career in law to accomplish?
MM: Not necessarily, though it was eye-opening. I actually had to quit because it started to take a toll on me. I started to become very cynical. Everything that someone would tell me, I started to second-guess: Are they telling me the truth or are they telling me this because they want me to do something for them? Working inside of a jail is definitely an eye-opener as to the type of people you will encounter. Having had a relatively normal childhood, I wasn't used to that. I was always taught to tell the truth, so it was a shocker that some people’s mission in life is to manipulate others. When I started to become cynical about people, I was like, "OK, I need to do something else because this is changing me and not in a good way."
LD: It’s such a hard environment. When you graduated law school, what was your first job?
MM: I wasn’t getting hired anywhere here in Harris County, so I was like, "You know what? I'm going to have to go downstate and get some experience and then work my way back up, hopefully.” My first experience was with the Cameron County District Attorney's office, right at the border, and I represented Child Protective Services. I stayed there for maybe a year, then went to the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office, so I was getting closer to home. And then I finally got hired by the Harris County Attorney's Office in the Child Protection Division.
LD: Had working with kids always been your passion?
MM: I fell into that, actually. When I first applied for the D.A.'s Office in Cameron County and also in Dallas County, I wanted to prosecute adults. They didn't have any openings in those divisions, but they did in the children’s division. So I said, "OK, I'm definitely not going to turn down any jobs."
LD: Tell me about your experiences since you’ve been on the bench: the good moments, the bad moments, the moments where it's like, "This is why I ran to become a judge."
MM: It’s always a good moment when a kid is in front of me on a first-degree felony and the State and the Probation Department agree to put him into a diversionary program so that he doesn’t go to juvenile prison but to a juvenile rehabilitation facility where he's released within a few months, and he does well while at the facility and when he is released. In some cases, all the cards are stacked against him, such as his family having a long history of being in and out of jail, but it has clicked with him, and I say ‘him’ just because it's generally boys who are in front of me, not girls. But when it clicks and you can tell that it’s not lip service, that there really is a chance, it’s a good moment and I’m like, “this is why I do what I do.”
The bad moments are when I'm giving out actual time prison time. I remember the first kid that I sentenced to 15 years with the Texas Juvenile Justice Department (juvenile prison). I went in the bathroom afterward, and I cried.
On days like that, nobody “wins.” I don't feel good sentencing a kid to 15 years in prison. Fifteen years … that's a long time for a teenager. It's just one of those situations where you shake your head and wonder, “What are we doing? What does this solve?” I feel bad for the victim involved and I feel bad for the kid who got the time because after 15 years, his childhood is over. So those are the bad moments that I could definitely do without, but it's a part of the job.
LD: And there are good days?
MM: Yes. My good days are where I really feel as if I’ve made a difference. The good days outweigh the bad days exponentially. Sometimes I try to bring it home for the kids who appear in my court, I’ll remind them of the old saying, "An apple a day will keep the doctor away."
For example, you can eat one apple every single day; that's very easy to do. But what you can't do is eat 365 apples on Dec. 31. What I’m trying to illustrate to them is everything we do matters. Every choice matters.
It’s not necessarily lecturing them, but talking to them like a loving parent would, "What you did was bad, but you are not bad. You did a bad thing." And I’ll ask them, "What do you want to do when you get older? What's the plan?” and then I instill some positivity. Let them know their life is not over even though, "Yes, I'm sending you to a lockup. You made a bad choice, and that choice has a consequence, but your life isn’t over.” I then tie that back to what they said they wanted to be when they get older and I encourage them to work toward that goal while they are in lockup.
If the kid is telling me he wants to be a firefighter, then when I see him again, I fully expect him to tell me about the fire academy. I encourage the kid to use his time in lockup wisely: What does he need to do to get to the academy? Do we need to set him up with a mentor? Does he know any firefighters? By doing that, I'm trying to stop their criminal behavior now because I don't think any of us want our kids to grow up to be adult criminals. We all live on Planet Earth. And if we can stop this now, then the system worked.