Photo by Felix Sanchez.

Photo by Felix Sanchez.

If you walk into Judge Ramona Franklin’s office, one figure will immediately stand out: a statue of Lady Justice, standing resolutely behind her desk. Lady Justice has acted as Franklin’s muse throughout her legal career, fueling her approach to the law, which she calls “Blindfold Justice.” As presiding judge for the 338th Judicial District Court in the Harris County Criminal Justice system, she works to ensure that everyone who steps into her court is treated fairly, respectfully and objectively, regardless of their race, gender, wealth or charge.

Judge Franklin is one of “The 19” – a groundbreaking group of 19 African American women elected to the bench in Harris County, Texas, in 2018. For Franklin, that year was a re-election – she was originally elected in 2016. Franklin hopes that The 19 will prove to be a force for change in a historically biased criminal justice system. Her motto of blindfold justice is integral to that mission; if people who have been traditionally discriminated against in court are treated with dignity and equality, she can help restore faith in the justice system.

Though Franklin is originally from Florida, she has spent more than 20 years working in Harris County’s justice system and living in the community. Her career has run the gamut, from starting in the Harris County DA’s office as a prosecutor in the misdemeanor division, to opening her own private defense practice, to being elected judge. She is also active in serving Harris County’s community – she has taught as an adjunct professor at Remington College, volunteered in the Houston Volunteer Lawyer program, the NAACP Pro Bono Legal Defense Program and the Diamond in the Rough Mentor Program. Drawing much of her tremendous fortitudfrom her faith, Franklin is also a member of the local Brookhollow Baptist Church.

Lady Justice’s strength is in her balance. With that philosophy as Franklin’s guide, she brings the people of Harris County an unflinching execution of the law with an attitude of compassion and dignity.

Lawdragon: Tell me a bit about your upbringing. You grew up in Florida, but what was your path toward law school? How did you decide to become a lawyer?

Judge Ramona Franklin: Like you said, I'm originally from St. Petersburg, Florida. My parents have always told me that when I was a little girl I would line my dolls up and argue before them. They reminded me of that when I decided to go to law school.

I decided I wanted to be a lawyer before I even went to undergraduate school. I went to Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University for my undergraduate education, and I was specific about making sure that my degree was tailored to law school.

LD: I love the story about the dolls. I can just see you with your dolls, arguing somebody's case.

RF: Mind you, I don't know what case I might've been arguing to my dolls. Maybe one of the other dolls had done something. I don't know. But the seed was planted when I was a little girl.

LD: Are either of your parents lawyers?

RF: No. My mom was an educator for 30 years and my dad was an analyst. Growing up, I knew one person who was an attorney – he attended my church. I didn't really know what he did, but I just knew he was a lawyer and he was well-respected in the community.

LD: Was the fact that becoming a lawyer was a challenging path for an African American woman something that affected you?

RF: Yes. We still have issues with racism in all sectors – and, unfortunately, even gender discrimination, as well. Sometimes we're denied positions. Of course, it's unspoken. They can't overtly say it or act on it, but you kind of know. You notice things like, "Okay, why am I the only female in a room full of males?"

I always think of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I think they asked her the question, "When do you think there'll be enough female justices on the Supreme Court?" And she said, "When they’re all female."

LD: Right. Nobody questioned it being nine guys for hundreds of years.

RF: Exactly.

LD: But you're right, it's gotten somewhat better for women – but not necessarily for African American attorneys as much.

RF: No, it hasn't. But like you said, we're constantly evolving as a society. And there are always going to be some growing pains that go along with embracing something new. But I think we'll eventually get there. We're trending in the right manner. We are getting more African American women taking leadership positions. We are having more people, who are of vastly different backgrounds, becoming judges, becoming lawyers, who may not have necessarily thought about it, but now they think, "Hey, okay, I'm seeing more females, so I can relate to that." So, I think for the younger generation, they don't see that barrier in the same way, which is a good thing. That means that the future is bright.

LD: Absolutely. So, were you focused on criminal law early on, since that was your minor?

RF: Well, I really wanted to practice sports law. That was my passion. I felt that I was going to be the female Johnnie Cochran of sports and entertainment law.

So, I actually got my master's in sports administration with the caveat that I was going to practice law as a sports attorney. But when I got to law school, I realized I really had more of a love for criminal law. I've always wanted to help people. So, that began the segue to criminal law.

LD: And how did it feel moving from Florida to Michigan for law school?

RF: You know what? It was good, because it was a different experience for me, coming from a hot climate to snow. I'm not used to that coming from Florida, the Sunshine State. But after I got there, I realized it actually was the best move for me to go there for law school because I was removed from everything. I was in a new city, a new state. But it really allowed me to be able to focus on law school, and on just coming into my own as a woman and being more independent.

LD: Did you go directly to the Harris County DA's Office when you moved to Texas after graduating?

RF: Yes, actually, I did. That was my first job when I moved. I graduated from law school, moved here to Houston, and I didn't know anyone. My family is in Florida. But I had done some research my last year in law school on cities and states that were good for African Americans at that time. At the time I believe Washington, D.C., was number one, Virginia was number two, and then I think Houston was number three.

So, after looking at the cost of living, I moved to Houston and passed the bar here. And then I applied for the Harris County DA's Office and started my legal career, which was a great experience. I got a lot of experience, a lot of trials and met a lot of people at a fast pace. After a while, I opened my own practice.

LD: You don't strike me as somebody who gets particularly scared, but were you intimidated? What was your thinking, in terms of opening your own practice?

RF: Well, it's always nerve wracking when you're starting something new. And in the back of my mind, I was always thinking, "Well, I'm not from here." I didn’t really have my church, family, or friends to lean on and count on for word of mouth. So, it was really my faith that carried me through. I have a strong Christian background that I've been rooted in since I was a little bitty girl. So, it was more so just me leaning on my faith and just praying and just hoping. It  was very nerve wracking, but I had to make the decision that was best for me, which pushed me out of my comfort zone.

In the end, it was one of the best decisions that I've made because it brought a lot of different perspectives for me as a judge, since I have experience being a prosecutor, as well as a defense attorney. For so long, we used to have a lot of judges who only came from one side.

LD: Right, prosecutors.

RF: Right. And unfortunately, sometimes they would go onto the bench with that same mindset, as opposed to knowing that, "Hey, I'm no longer a prosecutor. I'm supposed to be neutral." The same can be said for those who were only defense attorneys. You're supposed to be fair to the state as well as the defense. So, it's a double-edged sword that can cut both ways.

LD: Well, that background lays such a perfect foundation for your blindfold justice approach, right?

RF: Yes. That motto is very, very, very important to me. The symbol of blindfolded Lady Justice signifies so much to me, not only for the legal community, but just in life.

I really wish more people would subscribe to that concept. I think we would get along better if we all wore blinders, instead of thinking, "Oh, I'm dealing with a male, or a White male or a Black male." If I have my blindfolds on, it doesn't really matter. I only hear the voice. That's really, really important to me to espouse having a blindfold on, because I've seen the differences in approach and treatment from different judges, before I took the bench.

That was one of the reasons why I wanted to run: I knew I could make a difference by employing that motto. I wanted people to realize that it doesn't matter if you're poor, if you're rich, or if you're Black or white. Whatever your background is, it's not going to matter in my court. I want them to leave my court, whether they're found guilty or not guilty, and believe they were treated fairly. I want someone – even someone who may not necessarily agree with my rulings – to really feel like, "You know what? She might not have ruled in my favor, but I truly believe that this judge was fair. I truly believe that she was fair to my attorney, to the state, to the defendant, as well as the victim and their family." And so, that blindfold justice, one case at a time, is critical for me.

LD: And blindfolded Lady Justice is one of the key symbols of justice in the United States. But, at least until recently, there haven't been that many real life Lady Justices. What The 19 seem to be creating is a powerful, visual representation of change in that way.

RF: That is so true. I think, unfortunately, a lot of people don't celebrate The 19. I don't know why that is. And I can't really be concerned about that, because I do believe that there's a time and a season for everything, and there was a time and a season for The 19. And, like you said, we stand for change. Looking at the picture alone, I sit back and I'm like, "Wow. What a beautiful tapestry." You have people who come from all different backgrounds. I think it is important for lawyers and judges to have different, diverse backgrounds, because in your approach to the law, all of that comes into play. Of course, you still follow the law. But background plays a major role. It really does.

LD: Absolutely. What would you say your style is as a judge?

RF: I definitely believe in punishment, but I also believe in handing it out with a sense of compassion and grace. And that's what I do. I know a lot of people may think, "God, Judge Franklin is so harsh," and I probably am a lot more conservative than the other judges in some ways. But I believe in treating people with respect and dignity and grace. It’s a way of saying, "Hey, there's still life for you. You still have a purpose. I'm still going to have to sentence you to 99 years, but there's still a purpose even in that." And I call them "Sir" and "Ma'am". Those are the things that people overlook, the "Sir" and the "Ma'am". I don't care if they've been charged with capital murder or sexual assault of children. I always refer to them as "Sir" and "Ma'am".

LD: Because they're human beings.

RF: I just think it makes a difference.

LD: It's a huge difference. Some judges can't even really consider the person before them as a human being because so many of them did horrible things. But you accept that we, as human beings, do horrible things.

RF: Yeah. And I've had some people who have watched my cases who say, "How do you say 'Sir' to him, when he's been charged with that?" And I say, "That person is still a human being." I think if we all have respect for one another, the tenor changes. I think a lot of tension in cases can be reduced by the manner in which you treat someone.

It's the same thing with colleagues and attorneys and people of that nature. A case might be heated and emotional, but it's just like, "Let's take a break. Let's still be respectful to one another. You all can still argue your case zealously, but let's still be respectful."

So, I'm hoping that seed will be planted – whether it takes five years, 10 years or 15 years. And maybe it won't be planted, but at least I've tried. That’s all that we're required to do.