Photo by Felix Sanchez.
Faith. Hope. Determination.
Angela Graves-Harrington possessed them all even as a child in Gulfport, Miss. The kind of town so small her math teacher at Jim Hill High School was her brother’s godmother.
She knew from who knows when that she would become a lawyer. Early on, she watched as kids were treated differently, some suspended from school for the same infractions for which others got a pass. Debate on a team sponsored by the local legal aid organization honed her interest and she became a champion.
She was often accompanied by her first son, Daylen, at Thurgood Marshall Law School in Houston. Graves-Harrington ascended through law practice by keeping her heart open to opportunity: She was offered space to set up a law practice, a salary from a volunteer job.
Good things happen to good people.
But today, her special magic had landed in the wrong tribunal. Graves-Harrington was representing a single mom accused of not assisting her children in returning a phone call from their father. Judge Charley Prine of the 246th District Family Court in Houston sentenced her client to 180 days in jail with immediate remand and no chance to call her kids.
“I could not sleep,” says Graves-Harrington, whose tears and prayers provided no solace. None, that is, until she talked to her dad. In the immortal words of loving fathers everywhere, he told her to seek justice: “Take his bench.”
Graves-Harrington threw her hat in the ring in a bid that seemed Quixotic given the difficulty of diverse candidates breaking through to elected court positions. To win, Graves-Harrington realized anger could set the table but it wouldn’t provide the meal. She asked herself, “What is God putting me here for? Why is He pushing me forward to run?”
She was not alone. Graves-Harrington was one of 19 African-American women who found their way to the ballot seeking judicial posts in Harris County in the historic 2018 election. They came together for the first time as a group at a Democratic Party get-together for its full slate of candidates.
“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,” says LaShawn Williams, who was a partner with Shannon Baldwin at Baldwin Williams & Associates. Baldwin led the criminal trials with Williams as second chair, and they reversed roles for civil matters.
After a decade of working with prosecutors before a largely Republic bench in Harris County, Baldwin respected the judge’s power to set the tone. She felt an adjustment was in order.
“I was not a stranger to having to dig in and work hard. And my expectation was to win because I wanted to. But I had low expectations because it had historically been nearly impossible to win,” says Baldwin, a former Army Reservist and prison guard.
She had nothing to lose. She’d done everything as a trial lawyer, even trying a capital murder case. “So this was like, ‘You need to either figure out something else to do, or figure out something more challenging, or take on the cause.’ Change the system,” says Baldwin, who became the first woman to run and later preside as an out member of the LGBTQIA community in Harris County.
Baldwin encouraged Williams to join her on the journey. It was not a hard sell to a woman whose mother gave her the initials LAW for LaShawn Antoinette Williams. Williams had done everything in the law – “from the rooter to the tooter” – as a prosecutor, in-house counsel at Cracker Barrel and then owning her own firm. She took to heart President Barack Obama’s call to be part of the solution rather than dwell in bitterness.
Eight of the 19 graduated from Thurgood Marshall, three in 2006. Some had crossed paths in practice, with Toria Finch serving as the supervising attorney for Tonya Jones when she was a legal fellow in the Travis County Juvenile Public Defender’s Office, for instance.
“When I sought out this journey, I knew some of the ladies,” says Ronnisha Bowman. “But we all had a common interest and a common story with being in the courthouse. You want more fair judges and more diversity on the bench. So we made a sisterhood.”
In a lifetime and career of incredible success as a champion athlete – running hurdles, of course – and the exceedingly rare achievement of earning a partnership in a major law firm, Lewis Payne had lost her race in 2014. But the experience gave her sea legs. “I learned a lot, but it was tough because I only know one way to do something and that's with as much effort as I can give,” she says.
And here’s the thing about this mountain the sisterhood was taking on. Like mountains everywhere, it’s not fair. It does not care about your life lessons, your hopes, your dreams, your accomplishments, even your prayers. Voters may or may not make it to the polls. A singing frog might be a huge draw to voters and if you’re on the other side, well, sorry.
But together, they believed. They made a plan for victory that brought together all their life lessons. Stronger together they had one quest: a clean sweep of their races, ushering in a new, much more inclusive and open era throughout Houston’s courts.
The 19 posed at Thurgood Marshall’s mock courtroom after the primary election in black-and-white outfits for an iconic photo arranged by the Harris County Democratic Party. The shot was publicized with the slogan “Black Girl Magic,” and catalyzed young girls who hung the photo on their walls – as well as voters, who on Nov. 6, 2018, voted The 19 into office.
Baldwin, Graves-Harrington, Finch, Jones, Bowman, Williams, Peake and Payne were newly elected alongside Judge Lucia Bates, Judge Sharon M. Burney, Judge Dedra Davis, Judge Linda Marie Dunson, Judge Lori Chambers Gray, Judge Cassandra Y. Holleman, Judge Erica Hughes, Judge Michelle Moore and Judge Germaine Tanner.
Rounding out The 19 were two incumbents who ran for statewide office and, though they lost those races, retained their Harris County posts: Judge Ramona Franklin was elected to that bench in 2016 and Judge Maria T. Jackson in 2008. Their victories increased the number of Black women judges in Harris County from eight to 25.
“A picture says a thousand words,” says Hughes, who served four years as a JAG officer and in the Texas National Guard. She ran for Criminal Court at Law #3 because she wanted to help with criminal justice reform, especially at a point when individuals were not yet charged with serious crimes. She also presided over the Veteran’s Court for all 16 misdemeanor courts. “The most meaningful thing is that our picture says a thousand words in our actions every day on the bench,” she says.
We met the 19 in 2019, mesmerized initially by their unbelievable election sweep fueled by Black Girl Magic. After a long day in court, they made time to meet at Susman Godfrey’s Houston headquarters, with some arriving late because of verdicts or other administrative issues. And, instantly, we were taken by their breadth as individuals and professionals.
Already, one of The 19 was gone. Cassandra Holleman was known for always taking care of everyone else. After her husband passed in 1992, she raised their daughter and son and took care of her mother, who had passed just the year before. Her daughter, Brandy, said how eager her Mom was to make an impact on the judicial system – one she served until just days before she passed at the age of 57 on Feb. 11, 2019, from pancreatic cancer finally diagnosed just 10 days earlier. Brandy would drop her off at work as she could barely walk, so determined was Holleman to continue her Black Girl Magic.
The 19 were as compelling for what they shared as their divergence. All Black women, all outstanding legal professionals, most also shared a strong faith and family orientation. Many had some type of competitive background, whether sports or debate, and a few had served in the military themselves or their family had. They ranged in age from late 30s to their 60s. While most were raised in Texas, more than a handful were from Florida and throughout the South.
Throughout 2019, they proved their mettle and drew the fascinated gaze of little girls, some of whom stood on tippy toes to peer through their courtroom windows. That they looked different was so obvious, and part of the point, really. Appearances matter, and in their own lives, few had enjoyed professional role models who looked like them.
“We’ve been able to be role models by just being on the bench,” says Graves-Harrington. “I’m so amazed at how astonished these young ladies, little girls and teenagers are when they say, ‘I’ve never seen a woman judge before, and you’re black, or your hair’s just like mine.’ It’s an amazing feeling.”
The youngest of the group – the “baby Judge” – wholeheartedly agrees. “Seeing someone in a role and being able to visualize yourself possibly being there, it makes a difference,” says Jones. “I say that as an inner-city kid with no one in my family who had gone to college that I could look at and say, ‘Hey, I know I can do that.’ I just had a desire.”
As a child, Jones happened on a photo of a Black woman judge in Essence magazine, from which she was able to visualize her goal. She reflects on that when she speaks to law students, who have been moved to tears. “They get to see in us what I saw when I opened that magazine up, which was someone who looks like them, somewhere where they aspire to be, and that makes all the difference.”
Chambers Gray knew all too well the loneliness of pursuing a legal career. In 1986, she graduated from South Texas College of Law and sought a job at a law firm. At the time, they were not sending gift baskets to recruits who were women or minorities. So she returned to the radio station where she previously worked, and began to teach at Prairie View A&M. “But my heart was in the courtroom. And I knew if I was going to get there I would have to do it myself,” she says.
And she did, partnering with other lawyers, and eventually establishing her own practice in civil, criminal and “whatever came through the door” law. “My clients would have been a grandmother who may have had someone who was arrested, but then also needed a will. So I had to be able to be proficient in getting the whole package done,” says Chambers Gray. She was her best role model.
Franklin found her north star in Johnnie Cochran. Growing up in St. Petersburg, Fla., she would practice her advocacy on her dolls, lined up neat and tidy. She knew one lawyer, a man who attended her church. From Florida A&M, she earned a master’s in sports administration then moved to Michigan to attend Thomas Cooley Law School, from which she graduated in 2002. Her dream was to be Cochran’s female counterpart in sports and entertainment law.
She began her career at the District Attorney’s Office, before opening her own practice, as had Cochran in Los Angeles. It required a leap of faith, she says, recalling the Biblical account of Peter, whose faith allowed him to walk on water.
“I was put in a situation where I had to make the decision of what was best for me,” Franklin says. “And it was one of the best decisions that I’ve made because it brought a lot of different perspective for me as a judge, the fact that I’ve been able to have both perspectives, being a prosecutor as well as a defense attorney.”
Burney was blessed with a role model a bit closer to home. Her mother, Zinetta, earned a GED and a nursing certificate after dropping out of high school, then continued her education until she became one of the first Black women lawyers in Houston.
“We laughed when I finally went to law school because I said, ‘This is actually my second time,’” she recalls. “As a little girl with a mother who was a single parent, I had to sit in the back of the class and do my homework in the evenings and be with her.”
Zinetta Burney succeeded U.S. Rep. Al Green as Justice of the Peace, and worked her whole life for the day there would be more women judges. In the sweep of The 19, Burney was elected Justice of the Peace for Precinct 17 and succeeded her own mother. Called Burney to the second power, Sharon Burney lives next door to Zinetta, and routinely takes her out for drives around town.
“I’m her individual legacy,” Burney says, “but being able to have these women judges, that is her legacy.”
If magic is the how of the 19, change is the why. And it’s a tale that is still being written. On Nov. 8, we will learn if the next chapter is 19 steps forward and a few back, or if Black Girl Magic continues to uplift and transcend – at least in their current judicial posts. Magic, as it always does, lives on no matter what happens. But to hold it – and repeat – you must believe.
Fifteen of the original 19 face reelection this fall; in addition to Holleman, Jackson has retired; Hughes was appointed a federal Immigration Judge, and Franklin’s term ends in 2024. They face Republican opponents ranging from former judges from different seats to private practitioners. There is also one rematch: Charley Prine wants his seat back from Graves-Harrington. It’s Texas, so turnout matters – a lot – and while gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke is a huge draw, so is the power of the incumbent Greg Abbott. It’s a battle of inspiration and extremism about the future of Texas that will define continued representation on the Harris County bench.
“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,” says Burney. “Of course, you still follow the law. But background plays a major role. It really does.”
Graves-Harrington, who has been elected presiding judge of all Harris County’s Family Law Courts, says, “It helped us to appreciate every single one of our constituents because maybe there’s something that I couldn’t understand, but one of the other 19 could.”
“I really believe, in my heart of hearts, that our benches, especially in Harris County, have to accurately reflect the people that we serve,” says Finch, who in July was elected the first African American female presiding judge of the Harris County Criminal Courts. She grew up a preacher’s kid in “The Bottom” section of Nashville. Her dream was to be a star in a WNBA that did not yet exist. Her mother worked in Education and became president of a college. And the family focus was on service. Finch started out in paralegal school after graduating college, then attended Thurgood Marshall. She became a Juvenile Public Defender because of her love for working with kids, and then moved to the Juvenile Division of the District Attorney’s office.
She was mindful every day of the connection she saw between her father’s work as a pastor helping kids, and hers as a lawyer. “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,” says Finch. In one of her last conversations with her father before he passed, he kept saying, “Toria, why don't you do it?”
She’s on the bench for reasons beyond guilt, innocence and dad. The simple humanity of presiding in cases with allegations that a defendant made racial statements, for example – slurs that are repeated as evidence before the judge.
“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 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.’"
Covid-19 shut their courtrooms, which transitioned to Zoom, providing something closer to Franklin’s ideology of blindfold justice. Observing their court proceedings online underscored their efforts to ensure communication that allowed criminal defendants to actually understand their rights when pleading to a DUI, for instance, or family members to understand contested custody arrangements. Paying special attention to the plight of unrepresented parties has also been a focus.
“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,’” she says. “If I have my blindfolds on, it doesn’t really matter. I only hear the voice.’”
That was the idea, in fact, that motivated Franklin to run: Whether you’re rich or poor, Black or white, “it’s not going to matter in my court,” she says. “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.’"
Jones, the youngest of the 19, grew up in the South Park neighborhood of Houston and originally wanted to be an obstetrician. But in school, debate came calling, from which mentors flowed. Nothing was ever easy, but her open nature and determination inspired opportunity. She took every lesson and internship from criminal to family law to hone a perspective that’s invaluable as a judge.
“If any path was to be carved out, I had to do the carving,” says Jones. “It used to frustrate me, because I was like, ‘Geez, why are things so difficult?’”
In her criminal courtroom, she found her answer. “I was able to see more clearly why I might have experienced some of the things that I experienced. Because you're dealing with people and life happens, right? People whose lives intersect here come from all walks of life in our society. And they need to know that, ‘Hey, everyone's story is not the same. Even though you may be in this particular place today, it doesn't mean that it's going to dictate or has to dictate the rest of your life. I'm not so far removed from you because I have this robe on. Let me just tell you, I've had some experiences as well.’”
Providing justice for all is at the heart of Black Girl Magic, perhaps because they have seen so many cases of it denied throughout their lives. Brothers pulled over unlawfully, advice received to aim lower, justice more harsh than fair.
Williams recalls the satisfaction of helping two older white men who had been best friends but fell out over a $65,000 dispute. The case had been rescheduled 12 times before she took the bench. She achieved resolution, and won gratitude for opening the door for their friendship to resume.
She also presided over a bench trial where both attorneys were Black women, as was the defendant. “I don't even remember the nature of the case, but when they walked in and the case was called, I remember that they were smiling, just beaming,” she recalls.
“We handled the case and the defendant lost, but she was still all smiles,” Williams says. “One of them leaned in and whispered to me, ‘We are just so happy that you are here. We are so proud of you.’”
Finch will always be a preacher’s daughter, so views her opportunity to serve on the bench from a spiritual foundation.
“I understand that no one is perfect. Everyone has flaws and can use the help of somebody. And nothing is a coincidence,” she says. “For the people in my court, we’re meeting for a reason. And I want your life to be different just because of this encounter.”
James Langford contributed to this article.
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.