February 26, 2021

First But Not Finished...

Hon. Latosha Lewis Payne 55th Civil District Court, Harris County, TX

This blog is part of a Black History Month series celebrating the contributions and achievements of African Americans.

In this moment in my life—and this Black History month especially—I find myself focusing and reflecting on firsts. I am a first born child of a single mother. I am the first college graduate on my mother’s side. I am a proud member of the first sorority for African American college women. I am the first lawyer in my family. I am the first judge in my family. Being first is such a running theme in my life that my dad often greets me lovingly as “Hello my first!” as if “first” is the name that appears on my birth certificate. I assure you … it does not!

I am a recently elected African American woman judge in Texas. The 2018 election was not my first rodeo, however. Like so many other firsts, my successful journey to the bench involved many hurdles (I am a former hurdler and hurdle coach currently, so settle in for a slew of hurdle analogies). No one—not even myself—would have ever predicted that I would eventually become a judge. Given my background, it was hard enough to envision myself as a lawyer.

I shelved the dream of becoming a judge early in my legal career, more than twenty years ago, when I fully understood how you really become a judge in Texas. I did not have the generational Texas family history, wealth, or connections to make it happen. With the dream shelved, I turned my focus on trial experience, partnership election, community service, and family. It was not until someone approached and encouraged me to take my dream off the shelf in 2009, and later in 2013, that I first ran for judge. I campaigned hard in 2014 and crisscrossed the 1,778 square miles of Harris County. I lost.

Losing was painful. However, like an inevitable fall or scrape on a hurdle, you have to right yourself quickly, gather courage, and tackle the next inevitable hurdle to the finish. After grieving my loss and giving my family time to recover from politics, I ran again in 2018 and won. I am fortunate to be a part of the history making diverse group of women judges campaigning together known as the “Houston 19.” With our election, we filled every type of judicial seat in Harris County, except for probate, with experienced and qualified African American women judges. Like my own court, many of the new judges were the first in their court. People across America and beyond shared in this historical moment (I saw a self-printed t-shirt of the Houston 19 on a stranger in New Orleans). And, hopefully, we inspire girls and African American children to have the courage to never shelve their dreams and to make necessary changes to the status quo.

Focus on First 

Every single day, I am incredibly honored by and thankful for the awesome and unique privilege of serving as the first African American judge of a 124-year-old district court. I also focus on other firsts such as Thurgood Marshall, who became the first African American Supreme Court justice in 1967. I focus on Jane Bolin, who became the first African American woman judge in the United States in 1939. I focus on Alice Bonner, who became the first African American woman state judge in Harris County, Texas in 1979. I focus on Vanessa Gilmore, who became the first African American woman federal judge in Texas in 1991.

Why focus on the first? Because the particular change brought on by the infusion of judges with the uniquely African American and female experience and perspective is important—and very much needed in our justice system. The mere accomplishment of being the first to change the status quo, immediately changes what we as a society believe is and should be possible.

As a college hurdler, the first hurdle was the most important hurdle to set the pace and tone of your race. Judges are the ultimate interpreters of the rule of law, Constitution, and the independent third branch of government, and as such, they set the tone and pace for the United States of America’s achievement of one of its highest ideals—justice for all. The first judges courageously set and changed the tone and pace of justice in American society. Most of my lawyer experiences in court were very rarely in front of an African American woman judge or even a judge who I believe knew and understood the experiences of African American, female, or poor people.

Then, Focus on the Finish

The work toward achieving a fair, equitable, and just judicial system is not finished. Diverse judges can lead the way in making the system fairer by ensuring all litigants have as much notice as possible to exercise their rights in court. Diverse judges can ensure the equal application of the law to claims or defenses from the richest litigant to the poorest litigant. Diverse judges can also make sure that justice contemplates and includes all by making sure access to the justice system is not limited by the color of a lawyers or litigants’ skin or the lack of resources available to them.

Because of my uniquely African American female experience, I am specially poised to bring positive change to the judiciary in Harris County and Texas. As is my duty as presiding judge, I focus on making sure our trials are devoid of bias—both explicit and implicit—toward litigants, lawyers, witnesses, and participants. I also focus on making sure litigants not represented by counsel are given as much notice about their case as possible. We have increased this particular effort because of the pandemic and the judiciary’s move to electronic, video hearings and cancellations of in-person appearances.

On the rare occasion that I have minors in my court (I do not have family law cases), I take the opportunity to encourage the minors to become lawyers and judges and allow them five minutes of fame to try on my robe, take pictures, and command “order in the court” with my gavel! Given the pandemic, this action has turned into an open invitation to visit the Court when the courts are freely open to the public. I probably enjoy it more than the minors, but I hope they remember it as a positive experience in the courtroom and, because of it, return as lawyers and judges someday.

The future is why the focus on the finish is important. As our newly elected first African American woman vice president Kamala Harris proclaimed, “I may be the first, but I will not be the last.” I hope to leave the court, the judiciary, and this world better than I found it. One hurdle at a time.

Equality and Liberty, Racial Justice