Judge stresses importance of diversity in inaugural law school lecture

Sunday, November 6, 2016 - 3:22pm

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Judge Anna Blackburne-Rigsby of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals addressed more than 60 University of Michigan Law School students about the need for diversity in the judicial system Friday afternoon in an inaugural lecture and award on the topic.

At the event, sponsored by the Black Law Students Association and the American Constitution Society, Blackburne-Rigsby accepted the Jane Cleo Marshall Lucas award, an honor that will be extended to one Black woman each year by the University for her work promoting diversity in the legal profession.

Blackburne-Rigsby told the crowd she has been committed to public service her entire life, beginning with her parents, whose backgrounds instilled a passion for civil rights within her at a young age. Her mother was raised in the South under Jim Crow laws, a system that enforced racial segregation and discrimination against Blacks, and her father was the son of Jamaican immigrants.

“As I grew up and saw many of my role models who really used law to make society better, that made me start to see that there was a way to use law for the greater good and to improve the state for many,” Blackburne-Rigsby said.

Blackburne-Rigsby received a Bachelor of Arts in political science from Duke University and went on to earn her law degree from the Howard University School of Law in 1987. She said she learned quickly that the number of female African-American judges serving on state high courts could be counted on one hand, but noted she is hopeful this number will increase.

In 2006, Blackburne-Rigsby was nominated by President George W. Bush to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. One of her main goals, she said, has been to spread awareness about the importance and necessity of diversity in the judicial system.

“Diversity provides access to justice and public trust, and confidence in the courts is crucial,” Blackburne-Rigsby said. “It is important that all individuals are treated fairly throughout the judicial process. You won’t always win, but we need people to walk away feeling like they were heard and were given an equal voice.”

Law School student Edna Turay, a member of the Black Law Students Association, said she was impressed with Blackburne-Rigsby’s lecture. In particular, she emphasized points Blackburne-Rigsby made about the importance of having judges from varied backgrounds that represent concerns in cases at high levels, such as the appellate level, where judges are responsible for reviewing decisions made by trial level courts. If a judgment is made by a homogenous court at the trial level, she said, it cannot be rectified at the appellate level without a more diverse range of voices.

“We need more women and minorities studying and practicing law,” Turay said. “I think the most important thing I took away from today is that we need to be very diverse and have different viewpoints, especially on the appellate level when you have multiple judges working towards a decision and when having a diverse opinion could potentially change other judges’ views. I thought that was special to hear.”

Speaking to current demographics, Blackburne-Rigsby said the judicial system is at its best when it incorporates different voices, perspectives and experiences.

“There are places in the world where people don’t even expect to go to court and never think that the court is going to be fair,” she said. “I have seen the faith that people really have in our justice system, and that’s humbling. We have a judiciary system that is good, but it takes all of us to make sure it stays that way.”

Though progress is being made, Blackburne-Rigsby said the number of Black female judges is still relatively low. According to Michigan.gov, there are no African-American females on the Supreme Court or the Appellate Court.

She said she believes for progress in the legal field, women need to actively pursue law, and having strong mentorship can help aid in that process.

“I think being a judge is so rewarding and I have learned that you really are serving and seeing humanity, not just one part of society”, Blackburne-Rigsby said. “In order to get the most qualified judges, you need to make the positions accessible to the biggest and most diverse pool.”