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July 15, 2023 Women in Criminal Justice

Reflections by a Sister in Law: 40 Years in Practice and Counting

Denise Langford Morris

Once upon a time, I was a brand-new attorney hoping to be employed at the Oakland County Prosecuting Attorney’s office in Michigan. I shall never forget stopping by my mom’s house, thrilled about finally capturing a job interview in the heat of the early 1980s recession. Times were tough, no place was hiring, and I was ecstatic at the possibility of finally working as a lawyer. I had been licensed to practice for over a year and had continued to work as an investigative child abuse social worker in Wayne County Juvenile Court. Oakland County was and is the wealthiest county in Michigan and L. Brooks Patterson, one of the state’s toughest prosecutors, was at its helm.

Well, I was excited until my well-informed, socially conscious, and intelligent mom, who always seemed to know everything, shared the following, “L. Brooks Patterson? Anti-busing? I know you’re not going out there to work!!!” My heart sank immediately, and I felt as if I had just swallowed a ton of … you know what.

The anti-busing activism that catapulted Patterson to beat his former boss in an upset election for prosecutor, and drew attention to Pontiac, MI, ultimately resulted in the late great Judge Damon J. Keith’s decision to allow busing in the north and was refused review by the Supreme Court. Boycotts, violence, racial incidence, and nightmares spilled over from Oakland County, throughout the region and the country. I was unaware of what had transpired with anti-busing since I hadn’t read a newspaper or listened to the news in years and most of this happened when I was a kid. Moreover, I was too busy working full time and going to school full time while obtaining my Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Law degrees, not to mention being a teen mom.

My mom’s words were ringing in my ears, but my interview was in two hours. I had no one to call or consult with on what I should do about this dilemma. Plus, I knew I was determined to be a dang lawyer, and this interview was my opportunity to do so. I buckled up and drove what seemed like a million miles and a lifetime to Pontiac, in Oakland County, Michigan. Please understand that Oakland County was wealthy and 90 percent white. And I, a Black woman, had never heard of, much less visited, Oakland County until I applied for the interview. Pontiac felt like a foreign land to me. The office had no Black employees at any level—no staff, clerks, or lawyers. Further, it had very few women in positions other than secretary or clerk.

Though the Oakland County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office’s history and lack of diverse legal staff remained in the forefront of my mind, my overeager desire to be a prosecutor prevailed. Lo and behold, I received a job offer on the spot. Elated as I was to finally be working as a lawyer, I pondered on the long drive home, how would they treat me?

Forty years later and after a rewarding career, I know the answer to that question. Today, the question I have found myself asking after finding myself surrounded by a team of brilliant, diverse members of the American Bar Association Criminal Justice Section Women in Criminal Justice Task Force (Task Force) is, “How are people treating women criminal lawyers across the nation?”

The lawyers, judges, and professors on the Task Force traveled across the country to hold listening sessions with extremely diverse criminal women practitioners, who shared far too many similarities. The stories we heard from too many women about the challenges they faced because of their identities only bolstered what we already knew based on our own life stories and the strength we gained from one another given our varied perspectives.

Task Force members truly bonded and have become sisters in the law over the past 4.5 years of listening, learning, and sharing personal goals, dinners, and our favorite beverages on occasion. Together, we represented a desire to support one another and to encourage new opportunities for the women who come behind us. Our goals were to listen, observe, and meditate on what we could do to assess the apoplectic anger, feelings of disadvantage, sadness, despair, and grief that many of our participants never realized they felt until they began to share. We were on a mission.

Having had the privilege of serving as a trial judge for 30 years, I thought I was a pretty good listener. With a Master’s degree in Guidance and Counseling and as a former social worker, assistant prosecutor, assistant U.S. attorney (civil division), and a trial judge, I knew I had heard a lot. I have held the closest secrets at my vest while facilitating settlements on the eve of trial and had lawyers and colleagues ask for help when faced with disciplinary investigations. But the listening sessions were different, as I realized that I had not been challenged as a woman lawyer the way that many of my sisters had.

My view after 40 years as a lawyer, including 30 years as a busy trial judge, is that there is no doubt in my mind that we as women still have a long way to go. Have we made progress? Yes, we have. When I started practicing, one of my friends shared she was called a “bitch” in open court and neither the judge nor the lawyer said a word. My friend was hurt and disgusted, but she had no place to turn. All I could do was listen, allow her to vent, and share her bottle of wine.

Like my conversation with my friend, the Task Force unlocked secrets and truths during our listening sessions. We heard blended realities of the journeys that sisters in the law endure daily. We also uncovered hope and aspiration for the future. We must forge ahead together by supporting, mentoring, and caring about one another.

As the criminal legal profession works towards eliminating bias based on gender, race, and other characteristics in the workplace, the Task Force worked to develop guidance and pathways to help our sisters in law. With the words of those who testified before us as our guide, we developed Resolution 501: Ten Principles to Achieve Gender Equity in the Criminal Legal Profession. We presented it to the House of Delegates (HOD) at the American Bar Association 2023 Midyear Meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana, and the HOD unanimously adopted it.

While the Task Force is proud of this feat, stay tuned, for there is truly more to come. The Task Force co-chairs Professor Carla Laroche and Criminal Justice Section Chair-Elect Tina Luongo, our fearless Task Force reporter Professor Maryam Ahranjani, along with all the other Task Force members want nothing less than to stamp out the discrimination that hinders women in the criminal law profession. The goals of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging for women and people of color in the field of law include setting forth the tools that will assist in training, monitoring, allowing transparency in the workplace, and securing the goal of helping women lawyers and all lawyers enjoy and succeed in the practice of law.

The sisters in the law on the Task Force have been privileged to serve and have great admiration and gratitude to all of the participants in every listening session heard and felt. It has been a great honor to join my sisters in the process as we continue to strategize an amazing future for all sisters in the law.

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Denise Langford Morris

ABA CJS Executive Board and Women’s Task Force

Judge Denise Langford Morris (Ret.), first woman dean and first African American, served on the Oakland County, Michigan, Circuit Court for 30 years, managing criminal and civil jury trials; mediator, arbitrator, and special master at JAMS Downtown Detroit Resolution Center; serves on the ABA CJS Executive Board and Women’s Task Force.