G. Helen Whitener brings several different perspectives to her work as a state supreme court justice.
She is the first Black woman and fourth immigrant-born justice to sit on the Washington Supreme Court. She is the first Black LGBT judge in the state of Washington. She also identifies as an individual with a disability.
“It’s a lived experience that no one else has,” says Whitener, who was appointed in April 2020 and retained her position in the November 2020 election. “It’s like I tell some of my privileged colleagues: ‘Yes, we have a privileged position, all of us do, but mine ends when I take the robe off.’ “
“When I walk out into the world, what I am seen as is a Black woman,” she continues. “And of course, if I’m with my wife, I get treated as an LGBTQI person. If you see me on a day when I’m using my cane, I’m treated as a person with a disability. And if I open my mouth and ask something, then you know I’m not a native-born person. Those lenses are real, they are part of the community and they were not part of the court before. So it’s truly important. Representation does matter.”
Whitener looks at her cases through these diverse lenses. She was thrilled when she received her first assignment, State v. Jackson. John Jackson Sr., who was convicted of assault, was required to wear restraints during his court appearances. This was pursuant to jail policy as well as the trial court’s adoption of the policy for all incarcerated defendants.
Jackson appealed, arguing that his shackling without an assessment of whether restraints were necessary violated his constitutional rights. Whitener agreed and explained in the court’s unanimous opinion that a defendant’s right to appear in court without shackles is rooted in English common law.
“I thought I could put a historical perspective on shackling and how dehumanizing it is, and why it is important that judicial offices do not defer to another institution, the correctional department, for such an important decision,” says Whitener, who remanded the case and instructed the court to make an individualized inquiry into whether restraints were needed at each stage of the proceedings.
Whitener is also thrilled by her inclusion on what could be the country’s most diverse high court, she says. There are seven women, four people of color and two LBGT justices on its bench, the Seattle Times reported in June. There is only one white man.
“We all bring our marginalized and nonmarginalized lenses to bear on the law,” Whitener says. “I think it has made it quite interesting and, hopefully, better for all.”
Whitener carries her love of storytelling into the courtroom
Whitener grew up in Trinidad and Tobago, an island country in the Caribbean.
Her father worked as a teacher and principal. Her mother was also a teacher, who taught her in high school. Whitener planned to follow the same path and study in England before returning home to teach at the university level.
But that didn’t happen. At school one day, Whitener became paralyzed on her right side and was taken to the hospital. Her doctors realized she needed more tests and sent her to New York City, where she would be near some of her family.
Whitener was diagnosed with a degenerative nerve condition and while undergoing rehabilitation, she talked with a cousin who went to Baruch College in New York City. She decided to apply to the school after learning she had completed enough studies to attend college in the United States.
She was 19 when she made the tough choice to come out to her parents. Her father supported her, she says, but her mother struggled with her declaration. They didn’t speak for several years.
“It was hard because in the Caribbean islands it was illegal, No. 1; and No. 2, people were very closed-minded,” Whitener says. “I was really concerned about what it would do to my parents, but I knew I couldn’t keep living a lie.”
Whitener earned her bachelor’s degree in business administration and international marketing, and worked in Alaska and Washington before going to law school. Then in her 30s, she had never considered a legal career, but a colleague who was an accountant and a lawyer suggested her analytical skills would serve her well in the field.
Whitener became a U.S. citizen while at the Seattle University School of Law. She graduated in 1998, knowing she wanted to be a trial attorney. She joined the ABA and spent the next 14 years litigating civil and criminal cases as a prosecutor and defense attorney, and then as a managing partner of her own firm.
“I like being able to tell a story and have it resonate with a group of people who have to make a decision and trying to persuade them to do what you believe is the right thing, irrespective of what side you’re on,” Whitener says. “I thought that was powerful.”
Whitener didn’t think about joining the bench until Judge David Kenworthy of the Pierce County District Court encouraged her to become a pro tem judge. While he visited family in England each December, she began covering his docket as well as the dockets of other judges in the district court and Tacoma Municipal Court.
She later served as a judge on the Washington Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals until Gov. Jay Inslee appointed her to the Pierce County Superior Court in 2015. By then, Whitener had reconnected with her mother, who shared the news with a reporter for Express Woman magazine in Trinidad and Tobago. Whitener was featured in a cover story that went viral in the Caribbean islands.