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November 12, 2021 Waymaker

Chief Judge Anna Blackburne-Rigsby

By Judge John E. Sparks and Nan Mooney

The Honorable Anna Blackburne-Rigsby has served as the chief judge of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals since 2017. Chief Judge Blackburne-Rigsby was born in Washington, D.C., and raised in Queens, New York, during the height of the civil rights movement. Her parents’ membership in the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) brought her in contact with many early icons of the civil rights movement. At an early age, she too joined her parents’ efforts in pursuing equality for African American citizens and became more and more impressed with the many lawyers and judges involved. These experiences sparked her interest in the law. She graduated from Duke University with a degree in political science and then earned a law degree from Howard University School of Law, graduating in the top 5 percent of her class.

Chief Judge Blackburne-Rigsby began her legal career as a litigation associate at the law firm of Hogan & Hartson (now Hogan Lovells) in Washington, D.C. She then joined the District of Columbia Office of the Corporation Counsel (now the District of Columbia Office of the Attorney General). She would later go on to serve as deputy corporation counsel in charge of the Family Services Division, managing the division’s 65 attorneys and support staff, responsible for handling child abuse and neglect, child support enforcement, and domestic violence cases.

In 1995, she was appointed a magistrate judge on the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. At the time, her mother, Justice Laura D. Blackburne, sat on the Supreme Court of New York and proudly administered her daughter the oath of office. When Justice Laura Blackburne administered her daughter the oath, it is believed to have been the second time in U.S. history when a mother and daughter served on the bench at the same time. In 2000, President Bill Clinton named Chief Judge Blackburne-Rigsby an associate judge on the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. Then in 2006, President George W. Bush nominated her to serve as an associate judge of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals.

Throughout her career, Chief Judge Blackburne-Rigsby has dedicated her time and energy to increasing access to justice and equal justice under law for all who appear before our nation’s courts. Additionally, she has focused on increasing diversity within the bench and the bar and court staff through her efforts to mentor and provide internships and externships.

She is a past president of the National Association of Women Judges (NAWJ) and a past commissioner on the District of Columbia Access to Justice Commission. She remains active in the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ) and the National Consortium on Racial and Ethnic Fairness in the Courts; she also serves on the Board of Directors for the Conference of Chief Justices. In addition, she has amassed a string of impressive awards that highlight her contributions to the legal community, including the National Bar Association’s Heman Sweatt Champion of Justice Award, the Greater Washington Area Women Lawyers Division Charlotte E. Ray Award, the American Bar Association’s Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award, and the National Association of Women Judges Lady Justice Award.

Chief Judge Blackburne-Rigsby is married to Judge Robert R. Rigsby, who sits on the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. The couple has one son, a recent college graduate. We sat down with the chief judge to discuss her early motivations for becoming a lawyer and the issues that are important to her as a judge.

Can you share with us what inspired you to pursue the law?

I’ve wanted to be a lawyer ever since I could remember. I think the reasons are rooted in how my parents raised us, my two sisters and me. My mother was from North Carolina, and she grew up during the Jim Crow era of legalized segregation in the United States. She remembered the legal exclusion from public places and the daily indignities that went along with it. That experience infused many of her passions as an adult.

My dad was the son of immigrants. My grandfather came to the United States from Jamaica and built his own business. He owned a medallion cab in New York, and he passed on to my father the values of education, hard work, and using your resources to help others.

My parents met in New York when my mother moved there after graduating from college. They were both very involved in what was happening in the country with the civil rights movement and were active in the church and the NAACP. So, I grew up with parents who were very engaged in the community, and they instilled in me the importance of working for equality and fairness for everyone regardless of race or ethnicity or income. I became involved in the NAACP’s Youth Council as a teenager. I attended national conferences and heard many civil rights icons speak. And I noticed how many of them were lawyers and judges. There was a reliance on them to make things better, to ensure that the ideals in the Constitution were experienced by everybody. As we used to say in my family, “service is the rent we pay for our time on earth.”

So, you knew all along that you wanted to go to law school?

I think so, yes. I went to Jamaica High School in Queens, which was a very large public high school. My graduating class had 800 students. It was a real melting pot. And when I was considering colleges, my grandmother encouraged me to apply to some schools in the South so I could experience something different. I chose to attend Duke University in North Carolina, where my mother grew up and where I still had family. It was a beautiful campus and a wonderful school, but a real culture shock. I had never been in an environment with so many white students and so few minorities. But I discovered that one of the best learning experiences can be to step outside of yourself.

After college, I took a year off before law school and shocked my family by going to California for a Coro Fellowship in public policy. That too was a tremendous learning experience. And from there I went to Howard University School of Law, which I absolutely loved.

Your mother, Laura D. Blackburne, was a respected jurist in New York. How has she influenced your career?

My mother was and continues to be my “she-ro.” She went to law school when I was in high school. Her experience gave me some insight into how much hard work and commitment law school required. But I also saw how people in the community looked up to her when she obtained her law degree because she now had this legal knowledge, which could help many people. I thought that if she could do this, then so could I.

To sit on the bench at the same time as mother-daughter judges was a great honor. When I was first sworn in as a judge, she joined in administering the oath. I still rely upon her guidance, advice, and example as an African American woman judge. She has been the voice in my head that has helped me through many challenges.

Your past writing reveals an intense interest in diversity on the state and federal bench, including the inclusion of more women judges. Can you talk about the important role diversity on trial and appellate benches plays in the judicial decision-making process?

I think that diversity on the bench is critical to building and maintaining public confidence and trust in the judiciary. It’s so important. People take comfort when a judiciary that serves their community also reflects that community.

Diversity plays a special role in appellate courts because cases are decided by a group of judges consulting with each other. It makes a big difference to have a range of voices with an array of experiences when discussing and interpreting the law. But the same is true for the judiciary as a whole. Though I certainly don’t find this to be true, there is a perception that the judiciary tends to be somewhat removed from the community. It helps if a community sees judges drawn from a cross-section of that community. The need for diversity applies at every level, including law school, judicial clerkships, and entry-level positions.

You have been the president of the National Association of Women Judges (NAWJ), and you are a member of the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ). Can you tell us how important these two associations have been to the effort of increasing the numbers of women judges?

I am very proud to be part of the National Association of Women Judges. When the organization was founded in 1979, it gathered women judges from all over the country so they could come together and work to increase their numbers and influence. There were barely a hundred women at the time. Today, it’s such a diverse group—women from all kinds of courts, professional fields, and racial and ethnic backgrounds. And they are fully committed to increasing diversity and inclusion throughout the judiciary and the court system.

The IAWJ was actually founded by the NAWJ, but the baby has now far outgrown the mother. There are over 6,500 chapters in more than a hundred countries and territories around the globe. It’s a real testament to the importance of diversity in the judiciary, not just nationally but globally.

I recently read that 22 states still have no minority judges sitting on their state supreme courts. You have been writing and thinking about this issue for many years. Do you see progress, and, if so, is it enough?

The overall trend is toward progress, and that is encouraging. But there is definitely a long way to go. The higher courts especially—the appellate courts and state supreme courts—have to work harder in that area. I am proud to say that today, out of the seven sitting judges on the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, four are women, two of whom (including me) are African American women. I’m also glad to say that I’m not the first woman chief judge, or even the first woman minority chief judge. The D.C. Court of Appeals has had three women chief judges, starting with Chief Judge Judith Rogers and then Chief Judge Annice Wagner. All three women chief judges have also been women of color. The D.C. Court of Appeals also holds the distinction of appointing the first woman of color to a court of last resort—Judge Julia Mack, a Howard University School of Law alumnus, who was appointed by President Gerald Ford in 1975.

Regarding racial justice issues, I do think that some important change has come out of the tragic death of George Floyd and the voices raised in protest surrounding that tragic event. It picked the scab off of issues of racial disparities and injustice that still persist in our nation and sometimes in the courts, despite progress that has been made and well-intentioned efforts by courts to ensure fairness to all. Judicial leadership is important, and judges have started speaking out about the importance of a justice system that is fair and perceived to be fair by all. It is also important for courts to continuously examine their processes and policies to ensure that they do not result in unintended disparate impacts on segments of the community.

At the July 2020 meeting of the Conference of Chief Justices, the conference unanimously passed Resolution 1, “In Support of Racial Equality and Justice for All”—a blueprint for racial justice in state courts. This built on decades of work and effort by the Conference of Chief Justices to continuously examine and improve upon efforts to ensure fairness in the courts.

That brings us to another issue of great importance to you—access to justice. Can you speak about how diversity intersects with this?

Access to justice is a distinct issue of trying to ensure that those who need lawyers in noncriminal-related matters but cannot afford them are provided with greater opportunities to access the courts with pro bono assistance, and other efforts to make the court process more understandable and accessible. Diversity does intersect in some ways with issues of access to justice. Having judges with a variety of personal and professional experience helps courts to be more sensitive to the challenge people encounter in coming before the court. I know that it helps me gain a broader perspective when I hear from my colleagues who are from different personal and professional backgrounds. Improving access to justice for all members of the community requires courts to work hard and to be willing to adapt and change. It requires the openness and humility to listen to the needs of the people we serve.

I was particularly struck to learn how many people in civil cases appear before the bench without representation. What are your feelings about this?

You’ve touched upon one reason I feel so passionate about access to justice. Did you know that around 90 percent of tenants in landlord-tenant cases appear in court without an attorney? The numbers are also high in domestic violence, child custody, and divorce cases. Many people don’t realize that the statement “if you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided” only applies to criminal cases. But civil cases can have very high stakes too—people are facing the loss of their homes or their children or even their personal safety in domestic violence situations. The cost of legal services is so high that it’s simply not available to many people. It’s very important that we raise awareness in the legal community of the need for legal services and the commitment from the bar to provide more pro bono services in this area. There is still much, much more that needs to be done.

Your husband, Robert Rigsby, is a judge on the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, and you have one child. Would you mind sharing with us how, over the years, you have managed to make time for it all?

First and foremost, I am blessed with the most amazing husband, friend, and life partner. He is the love of my life and my best friend. And I also have a wonderful supportive son that we are very proud of. They give my work meaning. I am married to someone who shares my values. We call them the three Fs—faith, family, and fortitude.

Also, as a family, we believe in the importance of service and in supporting each other in making that happen. My husband retired as a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve. He also founded a mentoring program in D.C. called “Law Camp,” which brings together junior high school and high school kids to spend a semester preparing for a mock trial. So, he very much shares those values that have been instilled in me about giving back to the community. We both believe in allowing the people you love to do what they think is important. We also laugh a lot, and, no matter how difficult, we always make time for family.

You have now been on the bench for some 26 years. What do you still hope to accomplish as a judge and as a member of the legal community?

That is such a good question, and one that has been on my mind a lot lately. One thing that has always been important to me is mentoring others. So many people in the profession have mentored me and guided me over the years. I stand on the shoulders of many who have come before me and paved the way for me to be here, starting with my own family. So, I have tried to be and want to continue being intentional about mentoring and lifting others up. I’ve had the opportunity to work with and mentor many law clerks and interns during my career. I am very proud of them and continue to stay in touch with them as they have gone on to do so many inspiring things.

I also feel a deep commitment to making sure people understand the role of the courts in our democracy and that they respect and value the importance of the rule of law. I think it is important for judges to actively engage with the community that we serve and educate the community about how our courts work. And finally, we need to listen to the community about what courts can continue to do better in serving them. I believe in our judicial system and will continue to work to make sure it is the best that it can be.

Do you have any advice you might pass on to young people in the legal field?

One thing I feel is important for young people to understand is the significance of fortitude and grit. I think sometimes students and young attorneys can become disheartened because it looks like everything comes so easily to those of us who have been around for a while. But it’s not easy, not for any of us. We all make mistakes, and we have to just pick ourselves up, learn from them, and move on. We can’t lose sight of the fact that hard work and dedication matter.

I am so proud of my own son. And I am so inspired by the young people I meet. I love to spend time talking to students and my law clerks. They are so full of energy, drive, and commitment to public service. They are our future, and I love what I see.

On February 10, 2021, Chief Judge Blackburne-Rigsby was redesignated for a second four-year term as chief judge, and she has recently been recommended for reappointment for a second 15-year term on the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. It’s a fitting testament to an exceptionally talented and remarkable jurist.

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By Judge John E. Sparks and Nan Mooney

Judge John E. Sparks currently sits as an associate judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. Nan Mooney has written a number of nonfiction books and articles on subjects covering a range of social, economic, and family-related issues. She also works as a career law clerk and advisor for Judge John E. Sparks at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces.