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March 11, 2022 Waymaker

The Honorable Johnnie B. Rawlinson

By Ruthe Catolico Ashley

Johnnie Blakeney Rawlinson is a U.S. circuit judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and a former U.S. district judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada.

Born in Kannapolis, North Carolina, then a segregated state, as the middle child of seven daughters to parents who both worked in cotton mills, Johnnie attended an all-Black school up through the 10th grade, when the school district closed her school, forcing all students to attend the white school in the town. This forced closure occurred after an attempt at voluntary integration of the white school, which failed. Closing the school was the answer to “forcing” integration of Black and white students.

For Johnnie, this was a tragedy. She did not want to be at the new school and found it unwelcoming. The newly integrated school was 25 percent Black, and few of these students were in college prep classes. As Johnnie had straight A’s prior to integration, placing her in college prep classes was a no-brainer. Unfortunately, many of the assignments were done in pairs, and usually no one volunteered to work with her, so she often ended up working alone.

Being in a forced integrated white school environment reinforced her desire to learn about her heritage and confirm that she came from people who achieved. She chose North Carolina AT&T, a historically black college and university (HBCU). She majored in psychology, thinking that, as a psychologist, she would have a chance to help people like herself whose psyche had been damaged by being forced to attend an integrated school. There, she learned that African Americans were smart, intelligent, successful—they set goals and had aspirations and dreams. Her professors believed in the students. Choosing an HBCU was a life-changing decision and set her on her path to success. Her parents encouraged her to be an excellent student and would not accept anything less than a B grade. Even though her father did not attend college, he was a brilliant man. Her father’s intellectual ability and her mother’s vigilance inspired her to do well in school.

After graduation, Johnnie worked as a preschool teacher while dating her future husband. One weekend, they visited his best friend, a first-year law student, who shared wonderful things about what lawyers can do and the fascinating things he was learning. On the drive back, Johnnie mentioned she might want to go to law school. Her future husband encouraged her to take the LSAT, which she did without preparation or study and received an excellent LSAT score. Her husband, who was in the ROTC, was moving to California, and Mather Air Force Base in Sacramento. She looked up law schools close to the base, and McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento was ideal.

Before moving or registering for any law school, she happened to attend a job fair at North Carolina AT&T and stopped at a booth recruiting law students from the school. Serendipitously, the recruiter was Judge Gary Ransom of Sacramento Superior Court and a McGeorge alum. She learned later that Judge Ransom had advocated for her to receive a full scholarship (plus books) to McGeorge. In August 1976, she married on a Sunday, got on a plane for California, and started law school in Sacramento the next week. While she was in law school, her husband was transferred to Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas. Upon graduation, Johnnie moved to Las Vegas with their first child, who had been born during her second year of law school.

Passing the Nevada bar in 1980, she became one of two African American women admitted to this bar. Jobs were tough to find. Pay was even tougher: One law firm offered her $5 an hour. Eventually, she found a job at Clark County Legal Services. Later, she was recruited for the Clark County District Attorney’s office. She remained at the DA’s office for 17 years, becoming the first woman and first African American assistant district attorney.

In 1998, U.S. Senator Harry Reid approached Johnnie and offered to put her name in for Nevada’s district court. His office was in the same building as the DA’s office, and, unbeknownst to Johnnie, he had been asking her supervisor about her and watching her career. Senator Reid offered Johnnie the opportunity to diversify the federal bench as there were no Article III women or people of color serving as judges in this federal judicial district. Johnnie Rawlinson was confirmed by the Senate in 1998 as an Article III judge and, in 2000, was elevated to the court of appeals as the first African American woman. Being asked to submit her name by Senator Reid was her proudest moment in her career as a lawyer.

Judge Rawlinson’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion stems from her history, from childhood, of wanting to right the wrongs that she saw. She believes changing her environment and her profession starts with her efforts to lead and inspire as a role model, mentor, teacher, trailblazer, and builder of a pipeline behind her. She believes that justice is improved when diverse views are represented from the bench. Her legacy includes co-founding the National Bar Association’s Las Vegas chapter in 1982, working with William S. Boyd School of Law, hiring law students of color, opening doors for first-generation lawyers and law students, and giving back to the community in numerous ways. Judge Rawlinson certainly fits the title of trailblazer and waymaker. Her firsts include:

  • First of two African American women admitted to the Nevada State Bar
  • First African American chief deputy district attorney
  • First woman and African American assistant district attorney
  • First African American woman on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals
  • First African American woman on the Nevada State Bar Board of Governors
  • First African American woman on the State Bar Board of Bar Examiners

Judge Rawlinson is pondering senior status but may not leave the bench until she is replaced by another African American woman. Her husband, a very important part of her life, died five years ago; she still feels it very deeply. Now she travels with her daughter, Traci, and her son, David. Her oldest daughter, Monica, has given Judge Rawlinson three wonderful grandsons. Judge Rawlinson states that she would have never dreamed that her life would be this fantastic. She has been the beneficiary of people who believed and invested in her, and she is committed to passing it on. Ask any of her colleagues, all of whom she has mentored and also believed in, and all of whom she has touched—they will say that Judge Rawlinson’s impact and influence on each are unmeasurable, and life would be different without her trailblazing a path for them to follow.

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By Ruthe Catolico Ashley

Ruthe Catolico Ashley is executive director emeritus, California LAW, and ABA Margaret Brent Awardee 2020.