April 03, 2020 Judicial Division

Standing Committee on Diversity in the Judiciary Host Judicial Outreach Program to High School Students at Midyear

By Hon. Elizabeth Finn, Glendale, AZ

Recently, before our Midyear Meeting in Austin we had the unique opportunity to visit Garza Independence High School. The description of the school on its website truly gives all a picture of the school and the students:

“Imagine a high school where students are in control of their destiny. Imagine a high school that believes that a student's environment and history does not have to decide his or her future. Imagine a high school that teaches that a student's family problems or neighborhood do not have to dictate their personal success in school or work. Imagine a high school that considers a student's personal adversities and life difficulties as strengths that they can harness for their personal betterment. Imagine a high school that inspires hope and teaches that the small steps that a student takes can lead to big changes in their life. Imagine a high school where each principal, teacher, social worker and staff member are convinced that every student has capacities that can be built upon to assure a positive outcome for that student. Imagine a high school where at-risk and dropout youth attend school, graduate from high school, and successfully transition to college and work. Imagine Gonzalo Garza Independence High School, a solution-focused high school, where dreams come true.”

We met with almost 100 students to conduct our “Aliens Have Landed” exercise which we have presented at many past outreach programs. During the exercise, students select their top 5 constitutional rights they want to preserve. My group was unique in discussions compared with other judges who attended. The first question I received was: “Aren’t prisons just the evolution or excuse for slavery?” That was the first time I received that question at any outreach. My group had an extreme distrust for the system, the police, and any kind of engagement between the police and the community. Once the students settled down, rights rising to the top of lists were the right to peacefully assemble, the right of free speech, and the right to possess firearms. The students chose the right to firearms because of their desire to protect themselves from the police who have guns. I ended by urging them to turn their hobbies into community service, which they could list on college applications. I also urged them to become involved in the system which they criticized so widely. Some examples I gave were running for school elected positions, the school board, community groups, city council, or any entity in which they felt could make a difference.

In discussions with other judges, my experience was unique. They found the students highly engaged, very interested in the exercise, and asking very pertinent questions about career paths. We were all very impressed by the engagement of the students. Judges who participate in outreach activity before every Midyear and Annual meeting always learn from the students. After the program, Blanca Valencia, Humanities Department Chair at Garza High School, applauded the outreach:

“Our students and staff shared amazing experiences and comments about your time here. Students saw themselves in the faces of the wide range of diverse judges that came to visit; students heard their own stories in the human experiences that were shared; and they got to positively and edifyingly interact with authority figures that represented people whom several of our students had negatively experienced before. You all have quite literally changed the lives of many of our students.”

We then adjourned to the law offices of Jackson Walker, conveniently located across the street from the JW Marriott Hotel, our headquarters hotel. After a lively business meeting, we had a panel present on their experiences on the Path to the Bench. Andrew Schpak (Vice-Chair of the Lawyers Conference) moderated the panel. We had the pleasure to hearing from Justice Eva Guzman of the Texas Supreme Court, Senior Judge Juan Vasquez of the U.S. Tax Court, and Judge Lora Livingston of the District Court of Travis County, Texas. Each had a unique story. Judge Vasquez joked he had the ability to be reversed by all the U.S. Circuit Courts in the nation.  He also told a heart-warming story of trying to be hired as a CPA and then as a lawyer for a law firm. Initially he was told he had to be an attorney. And of course, after law school was advised by the law firm that he was overqualified! He had those in attendance laughing when he joked that no one aspired to be a tax judge. He was raised by his grandparents who had 14 children of their own. Being a migrant farmworker, he spent his summers as a youth picking cotton. He was nominated by both Presidents Clinton and Obama to serve as a U.S. Tax Judge.

Judge Livingston, honored at the ABA Spirit of Excellence Luncheon, became a judge in 1999. She served as the Administrative Judge for the Court from 2011 to 2019. She joked about all the outside courtroom responsibilities in that position such as payroll, leave time, personnel issues, building issues etc. Judge Livingston was very passionate about mentoring women and people of color to become law clerks and judges, as was Justice Guzman. Justice Guzman joined the Texas Supreme Court in 2009, making history as the first Latina to sit on the state’s highest civil court. She emphasized the importance of mentoring others to aspire to positions such as hers.

After the panel, the Committee hosted a reception at the law firm. As always, we were impressed and inspired by the students and the judicial leaders we heard from on the panel. We encourage other judges to join us on the Wednesday before the midyear and annual meeting convenes to participate in outreach and hear from judicial leaders from throughout the country. It is an experience from which we all learn and make lasting friendships with our fellow judicial participants.

Volunteers from the Judicial Division gather outside Garza Independence High School following the Standing Committee on Diversity’s Youth Outreach Program.