On Nov. 20, 2020 the ABA Criminal Justice Section honored Judge Ernestine S. Gray of the Orleans Parish (LA) Juvenile Court, a member and former Chair of the National Conference of Specialized Court Judges Executive Committee and Vice-Chair of the ABA Judicial Division Council, with the section’s Charles R. English award. Judge Gray is also former Vice-Chair of the Criminal Justice Section Council.
In presenting the award attorney Anthony C. Musto, a member of the ABA Senior Lawyers Division Council, described Judge Gray. She is a “champion for the children of this country” who throughout her 36-year judicial career worked “tirelessly to divert children from the path that leads to dependency, delinquency, prison and ruined lives.” Musto praised Judge Gray for her “innovative methods” and for being the “epitome of grace, style and dignity.”
Elected to the bench in 1984, eight years after graduating from law school, Judge Gray said that she knew “in the 60’s” that she wanted to be a lawyer. Then, a vociferous viewer of the old Perry Mason television series, Judge Gray said she was impressed the iconic defense attorney played by actor Raymond Burr won all of his trials. Those trials often ended with someone in the courtroom standing up and declaring that he or she, not the defendant, was guilty.
“I saw myself becoming a great lawyer,” she said, beginning her career as a trial lawyer in Baton Rouge. After moving to New Orleans, according to attorney Musto, Judge Gray’s career change gave the community and its children the benefit of decades of her “intelligence and insight.”
In accepting the award, Judge Gray said that the criminal and juvenile justice systems are enriched by “dedicated and committed prosecutors, public defenders and judges. However, there are a “lot of different needs for improvement. We have two pandemics: Covid-19 and racial inequality in our communities,” she said. Judge Gray said “we need to work even harder” because “nothing can be changed unless it is faced. We need to make it more just and fairer,” she added
Although she will be retiring from the bench at the end of her term, Judge Gray plans to remain active in the ABA and as an advocate for youth at risk. Judge Michelle Childs, chair of the ABA Judicial Division, lauded “Judge Gray and her many personal and professional accomplishments. She called her “a champion for the underrepresented” who “works tirelessly and patiently to give our youth better opportunities.”
The Charles R. English Award isn’t the only recognition Judge Gray received as she prepares to hang up her robe. A mural commemorating her work with children of different ethnicities was commissioned. A “Calming Studio” was opened in the Orleans Parish Juvenile Justice Center as a permanent tribute to the work and changes she has fostered in the juvenile justice system.
The “Calming Studio” serves children who have faced trauma. Instead of waiting in hallways outside of courtrooms, the “Calming Studio” provides a quiet, private place for them to decompress. The room will be staffed by a professional trained in Trust-Based Relational Intervention which utilizes sensory calming techniques to assist children in regulating their senses before they enter the courtroom.