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August 11, 2021

Pipeline to the bench: Diverse judges’ advice to new generation

Allie Greenleaf Maldonado remembers her first week at the University of Michigan Law School. She was one of only four Native Americans among 900 students and she felt she didn’t belong. That week, someone scrawled on the Native American law students' wall one word: TOKENS.

If the graffiti was meant to intimidate her, it failed.

“Every single time my eyes were burning because I was staying up late to study, I closed my eyes and saw that and I kept going,” Maldonado recalled. “And every single time I was frustrated by a topic in law school that I thought maybe I couldn’t overcome, I took a breath and I saw that and I went right through it.”

At the end of her first semester, Maldonado stood in front of a board where student grades were posted. She got all A’s and one B+. “I turned around, out loud in Hutchins Hall, and I said, ‘Who’s the token?!’”

Today, Maldonado is chief judge of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians in Michigan. She told the story at a program for law students and young lawyers at the American Bar Association’s 2021 Hybrid Annual Meeting. The Aug. 4 Bench to Bar Diversity Outreach Program was sponsored by the ABA Judicial Division.

Five judges and former judges discussed their unique paths to the bench. They gave advice, told stories of obstacles overcome, of being mentored and of mentoring others.

G. Michael Witte, a retired judge with the Wayne County Superior Court in Indiana, is the grandson of Japanese immigrants who were forced into internment camps during World War II. He was the first Asian American judge in the state.

Living in an overwhelmingly white area, Witte said, he is often invited to serve on local boards because of his race. “It can be marginalizing if it is asked in that fashion,” Witte said. His advice: “Once you get in those positions, you can take the marginalization away by being an active member and bringing your best to those boards and organizations.”

G. Helen Whitener, a justice on the Washington Supreme Court, grew up in Trinidad and Tobago. When she joined the legal profession, there were no Black or LGBTQ lawyers in her county. “I was the first,” she said.

Her advice: “When you think someone is looking at you, they are. So conduct yourself at all times with the highest form of professionalism and show respect.”

George Perez, retired chief judge of the Minnesota Tax Court, grew up in Chicago and was the first in his family to attend college. He advised the students and young lawyers to maintain two important principles: Keep your passion or inner purpose. And always stay active and connected through local bars and the American Bar Association.

“I believe I got it (the judge’s job) because I maintained my involvement in bar associations and my commitment to mentoring,” he said.

Anne McKeig, an associate justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court, is the first female Native American appointed to Minnesota’s highest court. She recalled feeling unprepared when she started on the court and she wrote to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor to express those feelings. Later, she met Sotomayor in person.

“My first several months on the job, I felt incompetent, to be honest,” McKeig said. She didn’t use the same vocabulary as her colleagues and didn’t understand some of the words they used. “I really felt like, well, this was a huge mistake.” When she told Sotomayor about this, the U.S. Supreme Court justice replied: “No, that’s exactly why you’re there. Because you have something unique to offer and that’s a good thing, not a negative thing.”

It is unfair but sometimes true, McKeig said, that people from disenfranchised communities are often watched carefully when they achieve big things.

“I think we have to recognize that that can create pressures,” she said. “We have to be honest about that and talk about that because everyone’s experience is a little different. Support each other in that. These conversations we are having right now, I think, are amazingly helpful.”