Judge Wilhelmina Wright is the first African American woman to serve on the Minnesota Supreme Court. In this episode of the ABA Law Student Podcast, host Caitlin Peterson talks to Judge Wilhelmina Wright, who shares advice with young, aspiring judges about building confidence, taking responsibility, and overcoming barriers in their careers. She also shares what it was like growing up with the lingering effects of segregation and the support she found in her community.
Judge Wilhelmina Marie Wright is a United States District Judge of the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota. She is the first African American woman to serve on the court.
ABA Law Student Podcast
How to Overcome Barriers as a Young, Aspiring Judge
Intro: Welcome to the official ABA Law Student Podcast, where we talk about issues that affect law students and recent grads. From finals and graduation to the Bar exam and finding a job, this show is your trusted resource for the next big step. You are listening to the Legal Talk Network.
Caitlin Peterson: Hello and welcome to another edition of ABA Law Student Podcast here on Legal Talk Network. I am Caitlin Peterson, Delegate of Diversity for the ABA Law Student Division and a 2L at Washington League University.
Joining us today is the Honorable Judge Wilhelmina Wright. Judge Wilhelmina Wright is the first female African-American judge appointed to her Federal District Court in Minnesota. We are joined here today gratefully so that she may talk to us about what let her to dispatch her past and how she feels that being the first of her kind is something that is both great to follow steps in, as well as serving as inspiration to students.
Judge, thank you so much for joining us today on the podcast.
Judge Wilhelmina Wright: Caitlin, it’s my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Caitlin Peterson: Of course, so you are the first Black female judge to be nominated and now hold this position in the State of Minnesota, so kind of can you described now your childhood and past in Norfolk and specifically how that past kind of formed you to becoming the judge that you are now?
Judge Wilhelmina Wright: Well, I will. I grew up in North of Virginia, my family is still in that general area. I entered Elementary School at a time when the Brown decision had been decided and it was clear that separate was apparently an equal and segregation was no longer allowed in public schools; however, there were lots of what we call vestiges of the prior segregation system in education, and my experience in growing up in Norfolk was with a very tenacious mother who worked very hard to ensure that the promises of the Brown versus Board of Education decision that those promises were in fact vindicated, and that my brother and I reap the benefits of that.
So, that was really my first understanding of what the law was. It was related to school, something that was very important to me, and it was a matter that was of great importance, the quality of education that my brother and I received was a matter of great importance to our family.
Caitlin Peterson: Excellent, and I remember, Judge Wilhelmina Wright gracefully came to W&L and gave a terrific talk about her experiences dealing with segregation even still in that time when Brown v. Board had been passed, so it was a great story that she had to tell.
Judge, could you go a little bit more into that story of what it was like to both have that decision, but the sacrifices your family made to ensure that that decision was upheld for you and your family?
Judge Wilhelmina Wright: Sure. As I indicated, the schools themselves were not in fact desegregated and so they were still very much racially identifiable schools. We lived in a Black neighborhood, because there was also housing segregation and so we were known to our local school, which frankly was not as good as some of the schools that were on the other side of town in more affluent neighborhoods, and so it was the experience. When I say “we” I have an older brother, Bill Wright, and my family understood the significance of education. They were professors at a historically Black college, Norfolk State University, and so they understood having grown up when they did that when you don’t have equal facilities, when you don’t have equal allocations for resources of books and other opportunities in education that can be an hindrance, and that was, they knew and had lived the life of the world before Brown was decided.
Once the decision was made and they had children themselves they very much felt that it was important to vindicate that decision. And so, as I tell people we had quite a few very creative and ingenious ways for us to utilize the desegregation order to vindicate the rights that were established in the Brown decision. Many times we were relying on neighbors and friends to give us rides across town to White neighborhoods where there were better schools in order to ensure that we received a high quality education. So, there was a lot of community support of our family in ensuring that ultimately the Brown decision and all of its promises were vindicated for me.
Caitlin Peterson: Excellent, and I do think that education and having a community support, you are very important not only in going to primary school but also in law school, so did you find that that community spirit and getting your education, that spirit kind of followed you when you went to undergrad in law school?
Judge Wilhelmina Wright: Well, certainly it did. It was a source of pride for our family and for our family friends, our church community that my brother who is older than I am — Bill and I, were able to take the education that we received and take it to places that many had not dreamed we would take them to. Both, my brother and I went to Yale University and then I went on to Harvard Law School and he went to Darden, which is the University of Virginia’s Business School.
And so, all of that effort paid off in terms of having teachers who cared about ensuring that we received a high quality education and community members ensuring that we got to those teachers and had the resources that we needed so that we could then go and successfully compete in college and then in our professional schools.
Caitlin Peterson: And yeah, it certainly say that that type of community and effort on both your parts played a very big hand in making you the success that you are today. I mean, I know we’re on a Legal Talk Podcast, but Darden Business School is also an excellent school to get into and to graduate from. Plenty of great people now who have graduated from Darden are in Darden.
So, kind of when you came out of law school, what was the path from you coming out of law school to becoming a Federal District Judge in Minnesota, can you talk a little bit about your career before being a Judge?
Judge Wilhelmina Wright: Sure, I can, and I want to tell you first about the opportunity that I had right out of law school and that was to clerk for the Honorable Damon J. Keith, who is a Judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. His chambers are in Detroit, Michigan and it was an incredible experience for me. I clerked for him for two years and he is what I would say is my father in the law. He is an incredible mentor. He taught me so much about the rule of law and its application as we apply legal standards, but also the fact that the law affects everyday people in their most important affairs.
And certainly, I knew that from my own experience knowing about Brown, the Brown decision and how that affected me personally, but then some 25 years later when I was clerking for Judge Keith, it was just as true that the law continues and does to this day to affect everyday people and their most important affairs.
So, it was an important experience for me where I learned a great deal, improved my writing, became a better lawyer in Judge Keith’s chambers, and he continues to be a mentor to me to this day and just a foundational person in my life. I have not made any career move without speaking to him and getting his advice and essentially his blessing as well and beyond just the work world, he’s someone who is concerned about me, my well-being, my family, and so, he’s just a wonderful person in my life.
From those chambers in Detroit, Michigan and the clerkship I went to Hogan & Hartson, which is now Hogan Lovells in Washington, D.C. and Hogan & Hartson had an education practice group at that time that was working with school districts that were interested in implementing their school desegregation orders.
Mind you, this was well after 1954 when the Brown decision was decided. These were districts though that had vestiges of their prior segregation system, still remaining in their school district and they turned to Hogan & Hartson to help them eliminate those vestiges.
So, it was really a wonderful experience for me, because it was very true to the personal experiences that I had had that led me to the law and helped me understand the value of that.
After Hogan & Hartson, I then moved to the Twin Cities, which is where I live now, I live in Saint Paul, but was working right across the river in Minneapolis in the United States Attorney’s Office. And there I was a Federal prosecutor. So, turning to the other part of the Constitution and the United States Code in my legal life and practice there until I became a Judge, my first judgeship was in the Minnesota District Court in Ramsey County, which is in Saint Paul, and I was the Trial Judge there for two years and then went to the Court of Appeals, the Minnesota Court of Appeals and served on the Minnesota Court of Appeals until being appointed to the Minnesota Supreme Court by governor Dayton.
And with that appointment I served there and was the first African-American woman to serve on that Court and then moved on to being nominated by President Obama to the Federal District Court here in the District of Minnesota.
Caitlin Peterson: Sounds like quite the career path that you’ve had going from law firm to courts, to serving as judges and different districts and areas of law. So, you are a real expert of law it seems, so that is something that it seems is pretty important to become a Judge, but as well what other advice would you give just off the bat and we’ll return to this question and probably again of what advice would you give to a law student who is thinking about becoming a judge and what areas of law they might want to go into?
Judge Wilhelmina Wright: Sure. Well, first the piece of advice that I have is, always carry with you a standard of excellence, it doesn’t need to be perfect, we are all learning, and so, we can’t aspire to be perfect. I think that gets in the way and can be a negative aspiration, but being excellent I think is something that each of us is a goal that is attainable to each of us.
And so, I think having that standard of excellence as your lodestar is very important. I think it’s important to find that part of the law that really makes you excited. It can be an area that’s intellectually challenging, it can be an area that helps you help others in a way that you find particularly satisfying, it can be both.
And that was what I found to be the case, and so I think it’s very important that as we look for careers in the law that we recognize that as lawyers we are helping people, we are servants of our clients, and that area of service is an important one, because it’s our expertise that our clients are relying on.
At the same time I think it’s important to be inspired by your work, and so being able to find what it is about helping others through this particular area of law that one chooses can help you be motivated to excel, to be motivated to know everything about your area of law and that in turn would be of great service to your clients.
Caitlin Peterson: So, definitely, I agree. Striving for excellence no matter what area of law that you enter can definitely help you, not just for those of us who want to preserve judges or just what people would consider a prestigious law, but just everyday as lawyers, I think that’s pretty excellent advice, Your Honor.
Judge Wilhelmina Wright: I think that’s exactly the case, and I just don’t think there are any unimportant lawyers and there aren’t any unimportant legal jobs. We as lawyers have the expertise that allows us to bring justice to others and that can be in a variety of different ways, it can be in a corporate practice, it can be ensuring that your client is in compliance with the law or it can be in litigation being the public voice in the courtroom for your client and making sure that your client has good advice, and you then being well-prepared and exercising good judgment and understanding of the law and advocacy on behalf of your client.
Caitlin Peterson: Yes ma’am, definitely I agree with that as well. So, what I’ll ask next is that I know that me, as a Black female attorney, who does aspire to maybe one day be a Judge, I still find it somewhat appalling even that for how long that African-Americans have lived in this country were still saying phrases like the first Black Judge or the first Black female Judge — I guess what I should say is, what do you feel like in a country where we’re still having to describe, as like the first Black or the first minority or the first women positioned in areas of law. Do you feel like that’s the sign that we need more progress or that progress may catch up eventually and what we’re doing now is fine? I’d just like to hear some of your thoughts on that.
Judge Wilhelmina Wright: Sure. Well, it’s important when and where we enter, that we are coming with excellence, and that we’re able to be an inspiration for others. I think that’s really important.
And, yes, when we think about beliefs and duration of our nation and our nation’s history and what we know that as truth, which is that the gifts of intellect and ability are shared among us, and so therefore all of us, regardless of race, have the ability to excel in our areas of interest.
So, that being said there have been barriers in the past, and so, we know about those barriers and we have to strive to overcome those barriers, and we can’t be reluctant or afraid to be the first.
It can bring more pressure to bear on your performance, you may feel like all eyes are on you and you may worry that you have got the entire weight of the race and its reputation on your shoulders, but when I think about the people who came before us, that weight and that responsibility feels pretty negligible when we compare it to the many, many difficulties that our ancestors encountered.
And so I think of it as a means of inspiration. I certainly want to open the door wider for everyone to be able to walk through and pursue their area of interest in the law or otherwise, as they see fit.
So it’s important to eliminate barriers and it’s also important to walk-through the door with confidence, with a standard of excellence, and with a responsibility and obligation and understanding of that responsibility and obligation to bring others through the door with you, to make sure that you are helping pave a path that will allow others to follow and to be able to pursue their dreams.
Caitlin Peterson: Totally. I always mention this that the best advice that I got was when I attended Duke TIP Seminar about the law, which kind of inspired me to really want to become a lawyer and a judge. But it was a quote that my camp counselor handed me, she said that it made her think of me from Muriel Strode which is, don’t follow where the path may lead, instead go where there is no path, and leave a trail for others to follow.
And so I think what you just said kind of sums that up in a way more intellectual and important way than me talking about that quote ever could.
Judge Wilhelmina Wright: I do think we are able to pursue exactly what we are interested in and at the same time it may be the case that we are the first or the only. But if that is the case, then it’s important that there are seconds and thirds and that being the only isn’t going to be a permanent feature of the institution that you have entered.
And so that means doing well yourself and it also means making sure that you are inspiring and helping and giving advice to others so that they can follow that path as well. That is the only way that I have been able to do what I have been able to do so far.
Caitlin Peterson: Definitely. And so let’s talk now a little bit about your daily path, because being a judge, as we all understand, is a very busy job. So would you mind kind of talking a little bit like what your day-to-day life is as the judge and how that impacts kind of your personal life?
Judge Wilhelmina Wright: Sure. So I love what I do. I love sitting as a neutral in a case. And I have a dear friend who is a federal public defender and she has said to me more than one time, I am glad that you want to be a neutral. We need to have neutrals, but I want to zealously represent my client.
And I say that just to say there are so many different perspectives that we can all bring to the law. And if we are coming to the law, with our integrity, with our standard of excellence, with a habit of being prepared and a mind of service, then the path is a lot smoother than it has been in the past and we can really move forward and make lots of progress. Pursuing just what we are interested in at the same time that we are serving others.
So that said, in terms of what I enjoy about my work is at this point I am a trial judge and so that means that I am interacting with everyday people, citizens who are coming into our courts, sometimes because they have been accused of a crime, sometimes because they have been victimized, sometimes because they are a witness, sometimes because they are a juror.
It is the case that most people who are not lawyers don’t necessarily feel comfortable in a courtroom. And so in my view it’s really important that I run my courtroom in a way that is very transparent. People understand what we are doing and why we are doing it.
It is respectful. Everyone; whether accused or victim or witness or juror or lawyer or family member who is coming to support someone in that courtroom, everyone deserves respect. Everyone deserves to understand what’s going on and what’s likely to happen next.
And so part of my view of how I can be effective as a judge, certainly I need to be learned in the law, certainly I must be fair, certainly I must be prepared for every case that I hear every time I am in the courtroom.
But there are other things that I think are really important and incumbent upon me to do to ensure that the experience that others have in the courtroom that I occupy as a judge that experience is one in which they feel respected, they feel heard, they feel that they have had a fair hearing and have been treated fairly and that they have an opportunity to believe that justice will be served, and in fact, in my courtroom it is my goal to make sure that justice is served.
Caitlin Peterson: Of course, definitely, and I am sure that because of your methods that people feel both more comforted, no matter what situation that they are in, as well as that justice is being served.
We will go to two more questions now, one fun one and then one more serious, but before we end, I just want to thank you again for coming on the podcast and speaking with us today. I know I have told you this before, but you have definitely become one of my new heroes that I will be looking up to coming on to as I go through my legal career and maybe even become a judge one day, God willing, or who knows what goes on, so just I think from this podcast too we will definitely have a lot more people calling you their hero as well.
So again, just thank you for coming on the podcast before we close out.
Judge Wilhelmina Wright: Thank you.
Caitlin Peterson: So my fun question that we will start off with is being a judge and living in Minnesota, some people might feel that Minnesota isn’t so fun to live in, so for you, what is the most fun thing about being a judge and living in Minnesota?
Judge Wilhelmina Wright: Well, we have a wonderful community and because we have lots of cold weather in the winter we really celebrate spring, summer and fall. And so this is a community where you can do lots of things outdoors. If you prefer to be indoors, we have wonderful theatre, we have both community theatre and incredible professional productions. We have great orchestras. And so the arts are very, very supported here and are exquisite in their presentations. And so those are the things that I enjoy doing.
It is a place where people really pull together and fulfill their civic duties and obligations. So I have found that the civic engagement that you see among people in volunteering and ensuring that those that are in need are being helped, that is something that is wonderful here. So we have a large number of foundations that help ensure that we are meeting the needs of all of the people in Minnesota, and the arts communities, both performing arts, music and drama, as well as the print arts as well.
Caitlin Peterson: Your comments about the arts and enjoying those reminds me a lot of the RBG interview that we just did and her talking about enjoying the opera and those types of things.
So you hear that guys a common quality of being a judge is also enjoying the arts.
Judge Wilhelmina Wright: And that can be opera or one of our wonderful Chamber Orchestras or we have a long history also of rhythm and blues and funk and jazz and so it is a really rich arts community and diverse arts community and we are pretty proud of that.
Caitlin Peterson: I will definitely have to come up for a visit and check that out, I love the arts.
So our final question before we end is just — I said we will come back to this. So not everybody wants to be a judge, but I think everybody in their legal careers will at some point end up dealing with a judge, either in court or filing something inside of a court that has to be reviewed by a judge. So what would be your advice as a judge to younger attorneys and law students when they are coming into the law field, what do you feel like would be good advice to us that would help us better address what you guys want?
Judge Wilhelmina Wright: Well, I think first of all, we all have to lead with a standard of excellence, and the way to be excellent is to be prepared and the way to be prepared is to do the research that’s necessary to understand what the goals of your presentation in court, what the goals of your case are, what the court is going to be looking for and then ensuring that the product that you provide is high quality, an argument that is well organized, either a written argument or an oral argument that is well organized that you have anticipated the questions or the hard issues that need to be addressed and that the judge will ask about.
Be prepared to answer the question that you hope will never be asked because that’s where we go. Each party has to be prepared for that, because what we — well, I speak for myself, what I am doing is testing the law and I am testing the argument, and so it’s important for me to understand the implications of ruling a particular way. And it’s the lawyer’s responsibility or the law student who is a certified student attorney having that lawyer or law student be able to answer those questions.
So you have got to anticipate what’s going to be bothering the judge. What is it that is going to make the judge not want to rule in my favor and then be prepared to answer why that’s not an obstacle to the judge ruling in your favor. That’s what I would advice student lawyers and actual practitioners to be prepared for.
And also I think it’s a good idea if you have the time to do it, the courts are open, they are open every business day, usually from about 8 o’clock until about 5 o’clock, so you can open that door to that courtroom, come in, sit quietly and hear and see what’s going on in the courtroom and that’s where you can see good practitioners questioning a witness and performing examination or making an oral argument or hearing the interplay between the lawyer and the judge on a particular legal issue or seeing the way a good cross-examination is approached by a good lawyer or see how a direct examination and what preparation one needs to make with their client in order to be able to present that examination.
So I think one of the things that I would suggest and I wish I saw more of is students and everyday people coming to court because they want to learn and understand what happens in court and they should feel welcome to do so. They should know that the courts belong to the people and that they are open and public spaces.
Caitlin Peterson: Definitely. Well, that is great advice Your Honor and we thank you so much for coming on the show today.
And we also give a special thanks to our listeners for tuning in to another edition of the Law Student Podcast here on Legal Talk Network. Make sure you check us out on iTunes to rate, review and subscribe to the program, and you can also reach us on Twitter.
Until next time, I am Caitlin Peterson.
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