First Black Woman Makes Washington’s Supreme Court Most Diverse Ever

by Charlene Angeles

“How dark is the color of its skin,
As that will define its struggles within
Is it a boy or is it a girl is asked, as if to define its life’s task
Will it stay or will it go, the answer its parents needs to know
From the day that it was born, its very essence society scorned
From birth society coded its future to do
It hacked the code and redirected its future to zoom
Silent it could never be, because it ladies and gentlemen, is me.”

—Justice Grace Helen Whitener, “Claiming Your Identity by Understanding Your Self-Worth.” TEDxPortofSpain.

In mid-April, with a global pandemic raging, the state of Washington quietly made history. Without much fanfare, Governor Jay Inslee appointed Grace Helen Whitener to the state supreme court — and by doing so, made Washington’s highest court likely the most diverse the United States has ever seen. 

Whitener, who was born in Trinidad, is the first Black woman to ever sit on Washington’s Supreme Court and only the state’s second Black state Supreme Court justice ever, after the late Charles Z. Smith. Whitener is also the second openly gay member of the court after Justice Mary Yu, who was appointed by Inslee in May 2014. With Whitener on the bench, Washington now has seven female Supreme Court justices — including Justice Raquel Montoya-Lewis, the first Native American judge on the high court — and just one straight, white, male justice. That diversity would soon prove essential. 

Whitener, who moved to the United States from Trinidad at the age of 16, is a graduate of the Seattle University School of Law and worked as an attorney for 14 years. She became a judge in 2013, serving on the Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals for two years before being appointed to the Pierce County Superior Court in 2015. Whitener was appointed by Gov. Inslee in April to fill a vacancy on the Washington Supreme Court — she will have to win an election this November to serve out the remainder of Justice Charles Wiggins’ term. There’s no question that Whitener is qualified to hold a seat on our state’s Supreme Court — but she’s more than just her qualifications. 

Just weeks after Whitener’s appointment, a video emerged of a Minneapolis police officer brutally taking the life of George Floyd, an unarmed man, while other officers looked on. What came next were weeks of sustained protests against police brutality and racial injustice across the country. 

While many judges did not speak out, Whitener and her colleagues refused to be silent. In June, the court published an extraordinary letter in which they called on the legal community to reflect on the role they play in perpetuating injustices against Black people and to strive to eliminate the many individual and systemic racial biases that riddle the criminal law system. 

“These times are difficult as a Black woman on the highest court, having to see the killing of Mr. Floyd, who looks like a brother, who looks like a nephew. It’s extremely difficult to put words to paper,” Whitener told KIRO 7 of her decision to help write the letter. “I was angry. I was hurt and was feeling somewhat disillusioned.”

The diversity on the bench created by Whitener and her colleagues could provide varied perspectives and lead to better decision-making and build trust in the judiciary. It also provides a model of leadership that other benches, including less diverse courts, can follow. In the weeks following the release of the letter signed by Whitener and her colleagues, supreme court justices in at least 13 other states have spoken out on the Floyd protests and the realities of racial inequities in the U.S. justice system. 

The sad reality is that judges like Whitener remain the exception. While Democratic governors such as Inslee have been trying to buck the trend by selecting diverse judges to fill vacancies, Republican governors continue to mostly appoint white judges. As of February, there were 23 states with an all-white state supreme court, including 12 states where People of Color make up 20 percent or more of the population. In states where supreme court justices are elected, the results are grim: From 1960 to 2018, only 17 justices of color had reached the highest state courts for the first time through judicial elections.

Things haven’t been better on the federal level. The White House has paid little heed to judicial diversity over the past four years. President Trump is set to become the first president since Richard Nixon to go an entire first term without selecting a Black judge for a seat on a federal appeals court. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of Trump’s judicial appointees — some 200 judges — have been white males, handpicked from a long list curated by the conservative Federalist Society. 

This lack of diversity is consistent across the profession and is personal for me. According to the 2012 Washington State Bar Association Member Survey, 88% of the attorneys who filled out the survey identified as white. When entering the workforce after graduating from Seattle University School of Law in 2011, I was surprised at how overwhelmingly white and male the profession was and how much it made an impact on me. 

I felt like an outsider, I felt I didn’t belong. It wasn’t until I joined an ethnic bar association, the Filipino Lawyers of Washington, that I was able to feel at home in my profession. The other members provided mentorship and encouragement which was invaluable as I navigated my career path. I happily settled into practicing corporate law for several years. Recently, I decided to leave the law practice to join a company in a compliance role. When making the decision about whether to leave the practice, I sensed that the women I spoke with who also practiced corporate law didn’t want me to make the move — there weren’t many women in corporate law settings, especially women of color, and there would be even fewer after I left. But Whitener’s appointment gives me hope. Not only does she offer a breadth of diverse experiences to the bench, she is an inspiring advocate for diversity and inclusiveness in the legal community

Whitener represents many identities: Black, lesbian, immigrant, disabled, female. Moreover, she understands the importance of those identities as they apply to jurisprudence. In a TV interview last year, Whitener spoke about the lack of justices of color in Washington’s courts, saying that “a judiciary that is reflective of the community that it serves is truly important in raising trust and confidence in the services that we provide as judicial officers.” 

Washington State Supreme Court Justice Grace Helen Whitener. (Photo: Office of Gov. Jay Islee)

A few months later, she expounded on the matter, adding that, as a marginalized individual, her perspective “is a little different” and that she makes sure that “everyone that comes into this courtroom feels welcome, feels safe, and feels like they will get a fair hearing.”

That’s why Whitener’s appointment has become important — in a time when millions of people are taking to the streets demanding equal justice and our institutions are admitting that we must reckon with the legacy of racism, leaders are working on articulating what our vision for a just society looks like. Whitener can be one of those leaders. Her vision for our courts is for them to become a place where not only people can expect justice, but where everyone is welcomed, differences are celebrated, and what matters most is how the decisions the courts make impact our communities.

Charlene Angeles is a graduate of the Seattle University School of Law and UCLA. She’s served on the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission and the boards of Fuse Washington and the Filipino Lawyers of Washington. She continues to be involved in social justice legislation and policies. 

Featured image: Washington State Capitol Temple of Justice by Tradnor. Image under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.