The recent appointments of four women of color to state and local courts have made history in Rhode Island.
Judge Melissa Long is the first black female judge on the Rhode Island Supreme Court, Judge Elizabeth Ortiz is the first Latina to serve in the Rhode Island Family Court, Judge Linda Rekas Sloan is the first Asian American Supreme Court Justice and Judge Angelyne Cooper is the first judge on the Black Municipal Court in the city of Cranston.
“I’m humble, I’m honored, I’m excited – I’m a little nervous,” said Rekas Sloan of her Supreme Court nomination. “Being the first to do anything really confuses you. How is it that no other Asian American citizen has ever applied to be a judge, or made it that far? “
Cooper repeated those two feelings: “It’s remarkable and it’s such a surreal feeling,” she said, knowing how long it took to reach such milestones. “It’s time. It’s time for this (first to be achieved),” she said.
Both Rekas Sloan and Cooper believe the many barriers to entry into the law field for teenagers of color could likely explain these delayed firsts.
Part of the problem, according to Rekas Sloan, is that underrepresented groups often “do not have the same support systems as white Caucasian men,” she said. “Sometimes (those underrepresented groups) are the first in a generation to even go to college, whether it’s law school or not. So it’s hard to keep people in the pipeline.”
Cooper encountered this obstacle on her own way to the district court. Growing up, she found it difficult to imagine a legal career when she had no examples in her youth. “I’m the first lawyer in my family,” she said. “It’s not that I knew I wanted to do this all my life, or that I had someone in my family, or even close family friends, to show me the way. I just went my own way. “
Despite these challenges, both judges underlined the importance of diversity in the judiciary.
“It is very important that the government reflects its population,” said Cooper. “The value of (diversity) is to show your residents and the citizens of your state that ‘we the people’ really mean something. That doesn’t just mean one population group, it means that we are the people, everyone who makes up this state. “
A judiciary that reflects the diversity of Rhode Island can improve the atmosphere in the courtroom, Rekas Sloan said. “It’s very intimidating to get into a courtroom,” she said. Especially when “it’s your first time … not seeing people who look like you is a scary thing.” A more diverse justice system, she added, would reduce that fear and discomfort and the separation between the people and themselves Bridge the court system.
Rhode Island Justice Center Executive Director Jennifer Wood shared the importance of having a justice system that reflects the people it serves and shares her enthusiasm for the recent appointments.
In a criminal justice system that disproportionately affects many people of color, a lack of diversity in the judiciary could lead to a perception of bias and restricted access to justice.
“Judges who represent the population help the judiciary to maintain its trustworthy position vis-à-vis the population,” she said.
Cooper and Rekas Sloan both strive to be role models for the next generation of RI lawyers. Cooper hopes that little colored kids they see in the courtroom will be inspired by a judge who looks like them. Rekas Sloan hopes that Asian American students will see their success as evidence that they too can succeed in the RI legal sector.
While Cooper and Rekas Sloan expressed excitement over their historic appointments – as well as those of Long and Ortiz – they acknowledged significant progress remains to be made in increasing RI legal representation. “I hope this is not the end. I hope we don’t get complacent, ”said Cooper. “The work is far from over. The work must continue. “