Judicial appointments of women of color make R.I. history

The recent appointments of four women of color to state and local courts have made Rhode Island history.

Judge Melissa Long is the first black female judge on the Rhode Island Supreme Court, Judge Elizabeth Ortiz is the first Latina in the Rhode Island Family Court, Judge Linda Rekas Sloan is the first Asian American woman on the Supreme Court, and Judge Angelyne Cooper is the first black City Court Judge in the city of Cranston.

“I feel humiliated, I am honored, I am excited – I am a little nervous,” said Rekas Sloan of her nomination for the Superior Court. “Being first in everything is really crazy. How is it that no other American of Asian descent has applied to be a judge or made it this far? “

Cooper repeated those two feelings: “It’s remarkable and it’s such a surreal feeling,” she said, while realizing how long it took to reach such milestones. “It’s time. It’s time for these (first ones to be reached),” she said.

Both Rekas Sloan and Cooper believe the many barriers to entry into law for teenagers of color could likely explain these delayed premieres.

Part of the problem, according to Rekas Sloan, is that underrepresented groups “don’t 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, let alone law school, so it’s hard to keep people informed.”

Cooper encountered this obstacle on her own way to town court. As an adolescent, it was difficult for her to imagine embarking on a legal career if she had no role models 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, however, both judges underlined the importance of diversity in the judiciary.

“It’s very important that the government” reflects its people, Cooper said. “The value of (diversity) is to show your residents and citizens of your state that ‘we the people’ really mean something. That doesn’t just mean a demographic group, but we, 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 judiciary, she added, would reduce that fear and discomfort and the gap between people and bridge the court system.

Rhode Island Justice Center Executive Director Jennifer Wood shared the importance of having a justice system that reflects the populations they serve and shared her enthusiasm for the recent appointments.

In a criminal justice system that disproportionately affects People of Color, Wood explained, a lack of diversity in the judiciary can lead to perceptions of bias and restricted access to justice.

“Having judges to represent the population helps the judiciary to maintain its general position of trust with the population,” she said.

Cooper and Rekas Sloan both aspire to serve as role models for the next generation of RI legal professionals. Cooper hopes 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 do well in the RI law field.

While Cooper and Rekas Sloan expressed excitement over their historic appointments – as well as those of Long and Ortiz – they acknowledged significant strides still need to be made towards greater representation in the RI judiciary. “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 go on. “

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