Black, Choctaw judge: Being harassed was 'one of the best learning experiences'

U.S. District Court Judge Ada Brown (Photo: U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas website)

Kalle Benallie

Ada Brown was confirmed last fall, joining one other Native woman and 46 Black women on the federal bench

Kalle Benallie 
Indian Country Today

U.S. District Court Judge Ada Brown says one of her best learning experiences as a young assistant district attorney was a racist encounter at a Dallas bookstore.

Brown, who is Black and Choctaw, was reading at the store when a manager yelled “I’m sick of you people!” The woman told Brown to leave, threatened to have her charged with criminal trespass and called the police.

“I realized that even today, sometimes brown people really are harassed for no good reason,” Brown wrote in a Dallas Morning News op-ed in 2011. "We really can be arrested for merely being at the wrong place at the wrong time." 

Brown was confirmed to her current post last fall, becoming the first Black or Native woman to serve as a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas. 

She was President Donald Trump’s first Black female judicial appointee, according to Bloomberg Law. Brown is identified as Black in a list of federal judges compiled by the Federal Judicial Center but is also a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

She joins 46 Black women on the federal bench, according to the Center for American Progress, and only one other Native woman, U.S. District Court Judge Diane Humetewa, Hopi, in Arizona. 

(Related: One active Native judge is less than one-quarter of 1 percent of the federal bench)

Democrat Joe Biden has suggested that if he’s elected president, he will nominate a Black woman to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Brown’s interest in law began in 1992 as a biology student at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, according to a Choctaw Nation article. But when she decided to take a Women in Law class, it helped her discover her desire to speak for other people and listen to their stories.

“You’re determining whether or not they’re going to go to jail at the end of the day, so you just hope that your ears hear the truth and that you balance the need to protect society with the need for compassion when it’s appropriate,” Brown said in the Choctaw Nation story.

She graduated from Spelman College in 1996 and was a presidential scholar at the Emory University School of Law from 1996 to 1999.

Brown began as a criminal prosecutor in 2000, became a trial court judge in 2005 and lost in Texas’ general election in 2007. She then joined Dallas law firm McKool Smith, where she did some pro bono work with mostly misdemeanor crimes and a few child custody and divorce cases.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry appointed her to a seat on the Texas Public Safety Commission in 2008 and reappointed her in 2011.

Brown left McKool Smith in 2013 and was appointed to the Fifth Court of Appeals of Texas by Perry.

In an interview with Attorney at Law Magazine, Brown talked about her job on the appellate bench: “I really enjoy writing about both civil and criminal issues, and I love the variety of cases I hear in my court. I may write about a murder one week and about discoverability of an expert’s finances the next week.”

She also said she had to adapt her style when she transitioned to serving on the bench.

“When I became a judge, I had to change how I listened. As a litigator, I paid close attention to testimony so I could respond quickly to something a witness or attorney said or did during a trial,” she told Attorney at Law. “As a judge, when I read a brief or hear an argument, my goal is to gather information about the issue being appealed.”

Additionally, Brown was an adjunct professor for trial advocacy at the Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law for three nonconsecutive years beginning in 2008.

Brown has been involved with the Republican Party since 2002, when she volunteered with Republican District Attorney Bill Hill’s re-election campaign. She also did volunteer work for the Dallas County GOP headquarters and for then-U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions and other Republican judicial candidates.

In the Dallas bookstore incident, the police did end up showing up. But an officer saw Brown’s assistant district attorney badge and declined to take her into custody.

Brown said she sued the store and settled for “peanuts.”

“I wanted to document what happened and establish the precedent for the next victim,” she wrote.

Indian Country Today - small phone logo

Kalle Benallie, Navajo, is a reporter-producer at Indian Country Today's Phoenix bureau. Follow her on Twitter: @kallebenallie or email her at kbenallie@indiancountrytoday.com

Indian Country Today is a nonprofit news organization. Will you support our work? All of our content is free. There are no subscriptions or costs. And we have hired more Native journalists in the past year than any news organization ─ and with your help we will continue to grow and create career paths for our people. Support Indian Country Today for as little as $10.

Comments

News

FEATURED
COMMUNITY