Gartin Building Courtroom with the Great Seal of the State of Mississippi

Teens and judges discuss careers in law

April 26, 2005

Thirteen Jackson middle school students spent a recent Saturday morning at the Mississippi College School of Law talking with judges from all levels of the judiciary about careers in the legal profession.

Hinds County Chancery Judges Denise Owens and Patricia D. Wise organized The Color of Justice program to introduce young female students to the possibilities of careers as lawyers and judges. Nine judges, a private practice attorney, a law professor and a law student participated in group discussions with the students.

Students from Blackburn, Hardy, Peeples, Rowan and Siwell middle schools in Jackson participated in the program.

The April 23 program was sponsored by the National Association of Women Judges and the Jackson and Lefleur’s Bluff Chapters of Links.

Mississippi Supreme Court Presiding Justice Kay Cobb of Oxford told the students, “We hope to plant a seed in your mind. We hope to give you encouragement. When I was your age, I didn’t even consider being a judge. No one from my family had ever been a lawyer. When I decided to go to law school, I hadn’t been in a courtroom more than two or three times in my life.”

Judge Wise said, “When I was their age, I had never seen a judge or a lawyer.” Judge Wise told the students, “We want you to know if you are interested in the law and the legal profession, you can start planning right here.”

Judge Owens said the program “gives us an opportunity to provide mentoring for young girls. Hopefully it will motivate them to pursue law careers.”

Jackson Municipal Court Judge Gail Lowery said her interest in the law started at her aunt’s kitchen table. “My earliest spark was an aunt who was in civil rights,” she said. She recalled an occasion when her aunt was looking for someone to provide legal representation.

“She turned to me when I was about seven years old and said, ‘I need a lawyer and I can’t find one anywhere. Why don’t you be a lawyer when you grow up?’ ....That’s where my seed was planted,” Judge Lowery said.

Attorney and Magnolia Bar Association President Crystal Wise Martin, Judge Wise’s daughter, said Judge Lowery provided her first up-close experience in a law office. After five years of studying chemistry and chemical engineering, she worked a summer in the Lowery law office. She went on to law school.

Mississippi College second-year law student Davetta Cooke, who was a biology major in undergraduate school, said her career dreams ranged from doctor to lawyer to Miss America. She settled on law school.

“The hard part is figuring out what you want to do. Everything is available. Figure out what is going to be your passion,” Cooke said.

Mississippi College School of Law Professor Patricia Bennett said, “Regardless of what you want to do, you have all of these options available.”

Judges and other program participants spent about four hours discussing the legal profession and the judiciary. They answered students questions about their job duties and the education preparations it took to get where they are.

Workers Compensation Commission Administrative Law Judge Melba Dixon, the first African-American woman judge to preside over commission hearings, explained to students that her job includes much travel to hear claims in different parts of the state. “One thing I take pride in is professionalism,” she said.

Circuit Judge Margaret Carey-McCray of Greenville told students that it is important that men and women of all races know that they will be treated equally in the justice system. “We are creating a justice system in Mississippi that everyone can feel good about and can feel they have a stake in, and feel that they are being treated fairly,” Judge Carey-McCray said.

Madison County Judge Cynthia Brewer recalled being addressed as “little lady” when she began practicing law 20 years ago before a predominantly white male judiciary. “That’s what I brought to the bench, that you don’t have to hear that,” Judge Brewer said.

The state’s 139 trial and appellate court judges include 29 women. Fifteen trial court judges are African American women. Figures do not include Justice Courts, Municipal Courts and administrative law judges. Women make up 23 percent of the legal profession in Mississippi; 1,503 women are among the 6,506 in-state members of the Mississippi Bar. The Mississippi Bar has 237 minority female members.

KeAnna Myers, 13, a student at Blackburn Middle School, said after the program, “It’s like they opened a lot of doors for us because they have done so much and set the standard for us.”

Alexis Walker, 13, a student at Hardy Middle School, said, “This is a good experience because I want to be a lawyer one day. I’ve never had this kind of interaction with so many lawyers and judges before. All I had seen was on TV.”

St. Louis County Circuit Court Judge Brenda S. Loftin, who created The Color of Justice model which has been presented in numerous other locations, said, “This has been a very articulate group of young girls.”

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Sandra Thompson, president of the National Association of Women Judges, said, “To see these young ladies and see how enthusiastic they are, it’s very exciting.”