/We Call Ourselves Sister Judges

We Call Ourselves Sister Judges

sister judges in houston texas

Faith Harrison

On a smothering hot summer day in 2018, 19 Texas women—all of them Black, all of them pillars in the legal community—got in formation for a photoshoot. Sharing knowing nods and confident smiles, they felt another very powerful figure in the room: Beyoncé was booming in the background.

As the women looked into the camera, they were also looking toward a groundbreaking future. Each was campaigning for a different judgeship in Harris County, one of the most racially and ethnically diverse areas in Houston. Many had been friends for years, but making history as the largest group of Black women elected to judicial seats in Harris County could surely bond them forever.

Not long after the photo was taken, every single one of them won their races. The victory made national headlines and cemented their legacy in judicial history. “When you go through something so life changing, you can’t help but to be bonded,” Juvenile District Court Judge Michelle Moore said later. “There’s nothing else that we could have called each other except ‘Sister Judges.’”

Now, four years later, ELLE went to Houston and gathered the Sister Judges—14 of whom are up for reelection this November—to recreate their iconic photo in a south Houston courtroom. As they took their places alongside each other, the women realized someone was missing. “Houston’s hometown girl,” Family District Court Judge Angela Graves-Harrington said with a wink.

And with that, the “Renaissance” album began to echo through the normally hushed room. The Sister Judges sang along, dancing and giggling. Their bond was clearly still there, unshakable and unbreakable. Just like before, they flashed assured smiles. Our photographer pressed click on a second round of history in the making.

preview for We Call Ourselves Sister Judges

The Sister Judges range in age from their 30s to 70s. Some are Texas natives, while others come from Mississippi or Tennessee or Florida. Many attended Historically Black Colleges and Universities. And all of them felt called to the bench. After practicing law for 15 years, Toria Finch wanted to see more Black women in the courtroom. Family lawyer Angela Graves-Harrington says she launched her bid after a client received 180 days in jail for failing to help her kids return a phone call from their father. “It was time to do better,” says Graves-Harrington, who went on to replace the presiding judge in that case.

Their collective campaign was less of an acutely planned convergence, and more of a slow-build coalescence. Some of the women had crossed paths in law school or through Alpha Kappa Alpha alumni networks, but they didn’t see the full picture until a meet-and-greet for judicial candidates after the 2018 primaries. “We looked to the left and looked to the right and said, ‘Wow, she is also running and she looks like me,” County Criminal Court Judge Erica Hughes remembers. With support from the Harris County Democratic party, the women shared strategies and platforms, and then decided to campaign together using the slogan “Black Girl Magic.”

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But the real magic, County Criminal Court Judge Toria Finch says, was “all of us accepting the charge and putting our lives on the line to make our communities better.” They began supporting each other, showing up at events together, and telling voters how they were focusing on issues like criminal justice reform and women’s rights. At every rally and every fundraiser, it became clear something big was building. “People, especially in the Black community, were so proud,” County Civil Court Judge LaShawn Williams says. “I don’t think we recognized in the midst of it all what we were doing.”

Two months before the 2018 election, the women gathered at Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law, named for the first Black U.S. Supreme Court justice, to take that first group photo. “For those who believe in God, like I do, we felt that it was a moment in time that God ordained,” Judge Graves-Harrington, the family district judge, says. The striking image went viral overnight, appearing in newspapers all over the country. Fans made t-shirts embossed with “Houston 19.” Even future Vice President Kamala Harris tweeted their photo, writing: “Now this is #BlackGirlMagic.”

“America, for the most part, believes in equality, [but] sometimes when it occurs, it’s shocking.”

The weight of the moment was not lost on them. Judge Graves-Harrington remembers a woman dissolving into happy tears at one campaign event. “I dreamed of this day,” the woman told her, adding that she had once been a protégé of pioneering civil rights leader Medgar Evers. “She was with him, along with some other students, the night before he got killed,” Judge Graves-Harrington says. “She told me, ‘We fought for this for so long, we marched for this for so long… I never thought this would happen.’”

As we now know, election day that year was a win for women all over the country. On November 6, 2018, a record 117 women were voted to the U.S. Congress. Of them, 42 were women of color. America welcomed its first Native American congresswoman, two Muslim representatives, and a Democratic Latina governor. In Harris County, Lina Hidalgo became the first Latina and first female chief executive—and the Sister Judges became the largest group of Black female judges ever elected at one time

original photo of the sister judges from 4 years ago

The original “Sister Judges” portrait from 2018, which garnered attention on social media from celebrities and politicians, including Vice President Kamala Harris.

Christin McQueen for Harris County Democratic Party
new sister judges portrait

The portrait recreated in ELLE Magazine. Taken by Faith Harrison in a Houston courtroom on September 15, 2022. From top left: Judges Ronnisha Bowman, Linda Marie Dunson, Angela Graves-Harrington, Tonya Jones, Dedra Davis, Toria Finch, Lori Chambers-Gray. From bottom left: Judges Shannon Baldwin, Erica Hughes, Michelle Moore, Latosha Lewis Payne, Ramona Franklin, Sharon Burney, LaShawn Williams. Not pictured: Judges Lucia Bates, Germaine Tanner, and Sandra Peake.

Faith Harrison

Their victory marked a new era of representation, one where Black women not only got a seat at the table—but 19 spots on the bench. Finally, Harris County had a judiciary that was starting to reflect the faces that came before it. But not everybody was ready to embrace the change. “America, for the most part, believes in equality, [but] sometimes when it occurs, it’s shocking for people,” Family District Court Judge Linda Marie Dunson says. “People want to see the change. They want to see Black females [in charge]. They want to see diversity on the bench. But when diversity did happen, they said, ‘Wait a minute [do we really need] that much diversity?’”

The resistance began, as it often does these days, with online trolls attacking them on social media. The Sister Judges shared their experiences with each other, agreeing it was a price worth paying. “If you are going with the flow and doing the same things that have been done before, you probably wouldn’t receive that,” County Criminal Court Judge Tonya Jones says. “As difficult as it was, that just meant we were going in the right direction.”

cassandra hollemon portrait

Judge Cassandra Holleman died in 2019 after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Her daughter, Brandy, described Holleman as a “strong woman” who loved being a Sister Judge.

Harris County Democratic Party

If anything, the challenges strengthened their bond. It also made the loss of one of their own that much more heartbreaking. One month after taking the bench, County Criminal Court Judge Cassandra Holleman, died from pancreatic cancer at the age of 57. Judge Graves-Harrington received the news during a trial. “I had my bailiff answer my phone,” she says. “It shook me to my core, and made me realize that life is so fragile.” They prayed for her family together, and carpooled to the funeral. “Going through that really brings you closer,” Criminal District Court Judge Lori Chambers-Gray offers. “We’re all part of the same family.”

Like so many other families, the Sister Judges have been tested over the last couple years. Their trials moved to Zoom during the pandemic. Texas survived a deadly winter storm that broke its power grid. And the police killing of George Floyd, who was from Houston, ignited a nationwide reckoning over racial justice. The Sister Judges showed true mettle through it all. In the Criminal Division of Harris County, Judge Finch is among those in favor of bail reform efforts to keep people not yet convicted of misdemeanor crimes from spending long periods of time in jail. According to a study, the number of misdemeanor defendants detained pretrial in Harris County dropped from 47 percent in 2015 to 22 percent in 2021. Additional research from the University of Pennsylvania found that this reform has also led to reduced conviction rates and sentence lengths. “We’ve done a lot of good work, but that doesn’t always make headlines,” Judge Finch says. “We constantly find ourselves trying to prove ourselves.”

“I could not do this work without [my Sister Judges], you need that support from someone who is actually in the trenches with you.”

The Sister Judges have also brought their community to do something that had never been done before—to trust the bench. “I have always said, ‘You guys, we’re not taking this seat just to sit on the bench,’” Judge Williams, the county civil court judge, says. “There’s going to be work and engagement and other things that we have to utilize the platform for.” One way they did that was by establishing BAYOU (Bringing Assistance to You with Outreach and Understanding), a program that encourages all judges to get out in Texas neighborhoods and identify and address root causes of crime—with an aim to break the cycle of incarceration. This summer, the judges launched an inaugural event under BAYOU called Fresh Start to give low-level offenders opportunities to re-enter the workforce.

They have learned how thankless and, at times, scary their mission has become. Being a woman—and especially a woman of color—on the front lines of justice can invite danger. In 2020, the son of U.S. District Judge Esther Salas was shot dead in New Jersey by a lawyer who once argued a case before her. The Sister Judges say they have had threats, including some that led to a request for police protection. “The attacks upon the judiciary are unprecedented, and if you don’t have a safe space you could lose your everlasting mind,” Judge Finch, the county criminal court judge, says. “I could not do this work without [my Sister Judges], you need that support from someone who is actually in the trenches with you.”

judge ramona franklin speaking to lawyers from behind the bench

Criminal District Court Judge Ramona Franklin (above) says she is “bonded” for life with her Sister Judges. “We just want the best for one another,” she explains.

Marie D. De Jesús//AP

Talking with the Sister Judges ahead of the midterm elections this November, it’s clear there is more urgency this year—a feeling that in Texas and throughout the entire country, there are movements meant to marginalize women, thwart democracy, and, ultimately, perpetuate hateful legacies of inequality. They know the decisions made by county judges, whose ranks have historically been dominated by older white men, can bring about major consequences—especially for communities of color. “When people walk into the courtroom and see someone like them sitting on the bench, they at least know there’s somebody there that may understand what’s occurred in their life and how that may have affected their decisions,” County Criminal Court Judge Shannon Baldwin says.

That’s why the Sister Judges believe the bench should reflect the diversity of the community. That’s why they are running for reelection. That’s why they agreed to recreate their iconic photo with ELLE: to bring back that Black Girl Magic from four years ago.

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The Sister Judges knew the odds were stacked against them in 2018, so they united to conquer their elections. They are utilizing that same battle plan this time around, attending events together and campaigning alongside each other on the issues that impact their communities the most. If reelected, Judge Baldwin wants to establish a well-funded domestic violence court to help survivors. Judge Jones promises to leverage technology to make appearances in court more efficient. Judge Finch plans to further tackle the massive backlog of cases she inherited after Harris County shut down during hurricane Harvey five years ago.

All of them are moving the needle, each in their own way. “I don’t know what is on the other side of November,” Judge Finch says, “but I am very proud of these women… because we have left something for Harris County to remember and feel good about.”

While taking their 2022 group photo, the Sister Judges look back at the old one. They point out all the physical changes since then. She had a baby. Her hair turned gray. She got married. But what strikes Judge Graves-Harrington the most are transformations you don’t see. “We were a little naive back then,” she admits. “We thought we were going to jump on the bench, make changes, and everything was going to be welcomed… We’ve been met with opposition and resistance and, of course, that changes us—but I think it also makes us stronger.”