Judge Anna Blackburne-Rigsby of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals recently delivered the inaugural Jane Cleo Marshall lecture at Michigan Law. In honoring Marshall—the first female African-American graduate of the Law School and a groundbreaking lawyer and teacher—Blackburne-Rigsby addressed Michigan Law students on the need for diversity in the judicial system.
Thinking back on her own trailblazing career, Blackburne-Rigsby shared that her commitment to public and community service began with her parents, who were born and raised in a time of racial segregation and unrest. Their first date was spent listening to Malcom X speak in Harlem and discussing their futures in law and academics. They married soon after and raised a family during the peak of the civil rights movement. It was this passion for civil rights and politics that they passed onto Blackburne-Rigsby and her siblings.
With these values in the forefront of her mind, Blackburne-Rigsby pursued her dream of becoming a civil rights lawyer. She received a bachelor of arts in political science from Duke University and went on to earn her law degree from the Howard University School of Law in 1987. In 2006, she was nominated by President George W. Bush to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. During her judicial appointment, Blackburne-Rigsby wrote an article for Howard Law Journal where she learned that the number of female African-American judges serving on state high courts could be counted on one hand.
Her upbringing and experiences on the bench motivated Blackburne-Rigsby to educate the public on the importance of a diverse judiciary. “We have to be mindful of what people see when they come to court,” said Blackburne-Rigsby. “Some of the turmoil that you’ve heard about in the news and recent events is because many court systems are not open, fair, or reflective of the community they serve.”
She stressed that the nation needs a judiciary that instills public trust and confidence within the community. One that is impartial, fair, accurate, credible, respectful, and—most importantly—diverse. “Diversity of the bench means that there is a collaboration of minds with different voices, different perspectives, different experiences working together to solve problems,” said Blackburne-Rigsby. She noted that without diversity, a single point of view will prevail. And with merely a single way of thinking, inevitably, too much will be missed.
Blackburne-Rigsby stated that while the U.S. judiciary system is the best she has seen in her travels, it is that way because the country is constantly pushing to improve it. She then painted a mental picture of what the system would look like without the continued push by the next generation of legal professionals.
The image captured the fear Blackburne-Rigsby has witnessed firsthand during trials in places where the fairness or impartiality of the judiciary is questioned. “The law, for most people, is foreign. They don’t understand it. They are terrified when they come into court, and as lawyers, you can help [assuage that fear],” she said. Blackburne-Rigsby also implored students to continue the movement for diversity on the bench. She challenged them to do as much as they can to support the community, even if it is pro-bono work or volunteer aid for nonprofits. “Don’t let anyone tell you that there are too many lawyers,” she concluded. “There are not enough where we really need them.”
After her lecture, representatives of the Jane Cleo Marshall Lucas Committee for Jurisprudence and Activism presented Blackburne-Rigsby with the very first Jane Cleo Marshall Lucas award, named in honor of the first African-American graduate of Michigan Law. This tribute was extended on behalf of the University to honor Blackburne-Rigsby for her extraordinary work promoting diversity in the legal profession.
The event was sponsored by the Black Law Students Association and the American Constitution Society.
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