By Alexa Grigsby: *
Student Legal and Mediation Services had the honor of interviewing Tonya Parker, Judge of the 116th District Court of Texas in Dallas. Judge Parker is a highly esteemed member of the judiciary who was elected in 2010. The State Bar of Texas African American Lawyers Section awarded her the Distinguished Jurist Award in 2015 at its Annual Meeting in San Antonio, Texas.
SLMS student assistant Alexa Grigsby conducted a telephone interview with Judge Parker to discuss getting started in the legal field and her career as a judge.
What motivated you to pursue a career in law?
JP: When I was an undergraduate student at the University of North Texas, I was serving as an emcee for a Black History program, and there just happened to be a lawyer in the audience who was a State District Judge at the time. After the program was over and I was done emceeing, she came up to me and asked me if I had ever thought about going to law school or becoming a lawyer, and at that point in time I had not. She said, “I really think you ought to consider it. I think that you have great presentation skills, and I think you should give it some thought.” That stayed with me, and as I thought about it over the next few weeks and months, I thought, “Wow, if a judge saw something in me that made her think I could do well as a lawyer, maybe I should look into it.” And that’s what got me started down the road.
Who influenced or inspired you?
JP: The person that I have drawn a lot of inspiration from over the years is former State Legislator and eventual Congresswoman, Barbara Jordan. Barbara Jordan’s life and legacy have inspired me in many ways because she has been a trailblazer for women and people of color in public office, and because she was a dynamic public speaker. I do a lot of public speaking, and I am fascinated with that area. My undergraduate degree is in Communications and Public Address, so in those ways, she was a real inspiration to me.
In 2012, you garnered national attention when you chose not to act on your judicial privilege to officiate marriage ceremonies because homosexual couples were denied marriage equality. What originally made you take your stance, and what was the reaction to this decision?
JP: When I originally come onto the bench in 2011, I learned that one of the privileges that came with my office was the privilege to officiate marriage ceremonies, and of course, I was aware that the State at the time had a constitutional amendment that precluded same sex couples from being issued marriage licenses. This struck me as an unequal application of the law in violation of the United States Constitution, and since it was not a duty of my job, but rather a privilege that I had the discretion to exercise or not, I decided it was not something I wanted to be a part of. In regards to the reaction, it was unbelievable. Gosh, I don’t even have words for it. The media attention was overwhelming. It was difficult in some respects, and in other respects, it was an honor to walk through that moment in history. There were a lot of people in the LGBT community in particular who felt very strongly that my position offered them some dignity that they very much appreciated. There was an incredible outpouring of letters, cards, e-mails, and Facebook posts from people reaching out to me to say thank you for putting this issue out there and for the position that you’re taking. I can’t even begin to express the way it made me feel to know that something very matter-of-fact for me moved people.
Do you believe, or have you seen that your actions have made a difference in people or in the legal community?
JP: One hundred percent. I think that for anybody who is a member of the LGBT community who has the opportunity to have any type of spotlight, it is particularly important for us to live authentic lives, because it is the only way that people learn who we truly are versus the myths. I think the way that I approach my work and the involvement that I try to have in our local, state, and national bar associations has tremendously influenced the way that people interact with LGBT lawyers.
As a person of conviction, what would you say to an undergraduate student who is hesitant to speak up? How do they get that sense of courage?
JP: I am one of those people who walk on glass and through fire. Whenever I prepare for my docket, I always go and find the most complicated case and I start with that. I always tell people that fear is a natural thing, but you can use it to fuel your fire. And yes, it’s difficult sometimes to be open and authentic, but in my experience, people have so much more respect for you when you know who you are and you stand up for what you believe in.
In the courtroom, you are exposed to two sides of a story, each with their own version of the truth. How do you determine who is telling the truth?
JP: There’s a variety of things you’re looking for: body language, consistency in the things they’re saying, and even a loved one’s reaction when someone is talking. I’ve had occasions where someone is on the stand and their spouse is in the courtroom, and the look on their spouse’s face while they’re testifying suggests to me that even the spouse doesn’t believe what they’re saying. There are also some witnesses who interact with me on the witness stand because they want me to know their story, and then there are other witnesses who avoid gazing in my direction at all costs, perhaps because they are not comfortable with what’s coming out of their mouth. Those are some of the things I look at to weigh credibility.
What has been the most surprising thing to happen to you in your role as a Judge?
JP: The whole incident in 2012. I didn’t see that coming, and I never expected to be on CNN, ABC, and all these newspapers across the nation. That stunned me. But, from a positive standpoint, the most surprising thing happened on June 26, 2015, when the Marriage Equality decision came out. I never thought that I would see that day in my life, and I cannot even begin to tell you what it felt like to be a Judge on the day that happened. On that day, I walked into my courtroom, and all my colleagues—who had so much respect for me and the position that I took of not officiating ceremonies—were sitting in my jury box in their black robes, and they watched me officiate my first marriage ceremony. It was very powerful, and it was so much bigger than me. I felt that they were saying to the citizens of this county and this state that they have a friendly judiciary at our courthouse who will happily officiate ceremonies for all couples. This caused me to have even more esteem for them than I already did.
What is the most rewarding part of being a Judge?
JP: Helping people bring closure to the cases they have in court, and in some cases, help close a chapter in their lives that has been tough. As long as the case is active, people will still have to deal with it, and that makes it difficult for them to start the healing process. So when I get a chance to bring closure to a civil dispute, that is beyond rewarding. Being a judge is hard work, but it’s an amazing job, and I love it so much. Some days, I have to remind myself that I went into work. It’s so rewarding, and I’m extremely grateful and blessed to be in this position.
What advice would you give to undergraduates who are interested in pursuing a career in the legal field, and how can they better prepare themselves?
JP: For undergraduate students, they should focus on developing the skills that a lawyer relies upon, and these are the skills to orate effectively and persuasively, and write effectively and persuasively. They should wholeheartedly embrace any opportunities for public speaking and producing written work product, because if you get into law school and have to start from scratch developing those skills, you’re behind. This profession is one that gives as much to you as you give to it. Any student that is willing to work hard and be honest and diligent with their work can be successful.