Recently, I sat down with Cook County Associate Judge LaGuina Clay-Herron to discuss her approach to judging, her start as a Chicago Public Schools teacher and other topics. In this first part of the interview, Clay-Herron discusses the first time she set foot in a Cook County courtroom as a new advocate. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
Clay-Herron: I was a Chicago public school teacher. I taught school for 17 years. I taught at one elementary school. When I came out [of law school], because I still had bills to pay, loans to pay back, all of that, I continued to teach. I set up my own law practice at that point.
I didn’t want to have to work for anyone. I had been teaching a good 10 years by that time and had total autonomy as a school teacher, within your own classroom basically. I didn’t want to have to go start over and begin taking orders from people.
I just decided I’m going to jump out here on faith and sink or swim. I set up my own law practice. As a security measure, I made sure that I continued to teach, so I still had my medical, dental and a steady paycheck.
It worked out fine, because I got out of school every day at about 1:50, 2 o’clock, and then I would just go practice from about 3 until the job was done. Then I would get up the next day, go back to work.
I started concentrating in real estate, personal injury and probate, because it didn’t require a lot of time in court initially. I didn’t have to take off days from work to do that. I can just get going on the case and then hopefully settle cases and schedule closings during the latter part of the day.
That worked out, and that’s basically what I did for my whole practice. I didn’t have to advertise because the school teachers that I worked with, the parents that I worked with, they all knew I was in law school. The day I came out and passed the bar, I got my first case from a teacher, a colleague, and that’s the way it went. My entire 15 years I wound up practicing and 17 years I wound up teaching school.
Panter: When did you start thinking about the bench?
Clay-Herron: My first day into the courtroom, fresh attorney, right out of law school. I was very nervous because I had never been in the courtroom before a judge. Prior to that I had come into court just to sit and observe, so I would know how to proceed, what is this judge like?
Now it’s my day to come in. I had my hair pulled back in a nice little bun. I had on a nice pantsuit, some nice, shiny, brown shoes. I remember. Very conservative, for me. Had my briefcase.
I walked in, and I walked past the gallery where the litigants sit. I pushed that little swing gate open, walked in and sat down at the attorney’s table. I saw a big sign on the table that said “please do not set your briefcases on the table,” so I put my briefcase on the floor. I had bent over, was trying to get my files and I felt somebody tapping me on my shoulders. When I looked up, it was the sheriff. I was so nervous anyway, and I just looked up.
The sheriff said, “Ma’am, you have to go sit back there.” I was nervous, and I was confused even. He said, “Ma’am, you have to go sit back there with all the other litigants. These tables are reserved for attorneys only.”
I was embarrassed because the whole courtroom heard him, and the attorneys. At the same time, I was relieved because I realized, “OK, I didn’t do anything wrong. He just didn’t know.”
I said, “Oh, OK, yes. I’m a lawyer, too.”
He said, “Oh, OK, I’m sorry,” And that was that.
I just realized maybe I looked so young, maybe he’s never seen me before, maybe I’m African-American, maybe I’m female. I don’t know what it was — but I just quickly brushed it aside because I was so nervous and just wanted to make sure when my case was called.
So that was that. The next time I came to court, the same thing. It was a different sheriff. This happened to me — and I’m not kidding — a good six to 10 times.
Panter: What year are we talking about?
Clay-Herron: This had to be 1992. ’92 into ’93. That’s when I started thinking, “OK, obviously I don’t fit a stereotype.”
It was with Hispanic sheriffs, African Americans, males, females, whites, so it couldn’t have been a racial thing per se. I just think I didn’t fit into a stereotype of what judges should look like --
Panter: What lawyers should look like.
Clay-Herron: Lawyers, yeah, that’s what I mean. That’s why I started thinking, “If I don’t look like a lawyer, I probably don’t look like a judge, either.”
I know that there are female judges. I know that there are African-American female judges, but perhaps there’s just not enough of us where it doesn’t look so out of place.
That’s when I decided, “OK, I think one day I want to be a judge too. If it’s this hard to be accepted as a lawyer based on whatever criteria people have in their head, then it must be even harder to be a judge, and it’s important that we have judges that look like all the litigants that come before them.”
That’s what I started thinking in my very first year practicing law. I didn’t hone in on it, but as it continued to happen, that’s when I realized, “OK, this is just not a one-off. This has happened too many times with too many different sheriffs.”
Panter: Other than just sitting at the table, did you get the feeling as you were practicing and walking into court and dealing with other attorneys?
Clay-Herron: I did. Not all the time, but enough to make me notice, sure enough. I can’t name names, now, but some of them were just outright if you ask me.
Someone wrote a book on this topic. I don’t know who it is. You can’t describe it, you can’t see it, but you certainly know it when you feel it. As African-Americans or Hispanics, you can feel that you’re being treated differently based on the color of your skin, even though you can’t articulate it per se.
I did get some of that when I was practicing. For the most part, no, but definitely yes.
In an upcoming column, Clay-Herron describes her involvement in a class action against racial profiling.