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Judicial appointments of women of color make R.I. history

With appointments of Judges Long, Ortiz, Rekas Sloan, Cooper, R.I. courts increase diversity

By
Contributing Writer
Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Executive Director of the Rhode Island Center for Justice Jennifer Wood explains the importance of a representative judiciary, saying it "helps the judiciary to maintain its overall trusted position with the populace."

Recent appointments of four women of color in both state and local courts have made Rhode Island history. 

Justice Melissa Long is the first Black justice on the Rhode Island Supreme Court, Judge Elizabeth Ortiz is the first Latina to serve on the Rhode Island Family Court, Judge Linda Rekas Sloan is the first Asian-American to serve on the Superior Court and Judge Angelyne Cooper is the first Black Municipal Court judge in the City of Cranston.

“I’m humbled, I’m honored, I’m excited — I’m a little bit nervous,” Rekas Sloan said of her nomination to the Superior Court. “To be the first at anything, it really boggles your mind. How is it that no other Asian-American has ever applied to become a judge or made it this far?”

Cooper echoed both of these sentiments: “It’s remarkable and it’s such a surreal feeling,” she said, while cognizant of how long it has taken for such milestones to be accomplished. “It’s time. It’s time for these (firsts to be reached),” she said.

Both Rekas Sloan and Cooper believe that the many barriers to entry into the legal field for youth of color could likely explain these delayed firsts.

According to Rekas Sloan, part of the problem is that oftentimes, underrepresented groups “don’t have the same support systems that white, Caucasian males have,” she said. “Sometimes (these underrepresented groups) are the first in a generation to even go to college, never mind law school, so there is a difficulty in keeping people in the pipeline.”

Cooper encountered this obstacle in her own path to the Municipal Court. Growing up, it was difficult for her to imagine herself pursuing a career in law when she did not have any examples in her youth. “I am the first attorney in my family,” she said. “It’s not like I knew I wanted to do this my entire life, or that I had anyone in my family or even close family friends to show me the way. I just made my own path.”

Still, despite these challenges, both judges underscored the importance of diversity in the judiciary.

“It’s very important that the government” be reflective of its people, Cooper said. “The value in (diversity) is to show your residents and the citizens of your state that ‘we the people’ really means something. That (it) doesn’t mean just one demographic, that (it) means we the people, everybody who makes up that state.”

A judiciary reflective of Rhode Island’s diversity can improve the atmosphere within the courtroom, Rekas Sloan said. “It’s very intimidating coming into a courtroom,” she said. Especially when “it’s your first time, … to not see people that look like you is a scary thing.” A more diverse judiciary, she added, would reduce this fear and discomfort, and would bridge disconnect between the people and the court system. 

Executive Director of the Rhode Island Center for Justice Jennifer Wood elaborated on the importance of a judiciary that is reflective of the populace it serves, and shared her enthusiasm for the recent appointments.

In a criminal justice system that disproportionately impacts people of color, Wood explained, a lack of diversity among the judiciary can create a perception of bias and limited access to justice. 

“Having judges who represent the population helps the judiciary to maintain its overall trusted position with the populace,” she said. 

Cooper and Rekas Sloan both aspire to serve as role models for the next generation of R.I. legal professionals. Cooper hopes that young children of color who see her in the courtroom are inspired by a judge who looks like them; Rekas Sloan hopes that Asian-American students will see her success as evidence that they, too, can achieve success within the R.I. legal sector.

While Cooper and Rekas Sloan expressed excitement over their historic appointments — as well as those of Long and Ortiz — they acknowledged that substantial progress remains to be made in terms of increasing representation in the R.I. judiciary. “I hope that this isn’t the end. I hope that we don’t get complacent,” Cooper said. “The work is nowhere near done. The work has to continue.”

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  1. Diversity in appearance but not in thought. Identity over merit. Woketopia uber alles!

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