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Breaking Barriers: Inspiring African American Women on the Bench

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Breaking Barriers: Inspiring African American Women on the Bench

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By Debrah Mitchell and Kesha Zaffino

In celebration of Women’s International Day on March 8, the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center hosted Black Women on the Bench luncheon, highlighting the five African American women judges in Pulaski County. Circuit court judges Tjuana Byrd Manning, Cara Connors, LaTonya Honorable, Shanice Johnson, and district court judge Rita Bailey participated in the panel discussion. Pulaski County Circuit and County Clerk Terri Hollingsworth led the conversation. 

Each judge was asked a series of personal and professional questions relating to the Scipio Africanus Jones exhibit that explores his remarkable work in and out of the courtroom.

The path to the legal field wasn’t always set at an early age for several of the judges. While at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, Byrd Manning commented, “I thought I wanted to be a doctor. I could handle the science, but the math got me.” Ultimately, she switched her major to criminal justice. Byrd Manning currently serves as juvenile judge for the eighth division of the circuit court. She was elected in 2020. 

For Judge Honorable, she credits her mother for directing her toward law. “My mom said I could argue with anyone, anytime, and anywhere, so I thought law would be a good fit.” Elected to the fifth division in the Pulaski County circuit court this past November, this was Honorable’s third run for a judicial seat, filling the vacancy created by the retirement of Judge Wendell Griffen. She previously ran in 2018 and 2020. 

In celebration of Women’s International Day on March 8, the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center hosted Black Women on the Bench luncheon, highlighting the five African American women judges in Pulaski County. Circuit court judges Tjuana Byrd Manning, Cara Connors, LaTonya Honorable, Shanice Johnson, and district court judge Rita Bailey participated in the panel discussion. Pulaski County Circuit and County Clerk Terri Hollingsworth led the conversation. 

Each judge was asked a series of personal and professional questions relating to the Scipio Africanus Jones exhibit that explores his remarkable work in and out of the courtroom.

The path to the legal field wasn’t always set at an early age for several of the judges. While at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, Byrd Manning commented, “I thought I wanted to be a doctor. I could handle the science, but the math got me.” Ultimately, she switched her major to criminal justice. Byrd Manning currently serves as juvenile judge for the eighth division of the circuit court. She was elected in 2020. 

For Judge Honorable, she credits her mother for directing her toward law. “My mom said I could argue with anyone, anytime, and anywhere, so I thought law would be a good fit.” Elected to the fifth division in the Pulaski County circuit court this past November, this was Honorable’s third run for a judicial seat, filling the vacancy created by the retirement of Judge Wendell Griffen. She previously ran in 2018 and 2020. 

Reflecting on memorable clients and cases during her career, Judge Shanice Johnson shared the time she helped a single mom fight a slumlord trying to criminally evict her. “We are the only state in the country with a criminal eviction law. So instead of it being a civil issue involving breach of contract, you can be arrested and jailed,” said Johnson. It was one of Johnson’s first cases as a new lawyer, and it was a positive outcome that led to Pulaski County choosing not to enforce the statute. Johnson previously worked as an attorney for the Arkansas Department of Human Services before being sworn into office in 2021 for the tenth division. 

For Judge Connors, she recalled her last jury trial. Her young client, with no criminal history, was accused of first-degree murder despite the fact that the ballistics reports showed the bullets at the scene of the crime weren’t from his weapon. Honorable stepped in as her co-counsel and they tried the case to a jury who found the man not guilty. Before serving as circuit judge in the twelfth division, Connors was a deputy prosecuting attorney and Arkansas parole board hearing judge. 

Judge Bailey described one of the first cases she had as a defense attorney right out of law school. Her client was low functioning and she was responsible for explaining to him what was happening. The brevity of the situation hit home while in court when the young man grabbed her arm and said, “Ms. Bailey, they are trying to kill me.” Bailey was elected to the district court bench in 2009 and presides over the cities of Maumelle and Jacksonville. 

Overcoming Obstacles and Campaign Challenges

 Several of the judges shared similar obstacles of being marginalized as a woman throughout their careers, their campaigns, and even now as a sitting judge. More than one of the judges mentioned being called “sweetie” by older males or being referred to as the intern and not the attorney. Bailey recalled her first job right out of law school was working for an attorney who made her carry his hat all day. 

Connors spoke about the perception others have of her. She often dresses head to toe in pink, which catches people’s attention, but people also make assumptions based on her looks and doubt her competency. Connors said she’s always armed herself with knowledge of the law so that people understand she is more than a pretty face and deserving of the same respect as any other attorney. 

Byrd said she is a glass-is-half full person and always pushes through. She mentioned the predicaments of campaigning; but that money during a judicial campaign is crucial yet, ironically, judicial candidates can’t actually ask for it. Hollingsworth added that when it comes to raising money for any campaign, Black women are at the bottom of the hierarchy scale. For Honorable, she quickly remarked that “if anyone says judicial races aren’t political, it’s lies, garbage and trash.” She went on to say that you have to learn the system and know which concessions to make within that system. 

Johnson, who was raised in Florida, stated that during her campaign, people often asked her why they should consider voting for her since she isn’t from Arkansas. Her response to the naysayers was, “Why do I have to be from here to care about my community?” 

Bailey also shared that during her campaign, she was criticized for wearing her signature blonde hair during her campaign. However, when she caved into the pressure and colored her hair black, she could not speak effectively at a scheduled campaign event. She just didn’t feel herself. Her message to other aspiring judicial candidates is to be your “authentic self” and don’t try to mold yourself into something you are not. Honorable agreed as she explained that yesterday she was sporting a short red hairstyle, and today she was rocking a long bone straight black hairstyle with bangs. 

The Women’s Foundation of Arkansas and the Arkansas Women’s History Institute sponsored the event. 

For Judge Connors, she recalled her last jury trial. Her young client, with no criminal history, was accused of first-degree murder despite the fact that the ballistics reports showed the bullets at the scene of the crime weren’t from his weapon. Honorable stepped in as her co-counsel and they tried the case to a jury who found the man not guilty. Before serving as circuit judge in the twelfth division, Connors was a deputy prosecuting attorney and Arkansas parole board hearing judge. 

Judge Bailey described one of the first cases she had as a defense attorney right out of law school. Her client was low functioning and she was responsible for explaining to him what was happening. The brevity of the situation hit home while in court when the young man grabbed her arm and said, “Ms. Bailey, they are trying to kill me.” Bailey was elected to the district court bench in 2009 and presides over the cities of Maumelle and Jacksonville. 

Overcoming Obstacles and Campaign Challenges

 Several of the judges shared similar obstacles of being marginalized as a woman throughout their careers, their campaigns, and even now as a sitting judge. More than one of the judges mentioned being called “sweetie” by older males or being referred to as the intern and not the attorney was mentioned by more than one of the judges came to mind. Bailey recalled her first job right out of law school was working for an attorney who made her carry his hat all day. 

Connors spoke about the perception others have of her. She often dresses head to toe in pink, which and that catches people’s attention, but people also make assumptions based on her looks and doubt her competency. Connors said she’s always armed herself with knowledge of the law so that people understand she is more than a pretty face and deserving of the same respect as any other attorney. 

Byrd said she is a glass-is-halffull person and always pushes through. She mentioned the predicaments of campaigning; but that money during a judicial campaign is crucial yet, ironically, judicial candidates can’t actually ask for the it. Hollingsworth added that when it comes to raising money for any campaign, Black women are at the bottom of the hierarchy scale. For Honorable, she quickly remarked that “if anyone says judicial races aren’t political, it’s lies, garbage and trash.” She noted went on to say that you have to learn the system and know which concessions to make within that system. 

Johnson, who was raised in Florida, stated that during her campaign, people often asked her why they should consider voting for her since she isn’t from Arkansas. Her response to the naysayers was, “Why do I have to be from here to care about my community?” 

Bailey also shared that during her campaign, she was criticized for wearing her signature blonde hair during her campaign. However, when she caved into the pressure and colored her hair black, she could not speak effectively at a scheduled campaign event. She just didn’t feel herself. Her message to other aspiring judicial candidates is to be your “authentic self” and don’t try to mold yourself into something you are not. Honorable agreed as she explained that yesterday she was sporting a short red hairstyle, and today she was rocking a long bone straight black hairstyle with bangs. 

The Women’s Foundation of Arkansas and the Arkansas Women’s History Institute sponsored the event. 

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