The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Edward Fitzpatrick at email@example.com.
This week’s Ocean State Innovators conversation is with Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson, who was the first Black woman to serve on Rhode Island’s District Court and Superior Court before becoming the only Black judge to serve on the Boston-based 1st US Circuit Court of Appeals. On Jan. 11, she took part in the swearing-in ceremony for Judge Melissa A. Long, the first Black justice on the Rhode Island Supreme Court.
Q: During her swearing-in ceremony, Judge Long said that when she saw you almost exactly one year ago at the Martin Luther King Jr. celebration at the Roger Williams University School of Law, you looked her in the eye and said: “I hope you are going to apply for the Supreme Court.” She said your belief in her was “transformative.” What prompted you to offer those words of inspiration?
Thompson: I have known Judge Long for a few years now, and I’ve had many opportunities to have personal conversations with her and to understand her abilities – her varied and impressive background.
And I have long believed that in order for the judiciary to have legitimacy, it needs to be representative of the people over whom it holds sway. People need to be able to look at the judiciary, and the legal system in general, and see themselves represented in that system. If we are a nation of laws, they need to have confidence in the system and know there are people in the system who represent their values, their culture, and their understanding of reality.
I know Judge Long is very, very smart and very, very talented. So when there was an opening on the Rhode Island Supreme Court, my first response when I saw her was: “You know you’ve got to do this.”
Q: Can you tell us about what you were thinking as you placed the judicial robes on Long during that ceremony on the steps of the Rhode Island State House?
Thompson: Pride. Seeing history in the making. Being honored that she asked me to participate in her proceeding. But also, nothing but tremendous confidence that she is going to do a bang-up job on the Supreme Court.
Q: Recently, Long quoted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., saying, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it does indeed bend toward justice.” On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, what quote of his inspires you?
Thompson: That is the one that inspires me. That is a favorite of mine because it was the favorite quote of my husband [the late District Court Judge William C. Clifton Sr.]. The notion of being part of a society that is constantly striving to achieve justice – that inspired both of us.
Q: Why did it take so long for Rhode Island to appoint a Supreme Court justice of color?
Thompson: I think the former governors are the only persons who can answer that question.
Q: Do the recent appointments of judges of color in Rhode Island indicate that there is a growing, diverse pipeline of lawyers prepared to take the bench?
Thompson: There are a lot of attorneys of color in the pipeline right now. People are unaware of their presence in the system. They are quietly doing really good work. Those of us in the legal community are aware of their presence. There are a lot more opportunities that should be afforded to a lot more people.
A goal of the Roger Williams University School of Law is to have a more diverse law school body, and they do. But when they graduate, they need opportunities to be hired by law firms and public agencies. It’s not enough to just educate them. They have to be given opportunities to fully participate in the legal system.
Q: What are some of the innovative strategies needed to continue diversifying the bench and the bar?
Thompson: It has been my experience that a lot of hiring gets done because such-and-such knows such-and-such, so a resume gets surfaced to the top of the pile. Those who don’t have an “in” might not get considered because they don’t “know a guy.” If law firms, state agencies, and nonprofits would come up with processes whereby everybody can get a really fair shake, that would help.
Q: Long mentioned Brown v. Board of Education and Loving v. Virginia as two judicial rulings that paved the way for her. What rulings would you cite as crucial for progress against discrimination in this country?
Thompson: I think Brown and Loving are the two decisions that spring to mind. But the other decisions – in the opposite direction of what needed to be overcome – are Plessy v. Ferguson, an 1896 decision that upheld the idea of “separate but equal,” and Bradwell v. State of Illinois, an 1872 decision that upheld the right of a state to prevent women from the practice of law. In a concurring opinion, a justice wrote, “The paramount destiny and mission of woman are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator.”
Women have come a long way since our Supreme Court held such archaic views! Thank goodness for all of us! I think it is very exciting that women make up the majority of the Rhode Island Supreme Court for the first time. People are now going to see this new reality as strange only because the other status quo lasted for so long.
Q: What can you tell us about Long that people might not know?
Thompson: Judge Long has spent a lot of time mentoring young people. She has been a mentor to many students of color at the Roger Williams University law school. It is my expectation that she will remember all the lessons she has learned from her own personal experiences and make sure she provides opportunities for these children who are coming behind her.