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Trailblazing Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson reflects on her career

As she prepares to enter semi-retired status, the first Black judge on the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals talks to Rhode Island Report about the value of diverse viewpoints on the bench

First US Circuit Court of Appeals Judge O. Rogeriee ThompsonFirst US Circuit Court of Appeals

PROVIDENCE — She was the first Black woman to serve on Rhode Island’s District Court, on Rhode Island’s Superior Court, and on the Boston-based First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

O. Rogeriee Thompson, a Providence resident, has now decided to assume “senior” or semi-retired status by the end of this year. And during this week’s Rhode Island Report podcast, she reflects on her trailblazing judicial career.

Thompson recalled a day back when she was handling arraignments in state District Court, in Wakefield.

The day began, she said, with a group of young white men coming into court, facing accusations that they had stolen stereos and other items from their neighbors’ homes on Block Island. They were students at Moses Brown, a prestigious private high school in Providence, and they’d been accepted to college.

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Thompson recalled that the prosecutor told her that he had “worked out a deal.” Rather facing a felony for breaking and entering, they were going to be charged with misdemeanors, and those charges would be “filed” for a year – meaning they’d be dismissed if they stayed out of trouble.

Thompson said she made clear that she considered that deal “pretty lenient” given what they were accused of doing.

The next case involved three Black students who had been stopped by the police while driving from New York to Boston, Thompson recalled.

The police had pulled their car over, searched it, and found a knife in the glove compartment. The men had been held overnight, charged with misdemeanor possession of a knife, and they were ready to plead guilty to a crime punishable by up to one year in prison, she said.

But Thompson pointed out that there was nothing illegal about the knife or transporting it. She asked how people would get their knives home for Apex, for example, if transporting knives was a crime. She decided to dismiss the charges and set the young Black men free.

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“That was a very memorable day for me,” Thompson said. “It just struck me that this is just such an unfair system, when you look at how the disparate treatment between these two groups.”

In the vast majority of cases, the judges on appellate courts agree on the legal issues before them, she said.

“But on those occasions when we can’t reach a unanimous resolution, I think it’s important to have different voices speak to the way we view the way the law ought to be interpreted,” Thompson said. “And so there is certainly value in people with different frames of mind coming together and having dialogue with one another and trying to think through issues.”

Thompson said it is important for people to be able to look at the judiciary and see themselves represented in the system.

“For every single person to believe that the system is fair, that they to have a fair shot at being heard, that their disputes are going to be resolved in a fair manner, then it is important for people to see themselves as part of that judicial system,” she said. “Everything from the judges on the bench to the marshals who protect us to the people working in the clerk’s office. People need to be able to walk into institutions and see that they are represented in those institutions, from top to bottom.”

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Hear more by downloading the latest episode of Rhode Island Report, available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, and other podcasting platforms, or listen in the player below:


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.