Washington state has appointed Grace Helen Whitener, a Black lesbian with a disability, to its Supreme Court, making it the most diverse Supreme Court in U.S. history.
Whitener was born and raised in Trinidad and moved to the U.S. to attend college. She previously made history as the first Black LGBTQ+ judge in Washington.
“I believe, as a marginalized individual — being a Black, gay, female, immigrant, disabled judge — that my perspective is a little different,” Whitener said in a video in February. “I try to make sure everyone who comes into this courtroom feels welcome, feels safe, and feels like they will get a fair hearing.”
Whitener got her bachelor’s degree from Baruch College in New York and her law degree from Seattle University School of Law. She worked as a prosecutor, defense attorney, and then judge before serving on the Pierce County Superior Court.
“I think my background is so diverse and so varied that I represent just about every type of individual that could possibly come before the court,” Whitener told Daily Record News after her appointment. “As far as equity and inclusion, it does not matter where you are, or who you’re dealing with. What we are to be concerned about is the impact our actions have on others and that has always been my focus and I hope I can continue doing that.”
The judge’s swearing-in ceremony will have to be delayed due to the COVID-19 crisis. However, she’ll be sworn in informally as soon as possible so that she can begin her work.
Governor Jay Inslee also appointed Raquel Montoya-Lewis, the state’s first Native American justice, to the court in January. Washington’s Supreme Court is now predominantly female and racially diverse, consisting of Chief Justice Debra Stephens and Justices Barbara Madsen, Charles Johnson, Susan Owens, Steven Gonzalez, Sheryl Gordon McCloud, and Mary Yu.
In comparison, 24 states have no people of color serving on their Supreme Courts, and 13 states have never had a person of color at all, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
Whitener replaces Justice Charles Wiggins, who retired at the end of March. She will have to run in the November general election to maintain her new seat.