Chief Justice Carolyn Wright: Forging Relationships

by Hon. Wanda McKee Fowler (Ret.), Wright & Close, LLP

If you really want to know who Chief Justice Carolyn Wright is, you have to start with four facts: she was a military brat; she is African-American; she was born in her mother’s home state, Texas; and she overcomes any adversity she encounters by forging relationships.

As the daughter of a military man, Justice Wright lived on military bases and attended military schools on base—which were integrated long before public schools in the United States. When there was no military school, she attended small private schools comprised mainly of African-Americans, Asians, and Native Americans. When she was a young child living in the South, her parents were able to shield her from racial prejudice by carefully monitoring where they went. But during middle school and her first year of high school, she was completely removed from any racially-charged settings when her father was stationed on Kiushu, the southern-most and most rural of the Japanese islands. At the base on Kiushu she played every sport she could: basketball, track and field, volleyball, and softball—and excelled at each. She also sang in the choir and learned to write Japanese from the librarian, who taught her the traditional way—while Justice Wright sat at a low table on her knees (not an easy task for one of her height). The intent behind this study technique was to instill discipline. Her later life certainly suggests that it worked.

Justice Wright loved Japan. But one day near the end of her freshman year in high school in the early 1960s, her father told her they were moving back to the States so that she could “learn how to be a black American.” Not having experienced segregation first hand, she was a little perplexed. But this conversation was to become a “major factor” in her life. They returned to Delaware to find a “country in total turmoil.”

Although life on the base remained the same, now when her family went on vacations off the base, she experienced what other black Americans experienced: segregated bathrooms, hotels, pools, and restaurants. It offended her that anyone would refuse to serve them, but especially that anyone would refuse to serve her father, who had been awarded the bronze star. That was the worst blow.

On the base Justice Wright continued to excel in academics, sports, and choir and was very popular. She was selected to represent her high school at Girls’ State. Having learned that life off the base wasn’t always as straightforward as life on the base, she was fearful that the girls would not be as accepting as military families—and this was before she learned she was the first African-American chosen to attend Girls’ State in Delaware. Fortunately, her fears were unfounded. She found that the girls “liked who they liked.” And they liked her. A group of girls pegged her as the perfect Attorney General because she was articulate and made her points well. There was just one problem with this scheme: Justice Wright didn’t know the first thing about running a campaign or about elections. She had never experienced an election; her parents had always voted absentee. So they struck a deal: her new friends ran the campaign while she wrote her speech. The speech must have been good, for she won and was Attorney General of Delaware for a day.

She decided she wanted to attend Strayer, a business college with a paralegal school, in Washington, D.C., because D.C. was only a few hours from her home. She was accepted and she signed up for a roommate in a dorm, not knowing that an African-American had never lived in a Strayer dorm. When she and her parents showed up for registration, the school administrators told her that there had been a mix-up and that there was a problem with her accommodations. Soon it became apparent that the college didn’t know she was African-American until she showed up to register and didn’t know what to do with her. Her father was incensed and demanded that she return to the base. But Justice Wright wanted to remain in D.C. She declared she would remain in D.C. and attend Strayer. Her father declared that if she stayed, she would not receive any money from him. The result of this stand-off certainly is not surprising: she stayed. The school placed her in an over-flow dorm off campus where, once again, she alone “integrated” the setting. And as she had done in the past—in the military schools, in the small private schools in the South, and at Girls’ State—she forged relationships and became good friends with her dorm mates. She began school, supporting herself with a job at the EEOC (and with money her mother sent on the sly).

At the EEOC she worked as a paralegal for Dr. James Jones. A few years later, Dr. Jones joined the administration of Walter Washington, the first African-American mayor of Washington, D.C., to become the Mayor’s youth czar; Dr. Jones brought Justice Wright with him. There was much work to be done. Inner-city D.C., like many inner cities across the nation, was experiencing much civil unrest. This was a tension-laden time, not just for Washington, D.C., but for all of the United States.

In April of 1968, not long after Justice Wright and Dr. Jones began work with Mayor Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Riots broke out in more than 100 cities across the United States. The D.C. riots lasted five days and took a great toll on the D.C. inner city. As many as 20,000 people swarmed the inner city and, at one point, rioting reached within five blocks of the White House. The occupation was the largest of any American City since the Civil War and by the time it ended, 12 had been killed, 1,097 injured, and over 6,100 arrested and 1,200 buildings had burned down, including over 900 businesses. Id. Justice Wright was in the middle of it all. When stability returned, Mayor Washington committed to rebuilding the City. As a member of Mayor Washington’s administration, Justice Wright “devoted a tremendous amount of time to rebuilding.”

Sometime after this, Dr. Jones stepped-up his mentoring. Justice Wright had obtained her bachelor’s degree in business from Howard and graduated from D.C. Teacher’s College while working for him. Dr. Jones told her she was too smart to stay with him; if she weren’t enrolled in law school by a specific date, she would lose her job. She heeded his warning and enrolled in law school at Howard University, keeping her job to pay her way. For this and all the other things he did for her, she credits him with “finishing my father’s work.”

The end of law school ushered in another new chapter in her life; by this time she had decided to move to Texas, where she had relatives and where she thought her parents would retire. (As a child in a military family she “was never from anywhere except where I was born.”) Looking back on this period of her life, she says that everything she did in D.C. was “necessary to adjust socially.” Her military upbringing and life itself on the military base was so different from civilian life. To some extent, she found it a bittersweet lesson, but when it was done, she was prepared for her move to Texas.

Initially, Texas proved to be a challenge. She first moved to Houston, home of her relatives and her birth, but couldn’t find any work. So she moved to Dallas, which she found less progressive and in some respects more segregated than Houston. No African-American practiced in the major Dallas law firms. But not one to be sidetracked from reaching her goal, she began her own family law practice, working with H. Ron White, a fellow Howard University Graduate. As she says, “Because I had forged relationships all my life with people of different races and colors, I worked it out.” She found mentors who were willing to help, such as Francis Maloney, a well-known family lawyer (who would later be a close colleague on the Fifth Court of Appeals). She sat second chair with Francis Maloney on at least one trial.

And Justice Wright continued to forge relationships. During this time she also helped a fellow African-American run for judge—as a Republican, which she says required those persuasive skills she must have exhibited at Girls’ State. In helping him, she met many people who would be crucial to her future political aspirations.

In 1983, when a position opened for associate judge in the family law courts, her relationships came through. The family law judges unanimously selected her for the position. Never one to take the easy road, she ran for a family district bench two years later as a Republican. She won in spite of having several opponents in the primary, and became the first African-American woman in Dallas to win a county-wide election. In that election, Justice Wright received a higher percentage of votes in Dallas County than Governor Clements. He noticed this, and the next time he came to town he stopped by to visit because he “wanted to know who’d beaten him” in percentages. After 1986, she never had an opponent. Nine years later, then Governor Bush appointed her to the Fifth Court of Appeals as an associate justice. On the retirement of Chief Justice Linda Thomas in 2009, Governor Perry appointed Justice Wright Chief Justice.

The Dallas Court of Appeals is the largest in the state, with 13 justices. Because of the court’s size, the Chief Justice position tends to have more administrative demands than the chief position on other courts. One of her first goals as Chief Justice was to secure electronic filing for the court. She was motivated to achieve this goal when a group of appellate judges from Brazil visited and she realized that “the Amazon had electronic filing, but the Dallas Court of Appeals didn’t.” Along with the chiefs on the Houston courts, who also were pushing for electronic filing, she was able to fast-forward the date the office of court administration had set for electronic filing. Electronic filing has been up and running in Dallas for months.

For those about to argue in the Fifth Court of Appeals, Justice Wright has the following suggestions and comments:
  • Bench Exhibits – If an exhibit is important, it should be in the appendix. Most of the time exhibits are filed too late to be useful at all. Furthermore, bench exhibits given just before argument begins are not useful. It is “terribly distracting to get new material during argument.”

  • Oral Arguments – The most effective arguments are ones in which the lawyer “isn’t hitting and missing all over the place.” An argument is effective when “it is narrow in focus” and the “lawyer presents her best arguments but also concedes weak arguments.”

  • Judicial Philosophy – Justice Wright believes in applying the law narrowly. Every time the law is applied, it becomes elastic and tends to expand. As a result, she strives to write opinions as narrowly as possible. In her opinion “it is more harmful to the law to expand it intentionally.” “If the legislature does its job and I do mine, I believe the process works.”
When asked what she likes most about being on the court of appeals, Justice Wright said without hesitation that she has enjoyed the study and research of the law, the dialogue between the justices at conference, and the intellectual stimulation from delving more deeply into many different aspects of the law. After serving on the trial bench and having to rely on lawyers because she had no law clerk, she has found it a luxury to spend time studying the law as she does now.

When she is not judging, Justice Wright is most likely traveling, listening to music, attending sporting events, or engaging in an activity at church. Not surprising for someone who has always lived life fully.