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Donita Judge ’03, Recognized ‘Change Maker’

Donita Judge enjoyed her long career as a United Airlines flight attendant. Yet since high school, as her yearbook notes state, it had been her goal to be a lawyer. When she returned to college two decades later, she told a friend that her 10-year goal was to finish college at the top of her class, graduate from law school, and become a civil rights attorney. It would not be easy as she would continue her job as a flight attendant while attending school.

Judge received her undergraduate degree with highest honors from the Honors College at Rutgers–Newark, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and joined the 2000 incoming class at Rutgers School of Law–Newark. Confident that becoming a lawyer was “simply a dream deferred, not a dream denied,” she was right on track to realize her goal.

Donita Judge 

Donita Judge 

Judge dates her interest in civil rights law to a post-high school graduation job with a law firm in Columbus, OH. The firm successfully represented the plaintiffs in Pennick v. Columbus Board of Education, an important school busing lawsuit. Pennick was a remedy for equalizing educational opportunity that was fashioned after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. “‘All deliberate speed’ in Columbus was more than 20 years after the initial Brown decision,” she observes. It was not until Judge interned at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. the summer after her second year of law school that she understood the full impact of the Brown and the Pennick decisions.

Another formative experience was her attendance at the 1995 Fourth World Conference of Women, held in Beijing. She attended with the largest delegation of African-American women from the United States, the National Council of Negro Women and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The delegation included some of the country’s top African-American women judges and lawyers. “I was very inspired by these phenomenal women and I knew that I wanted to join their ranks,” she recalls. “In my work in Washington, DC, I often cross paths with some of these women, and I always remind them how they inspired me to reach higher, to dream bigger dreams, and to believe in myself and my abilities.”

As she had done as an undergraduate, Judge, who was also raising a teenager, worked as a flight attendant on weekends and took classes and did most of her studying during the week. It was exhausting but she found time to serve as an editor of Rutgers Race and the Law Review and as a Kinoy/Stavis Public Interest Fellow, which she describes as “a tremendous honor.” The fellowship “validated for me that my chosen path was the correct path for me, and I was doing the work that I was called to do.” 

As a Kinoy/Stavis Fellow, she was required to spend a good deal of time in the Constitutional Litigation Clinic, where she learned much about constitutional law and worked on important cases. “I also had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with Emeritus Professor Arthur Kinoy. In fact, I drove him home to Montclair so that we could continue our conversation. His mind was so sharp, and he is my inspiration for continuing to lift my voice while serving my community as a ‘people’s lawyer’.” 

Judge notes that her first litigation exposure was with the clinic’s Twin Rivers lawsuit that challenged restrictions on the free speech rights of New Jersey residents living in private communities governed by homeowner associations. She credits the experience with preparing her for her significant contributions to the brief in NAACP v. Harris, the Florida 2000 voting case, and for her current voter protection work.

In another of her activities, Judge worked with the Association of Black Law Students to establish the Wanda Green Memorial Scholarship Fund to provide tuition assistance to a law student who in some way was affected by the events of September 11, 2001 or Hurricane Katrina. Wanda Green, a close friend of Judge’s, was a flight attendant on hijacked United Flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania.

One of Judge’s most significant law school experiences occurred during her final year when the U.S. Supreme Court heard Grutter v. Bollinger, the case challenging the University of Michigan’s admissions program. “Although we knew that our Minority Student Program was not at issue,” she says, “my classmates and I understood the importance of diversity in education and that race was one of the measures that could and should be used in admissions policies.” Judge galvanized Rutgers students, faculty, administrators, and other supporters to “Get on the Bus” to Washington, DC for a rally at the Court during the Grutter oral argument. “When I see my classmates today,” she reports, “many still tell me that it is the one event that they will always remember and be proud to have participated in during law school. For so many, it was the one event that really emphasized our reasons for attending law school: to make a difference.”

For each of her three years at Rutgers Law School, Judge was awarded an Earl Warren Legal Scholarship by the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, a coveted scholarship given to students with a demonstrated interest in civil rights. The award provided opportunities to attend civil rights events that further validated her commitment to public interest law.

At graduation, Judge received the Judge J. Skelly Wright Prize for having done the most for civil rights, civil liberties, and human affairs. She clerked for New Jersey Superior Court Judge Michelle Hollar-Gregory then joined the Power and Democracy team of Advancement Project, a national civil rights and racial justice organization headquartered in Washington, DC. She is Advancement Project’s state lead attorney covering Ohio. Since 2006, she has provided extensive testimony on the rights of third-party groups to register voters and engaged in advocacy to prevent voter suppression prior to the 2006 and 2008 Ohio elections. Recently named Project Director of Redistricting, Judge is focused on the 2010 census and its potential impact on reapportionment and redistricting. Outside Ohio, she successfully advocated for the rights of the displaced citizens of New Orleans to vote in the first election after Hurricane Katrina and to have a voice in rebuilding their city. For her voter protection work, Judge received the 2009 Association of Black Women Lawyers of New Jersey Public Section Change Maker Award.