Let's start here: No, Washington Supreme Court justice G. Helen Whitener isn't going to be president Joe Biden's choice to fill the open slot on that other Supreme Court. When I asked by phone yesterday if she'd been contacted about the nomination, Whitener dismissed the question softly, a polite come on of sorts.
Was it a longshot? Perhaps. But when Biden committed to appointing a Black woman to the country's highest court, the first Black female justice on Washington's Supreme Court appeared on a couple lists of candidates for the federal gig.
Some of those name-checking Whitener cited her advocacy for LGBTQ rights and representation, a cause that may not have won her a seat in DC (yet) but has earned her plenty of national, and international, attention. Last week, our state's first Black LGBTQ judge added the American Bar Association's Stonewall Award, which "recognizes lawyers who have considerably advanced lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals in the legal profession and successfully championed LGBT legal causes," to her haul.
Whitener wishes she could have accepted the award in person; the legal organization's Midyear Meeting was supposed to be held in Seattle but had to go virtual amid the pandemic. Still, she got to hear her peers attest to her influence. During Whitener's introduction, judge Kristin Rossi of California called out a couple of venerable fights that Whitener had taken up over the years.
One was in Trinidad and Tobago, where Whitener grew up hoping to become a teacher, just like her parents. At 16, she immigrated to the U.S. while she was paralyzed on her right side due to a degenerative nerve condition. "I went from being an able-bodied person, running track and field, to someone in a wheelchair," she recalls, "and everybody speaking above me, down at me, but not to me."
It strengthened her independence and resolve, as did her decision a few years later to tell her very religious parents that she was a lesbian. Her father immediately offered his support. But her mother? Whitener didn't see or speak to her for almost three years. "I don't settle for less than what I think I'm capable of," says Whitener, "and I knew I was capable of getting my mother's full love and acceptance, just like my other siblings."
Her mother's initial stance (they'd later reconnect) was common in the Caribbean island nation. In 2015, shortly after Washington governor Jay Inslee appointed Whitener to the Pierce County Superior Court, the judge was summoned to the U.S. Embassy in Trinidad to speak about human rights and overcoming intolerance. An anti-LGBTQ law in the country meant same-sex couples could face up to 25 years in prison. Whitener, by then married to attorney Lynn Rainey, had to tell a court colleague there was a chance she wouldn't come back.
Judge Kristin Rossi also highlighted a more recent triumph that Whitener played a role in. This past fall, she participated in a campaign to prevent the National Association of Women Judges from holding conferences in areas where laws discriminate against people "on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression." The efforts of Whitener and others were "met with overwhelming and surprising hostility," Rossi observed. Whitener thought they might have to start a separate group. But a resolution pushing the organization to live up to its mission statement ultimately passed. "Justice Whitener kept us motivated with her inspirational words: Claim your identity. To accept unequal treatment is to disrespect yourself. Inclusion requires we embrace the most vulnerable amongst us," recalled Rossi.
Whitener's appointment to Washington's Supreme Court in 2020 underscored just how poorly the state had represented its populace on the bench, and it's hardly alone. State supreme courts across the country are woeful when it comes to mirroring the demographics of their jurisdictions.
In practice, Whitener sees how better representation changes the interpretation of different laws. More eyes and ears from different backgrounds can help courts arrive at more just decisions. But increasing diversity on the bench also leads to some misconceptions. "I think a lot of people misconstrue that to mean, if you're Black, for example, you will be making decisions that assist only Black people. No, no, no, that's not what it means. What it means is the marginalized groups who would not have been seen in the interpretation of the law, now get an opportunity to be seen."
Whitener's work certainly isn't going unnoticed, even at the federal level. During one visit to Seattle, she chatted with Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor, who called her a "trailblazer" upon hearing her story. Rossi used that same word during the Stonewall Award presentation—not because Whitener was the first, she said, "but because she insists on not being the last."