Judge Trina L. Thompson Bench
A pioneering judge inspired her to take the first stepson her own unlikely journey

In 2022, when Judge Trina Thompson was waiting for the Senate to vote on her lifetime appointment as a federal district court judge, she was asked what had given her the idea to pursue the position. Because as candidates for the federal bench go, she was hardly a shoo-in.

At her eventual investiture as a judge of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California in January 2023, a friend, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Huey Cotton, listed some of the obstacles:

She didn’t work at a big law firm that could promote her nomination.

She had never worked as a United States attorney or federal public defender.

She didn’t know California’s senators personally.

He didn’t mention that she was also 61 years old, an advanced age to be starting a lifetime appointment on the federal bench.

Surprisingly, she was inspired to go for the job by attending the NJC’s When Justice Fails course and meeting Senior Judge Myron Thompson of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama. (Since taking that NJC course, her first, she has completed six more and joined the faculty.) She was thereafter urged to consider the job by a lifelong college friend, and several colleagues from the African American Association of California Judicial Officers encouraged her to seek the appointment.

When Justice Fails examines those times in history, such as during the Holocaust, when courts became complicit in injustices. The course is held in different places. In 2019, when Judge Thompson attended, the site was Montgomery, Alabama, one of the birthplaces of the civil rights movement. Montgomery is where Rosa Parks was arrested in the 1950s for flouting a racist city ordinance that said Black people had to give up their seats on city buses if a white person was present.

The Rosa Parks case and many other landmark civil rights cases were decided by legendary U.S. District Court Judge Frank Minis Johnson. Myron Thompson, after serving as the first Black assistant attorney general in Alabama’s history in the early 1970s, entered private practice and became adept at arguing cases in front of Johnson. In 1980 he was appointed Johnson’s successor on the U.S. District Court bench.

Trina Thompson arrived in Montgomery for When Justice Fails as a former criminal defense attorney, law clerk and deputy public defender who, in 2002, had become the first African-American woman ever elected to Alameda County Superior Court. In 2019 she was still on that bench. 

She says Judge Myron Thompson (no relation) told her about the desegregation efforts he’d been a part of, and during her visit she learned that he was stricken with polio at age 2. “You could just feel the empathy in him,” she recalled.

Listening to his stories, she said, she began thinking, “I haven’t done enough.”

Even though she had already done plenty.

That included becoming an expert on criminal street gangs, teaching about justice as an adjunct professor at her baccalaureate and law school alma mater, UC Berkeley, and being named to the national Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention by President Obama in 2011.

At her investiture, Judge Thompson thanked many people in attendance by name, including President Aldana, who accompanied her to Montgomery and introduced her to Myron Thompson.

“If it wasn’t for each of you,” she said, “I wouldn’t be up here.”

She said she had already told her clerks at the court, “We’re here, we’re created to do good work. The judges, the clerks, the research attorneys, the courtroom deputies, the court reporters, the marshals, the attorneys … we are all the guardians of due process, inclusion and equity. Our work empowers and inspires. It liberates. It transforms. It restores our community.”

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