The chief federal judge discusses racial biases within the criminal justice system, earning her respect as a black woman and the future of Roe v. Wade.
We’ve made the commute easy for Judge Denise Page Hood. From her offices, it’s a quick cut through a parking lot – albeit a congested one – and across Michigan Avenue and she’s at 24 Grille in Detroit. She arrives smiling and gracious, 15 minutes early and dressed in a black sheath. On her wrist is a black and white cuff that a friend brought back from South Africa, “because I always wear black and white,” she says. An ironic style choice for a chief federal judge, a woman who’s an integral part of the American judiciary, a system that is a patchwork of varied shades of gray.
But then, that’s her job – to create order and interpret meaning where ambiguity exists. Hood was appointed in 1994 to a seat on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan by President Bill Clinton. Before that, she held several state judicial positions, and most recently, in 2016, she became chief judge for the U.S. District Court.
In the restaurant dining room, she’s a bit unsure in front of the camera at first – “I’m too shy for this” – but she eventually finds her groove. Afterwards, she settles into a black velvet bench in the spot popular with the downtown lunch crowd and we unpack racial biases within the criminal justice system, the recent abortion bans and Judge Damon J. Keith’s legacy.
What responsibility do you think you have as a black woman within a judicial system that has historically oppressed women and black people?
You have the responsibility of making sure that in that setting, which for years was not diverse in terms of judges on the bench, that you commit to that diversity, to pulling along someone with you. But also, on a day-to-day basis, being very fair. Not that other judges who are white are not fair, but I think that when you walk in court and you see that you have a black judge or a black woman judge, it takes away – I think and I hope – a piece of the fear that this is just, quote, ‘the system.’ It does not necessarily mean you get a different decision, but … I hope that people think I’m fair. Sometimes, the law requires I give some serious sentencing on the criminal side. There used to be a system when the judges were all white males. Well, there’s a different voice being heard in that setting amongst judges where you have more diversity. They have to learn something about you, you have to learn something about them. You maybe have a different perspective, you bring that to the table. It’s just perspective, it’s not necessarily the application of the law – although, sometimes it might be. We know that mainly on the criminal side, we are dealing with predominantly black males that come through the system, so we want to make sure everyone is treated fairly.
How do we begin to fix the biases within the criminal justice system?
We’ve learned and we are convinced that there is implicit bias, so we’re doing things to address and recognize that you have those biases. In a few weeks we’re having a sixth circuit judge, Bernice Donald, come in with a professor that she works with to talk about implicit bias: how to recognize it and how to fix it, or at least minimize it. Part of it is just getting more knowledge. And I think in the judicial system where we are always keeping up with the law and its application and recognizing any changes, it’s natural that we would learn something new. I’m very proud of our judges being willing to do that and being willing to be more involved in access in justice and access to justice.
Have you found that you’ve had to fight for respect – either with colleagues or civilians in your courtroom?
Some of both. I think women, traditionally, have been in those rooms where they were the only one, and part of your role there is to make sure that when you’re not there, they think about you. What would Denise be saying? Or what would a woman – or a black woman or an African-American – say about this? We have to be diverse because the people that come in our door are diverse, and also because the legal community is much more diverse than it has been in the past. In any leadership capacity, people are tested. Any leader has to fight for that, and we know very often that sometimes men have not had to work with women and so they don’t know that they have a little bit different style sometimes – or they don’t. I don’t think that women have to lead just like men or African-Americans have to lead just like people who are white. One of my styles that I would attribute to being a woman and also how I was raised is that I want everybody to be nice and play fair and be respectful, and when that’s not happening, you need to fix it.
Are the abortion bans that we’re seeing in Alabama and several other states a national effort to get the Supreme Court to reexamine Roe v. Wade?
You know, I can’t talk about that in case any kind of cases like that come before me. But I will say that I think that the Chief Justice (John) Roberts has a growing sense of himself and what he wants his legacy at the (Supreme) Court to be. And you have some very strong, very bright and wonderful – for lack of a better word – liberal judges who are on the court. The court is an interesting place. It doesn’t want to do everything over all the time, so I don’t know what will happen with that. It used to be that candidates were asked where they were. You can’t say what your position is on that, except that you’ll follow the law.
Did you know Judge Damon Keith well?
He was down the hall from me; my back door and his front door were directly across from the elevator lobby for years. I sit in the chief judge courtroom, and his portrait is actually right above my right shoulder. So, sometimes if I’m leaning that way I can catch a glimpse of him and it kind of inspires you because he was just an inspirational person, always had time for anybody who came to him for advice. I certainly have been in that room with the Bible on the desk, asking him, ‘I’m getting ready to do this, tell me what you think.’ He was just a great legal mind, and in that sense, I think, really paved the way for other African-American judges. We didn’t have to prove we’re smart. You already had an example of someone who’s smart, on target, protecting the constitution.
Yours is a heavy job, I’m sure. How or where do you find stillness and peace?
I’m also a religious person. I would say I firmly believe in the separation of church and state, and I believe I act that out really well, but I do also get some solace in the fact that I do have my religion for my personal growth and substance, and for comfort. I have things I like to do when I don’t have that one thing I brought home to work on. I like to walk, and I like to read a lot, of almost everything, and it changes. I try to read a smattering of everything so I can be broad. Sometimes, we forget that we’re also, in this job, paid to think and that sometimes thinking requires lack of distraction. So being thoughtful, I know it’s called all kinds of things now. It’s called meditation, it’s called mindfulness. There are lots of other terms that people use for it. I think I’m better about being thoughtful about my job than sending out those birthday and holiday cards and stuff, but all of that is a part of it. Having a moment to think about where you are, what space you’re in and being cognizant of that. And I have my family.
Does your life look like what you imagined it would when you were at Yale?
No, not at all.
What’s something that’s been a surprise?
Well, I didn’t think I would be a lawyer, and I didn’t think I would practice law. I thought I would be a lawyer to be able to do something else that I wanted to do, and people would go, ‘Oh, she went to law school, so she must be able to learn everything.’ I didn’t really know anybody until I was much older that was a judge. And so, I was kind of surprised that at one of those interview meetings where we were interviewing people to give a rating to run for judge, a person walked out that we rated well but had little experience, and one of my friends said, ‘Denise, you’re as good as anyone we’ve interviewed so far. You should run for judge next time.’ I kind of played that off and I went home and my husband said, ‘You should talk to my dad,’ who was on city council. And he said, ‘When do we get started?’
24 Grille inside The Westin Book Cadillac Hotel in Detroit is open for lunch and dinner daily. 204 Michigan Ave., 313-964-3821.