by Nefertari Elshiekh
July 7th kicked off our annual Summer Forum with a keynote address from the Honorable Anna Blackburne-Rigsby, Chief Judge of the D.C. Court of Appeals, the highest appellate court for the District. In conversation with Jim Sandman, President Emeritus of the Legal Services Corporation and a distinguished lecturer and senior consultant to the Future of the Profession Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Chief Judge Blackburne-Rigsby began by talking about how her early experiences of being born in Washington D.C. during the height of the Civil Rights Movement ignited her interest in the law. Many of her heroes included judges and civil rights icons, who shaped her perspective of the power of law to ensure equality, and she knew this was something of which she wanted to be a part.
Chief Judge Blackburne-Rigsby also talked about her journey to her current position. She even reflected on attending this very Summer Forum panel when she was an associate at Hogan Lovells US LLP (formerly Hogan and Hartson). She never imagined herself as a judge, let alone serving in a judicial capacity at the magistrate, trial, and appellate levels for 25 years.
As Chief Judge, the Honorable Blackburne-Rigsby is a member of the Conference of Chief Justices, which includes the highest judicial officers from all 50 states as well as Guam, Puerto Rico, and D.C. However, one of her favorite duties includes being the face of the courts and the community. She strongly believes in engaging with the diverse community that she serves through educational programs.
Access to justice has been an important focus for the Chief Judge. She believes it is important to speak about the lack of legal representation. Even many within the law community aren’t aware of the number of people that go to court for civil proceedings, such as domestic violence and foreclosures, without counsel. She also addressed the importance of partnerships formed between the Court, the bar, and other organizations such as the D.C. Access to Justice Commission.
As Jim reiterated at the end, Chief Judge Blackburne-Rigsby is a leader who is strongly aware of her role as the public face of the justice system and the importance of outreach to her community. She generates faith in her abilities as a leader, which results in faith in the justice system. However, Chief Judge Blackburne-Rigsby acknowledged that there is still more work to be done.
When discussing access to justice issues in light of the pandemic, she turned to the audience, filled with predominantly law students, and passionately advised them, “Don’t lose hope. We need you. Our community needs you, and our country needs you to find ways to use your legal skills to help those who need it.”
Nefertari Elshiekh is the 2020 Washington Council of Lawyers Summer Intern.