Hon. Jean Williams, 1925-2011

We learned this weekend that a legal pioneer had died after a short illness. As the story says, Judge Jean Williams was the first African American Municipal Court Judge in Phoenix. In fact, she was the first to be appointed in both Phoenix and Tucson.

Jean Williams was a leader, first on the national stage and then here in Arizona. She worked with Martin Luther King, Jr., and later spearheaded efforts for a state holiday to honor him. You can read more of her accomplishments below, but ponder on this for a moment: When she enrolled as a new law student—in 1948—she was the only African American woman in her class at Loyola in Chicago.

Reading about her passing reminded me of a great event that occurred at a recent State Bar of Arizona Convention. At the 2010 event held in Glendale, a terrific group of people gathered to honor Arizona’s minority judges. Speakers included Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Rebecca White Berch and Phoenix Municipal Court Presiding Judge Roxanne Song Ong. So important were (and are) the contributions of these jurists that almost all of the members of the Supreme Court attended.

Arizona is proud to be represented by so many great lawyers and judges, past and present. But among those luminaries, many had higher hurdles to overcome than others. We are saddened by the passing of Judge Williams, but we marvel at the path she and others paved.

Here, thanks to the Maricopa County Bar Association, is more information on the remarkable life and career of Judge Jean Williams:

Honoring Minority Judges, 2010 State Bar Convention: Arizona's Justices with Hon. Lynda Howell (ret.), center

“Judge Williams is the first African American woman to be appointed to a municipal court judgeship, both in Tucson and in Phoenix. Now retired, she received her J.D. from Loyola University Chicago School of Law in 1951 and passed the bar in Illinois that same year. From 1951-1970, she practiced in Chicago, representing welfare recipients and criminal defendants. She was notably active in defending protesters for civil, housing and voting rights in Chicago during the protest marches associated with Dr. Martin Luther King. She was also a legal consultant to the Chicago Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

“Judge Williams came to Arizona in 1971 to be near her retired parents in Tucson. She was admitted to the State Bar of Arizona in 1972 as only the second African American woman. After a brief stint as the executive director of a senior citizens law center in California, her parents’ deteriorating health brought her back, and she served as an attorney for the Southern Arizona Legal Aid Society.

“From 1973-74, she was a Pima County Public Defender and then was selected as a judge of the Tucson Municipal Court beginning in 1974. In 1976 accepted a judgeship in the Phoenix Municipal Court where she served until her retirement in 1996.

“Along the way, Judge Williams repeatedly confronted the double-edged sword of being both a woman and black. Described as feisty and outspoken, she was the only African American woman in her entering law school class of 200 in 1948. Throughout her career she faced both overt and subtle discrimination, which she challenged firmly but gracefully. Judge Williams has received many awards for her distinguished legal career and for the fact that she prevailed as a pioneering black woman lawyer in Arizona.”

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