Donita Judge (SASN ’2000, RU Law ’2003) had always wanted to be a lawyer.
Growing up in Columbus, Ohio, in the 1960s and ’70s during the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, she remembers local police officers frequently knocking on her family’s door and speaking disrespectfully to her father, who had served in the Korean War and worked while earning an associates degree at night and raising seven children. An avid reader who had an easy way with words, he also represented friends in court when they couldn’t afford a lawyer, speaking on their behalf in an amicus fashion.
Judge herself wrote in her high school yearbook that she aspired to be an attorney.
She took a circuitous route in reaching that dream, working as a flight attendant for United Airlines for nearly two decades before getting her B.A. in African American & African Studies and Women’s Studies, followed by a law degree, at Rutgers University–Newark. But along the way, she racked up a number of prestigious awards and internships before pursuing a remarkable career as a civil rights attorney, focusing on voting rights over a 14-year period and working on some of the highest-profile cases in the field.
“I am blessed to have had professors at Rutgers-Newark who believed in and supported me, and to have had the chance to work with communities across the country as a civil rights lawyer on important issues that I’m passionate about,” said Judge.
Take to the Friendly Skies
Judge graduated high school in the late 1970s with little travel experience and having never flown on an airplane. She took a job with United, knowing it would be a great opportunity to see the world. And see the world she did: She was based out of New York City and traveled to all 50 states before flying internationally to Tokyo and traveling all over Asia and Europe.
The work was rewarding and exhilarating, but in her 30s, Judge sensed that she wanted something more. In 1995 she started part-time as an undergraduate at RU-N, going to school in the evenings while flying a full-time international schedule on weekends between Tokyo and New York. That September, she also was invited to attend the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China, by a friend who was an attorney. The experience proved pivotal.
“This was an amazing conference of women from all around the world, many of whom were lawyers, judges, activists and executive directors of various organizations, and many of whom were black,” said Judge. “I was in awe of these women, in awe of what they had achieved, and I wanted to emulate them and be part of this group.”
I absolutely loved Rutgers-Newark, the diversity, the professors, the work. It’s an amazing environment.
Judge returned invigorated, seeing her path to becoming a lawyer. She thrived at RU-N, studying with late SASN Dean Jan Lewis and Professors Clement Price and Wendell Holbrook, among others. One year in, she began attending classes full-time while flying domestically on weekends and caring for a newborn son, piecing together a childcare schedule with help from friends. As she pivoted to full-time, Judge also enrolled in the Honors College and wrote her senior thesis on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, graduating Phi Beta Kappa. It was a hectic and very rewarding time.
“I absolutely loved Rutgers-Newark, the diversity, the professors, the work. It’s an amazing environment,” said Judge. “If you show you’re serious, the deans and professors will do everything they can to help you. My goal was to better understand the systemic issues around racism and other forms of oppression, and the departments I studied in prepared me well.”
Judge started Rutgers Law School in 2000, knowing that she wanted to be a civil rights attorney.
Upon entering the program, she won the prestigious NAACP Earl Warren Legal Scholarship. In presenting her with the award, the scholarship committee cited not only her sterling academic performance but her sheer tenacity in completing her undergraduate degree while working full-time as a flight attendant.
Judge continued flying between New York and London on weekends while attending law classes during the week, but when one of her colleagues died on Flight 93 during 9/11, she called it quits and focused solely on school, graduating in 2003 but not before winning several more honors, including the Judge Skelly Wright Prize for Outstanding Contributions to Human Rights, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties; a Kinoy-Stavis Public Interest Fellowship; and a coveted NAACP Legal Defense Fund summer internship.
Civil Rights Attorney for the People
In 2003 Judge clerked for New Jersey Superior Court Judge Michelle Hollar-Gregor for a year before starting her 14-year tenure with the Advancement Project, a Washington, D.C.–based civil rights advocacy organization, rising to become Co-Director and Senior Attorney for its Power and Democracy Program.
In that capacity, Judge worked on voting rights with communities of color in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, New Jersey, North Carolina, Texas and her home state of Ohio, putting in time on high-profile initiatives, including as Co-Council for the 2013 court case NAACP v. McCrory, which successfully turned back severe voter suppression efforts in North Carolina.
“This was exactly the work I wanted to do,” said Judge. “We challenged every election in Ohio from 2004 to 2012, and I became an expert on provisional ballots after the 2000 Florida debacle. I loved working on the ground with communities and making a difference in people’s lives.”
In January of this year, Judge left the Advancement Project to become Associate Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York City, leading the organization’s operational and strategic planning. It’s her dream job.
Along the way, she returned to RU-N as a visiting part-time lecturer for her old undergraduate department from 2005 to 2007, teaching a course on the impact of the American judicial system on the African American community. Earlier this month, she returned to campus to speak with undergraduates about her journey as part of Rutgers University–Newark’s African American & African Studies Week.
She’s also collected more awards, including the Rutgers Law School–Newark National Lawyers’ Guild Arthur Kinoy Award in 2015, the Rutgers University Medal in 2016, and the Association of Black Women Lawyers of New Jersey Pioneer of Justice Award in 2019.
“It’s been so nice to come full circle and now have as colleagues those women I met at the Beijing Women’s Conference back in 2005,” said Judge. “Rutgers-Newark made that happen. The professors here just embraced me and have played such an important role my life. And all of that makes it very easy for me to come back and give to this campus and its students. It’s an honor to be able to give back in this way.”