When trying her first murder case as a young lawyer, U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan wondered if she could juggle the duties of a public defender with the responsibilities of parenthood. She remembers racing home after long days in court to feed her 9-month-old son and then heading to jail to meet with clients. Like all new parents, she lost a lot of sleep.
Chutkan had to reach inside for the motivation to keep going. “Remind yourself that you’re as qualified and as hard working, and as intelligent as anyone else,” she told herself. “Fall back on the skills that have gotten you here and get to work.”
In recognition of African American History Month, the federal judge shared her experiences at a program for public defense attorneys and members of the legal community. The Feb. 8 event was hosted by the Judiciary’s Defender Services Office, an organization dedicated to helping lawyers in the field as they defend individuals unable to afford a private lawyer.
When facing virulent criticism because of the color of her skin, Chutkan said it is difficult not to give in or be distracted. “For a lot of people, I seem to check a lot of boxes: immigrant, woman, Black, Asian. Your qualifications are always going to be subject to criticism and you have to develop a thick skin.”
She said she draws her strength from “the dignity and the brilliance” of Judge Constance Baker Motley and the many women lawyers who came before her. “They put their lives on the line every time they did their jobs and had to put up with far more than I have,” she said.
Chutkan grew up comfortably in Kingston, Jamaica, with a passion for dance. At that age, she never thought of becoming a lawyer, and certainly not a judge. But after leaving home to attend college at George Washington University, in Washington, D.C., she decided to try law school. Hard work helped propel her to a successful career as an attorney before she was appointed in 2014 to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
“I worked hard to get to where I am and took advantage of the opportunities presented to me,” Chutkan said. “But I understand the privilege and good fortune I’ve had. Many people don’t have the same opportunities.”
She encouraged audience members interested in judgeships to get involved in local bar organizations and said judges and law firms need to take a proactive approach in finding more diverse applicants. “The talent is there,” she said. “You just have to go look for it. You can’t simply wait for a more diverse pool of applicants to appear.”
The judge said she often encourages law students at outreach events to seek coveted clerkships and internships, opportunities that she said she was unfamiliar with as a law student. She said she enjoys engaging with young people and watching them grow in their personal and professional lives.
“Young people inspire me in their openness, in their tolerance, and in their desire to fight injustice,” she said. “I can’t let them down. I have to be an example to them.”