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MAKING HISTORY: Dane County judge sworn in as state’s first Black female judge outside Milwaukee County

By: Michaela Paukner, [email protected]//November 4, 2020//

MAKING HISTORY: Dane County judge sworn in as state’s first Black female judge outside Milwaukee County

By: Michaela Paukner, [email protected]//November 4, 2020//

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Judge Nia Trammell
Judge Nia Trammell

For the Dane County Judge Nia Trammell, taking the bench was an emotional experience.

As she prepared for being sworn in on Oct. 12, she took time to research the history of the judiciary in the county because, as the first Black female judge to serve outside of Milwaukee County, she’s making history herself.

“I did the math, and it took 172 years to arrive at this place in history,” Trammell said. “It’s a very emotional thing when you put it in context.”

Trammell is the sixth Black woman judge in Wisconsin history. Her judicial career began in Branch 6 when she became Judge Shelley Gaylord’s replacement on the juvenile-justice rotation.

“That is an area that I’m very excited about,” Trammell said. “When you think about what is happening with a lot of our youth, particularly in Dane County, there certainly needs to be some collaboration and creative thinking in terms of how we support our communities.”

Trammell will then go into the civil rotation in July 2021, bringing her career full circle. She started out as a civil litigator for a large private practice, handling a variety of cases in her nine years with the firm.

She served as a senior administrative law judge for the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development for the next 12 years, and she then joined Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services as deputy secretary — a role that she said has been an honor to have held.

Trammell talked to the Wisconsin Law Journal about how her career has prepared her to sit on the bench and the importance of her historic appointment.

The Wisconsin Law Journal: How has your prior experience prepared you for this role?

Judge Nia Trammell: First, everyone brings their own personal history and their own personal experiences. So that, as well as my professional qualifications, will help shape who I am as a judge.

The thing that people may or may not know about me is that I’m an immigrant to this country, and when we arrived, we lived on public assistance. That coupled with me being a woman of color definitely allows me to see the world from various lenses, which I believe is an important thing that judges should consider when they are adjudicating cases.

From a professional perspective, I have varied legal experiences. I’ve been in the legal field for over 22 years. I’ve represented parties and encountered people from all walks of life. And one thing that it taught me is that regardless of where a person is in life, they are just people simply expecting to be respected and treated fairly when involved in litigation. I think that really shapes my approach and philosophy as a judge. I really value creating an environment where people feel that they can come in and be heard fairly throughout the judicial process.

WLJ: Has serving as a judge always been part of your career plan?

Trammell: No, I did not always think that being a judge was a reachable expectation, quite frankly. I am the first lawyer in my family and the first judge in my family. As a young Black woman growing up in Wisconsin, I never visualized or envision myself in this particular role. I had the benefit and the privilege of getting to know Judge Paul Higginbotham, who was the first Black judge that served in Dane County and then ultimately became the first Black judge on the Court of Appeals. I met him as a young lawyer, and he recognized skill sets and qualities in me that he thought would make for a good judge. He really nurtured and guided me towards reaching this career goal.

WLJ: How does knowing that you’re the first Black woman to serve as a judge outside of Milwaukee County impact you as you’re preparing to take the bench?

Trammell: There are two things that come to mind. One, I think it’s very empowering, but the other angle of it is that it can conjure up a lot of emotion. I was talking to someone about how I took time to look through the Dane County Circuit Court website, and I found the archives where they have all the photos of judges that have served in the county. And I’m scrolling through and looking at how long it took for the court to get the first female judge, and I believe it happened in 1977. That was Moria Krueger. And then Paul Higginbotham became the first Black judge in 1994. And then you forward it to 2020, and I become the first Black female judge in Dane County. I did the math, and it took 172 years to arrive at this place in history. It’s a very emotional thing when you put it in context.

But what I do recognize is that this really isn’t about me. And it’s not necessarily about my personal accomplishments. I walk on the shoulders of giants like Vel R. Phillips and Judge Maxine White. They’ve left a rich legacy that certainly creates this environment that feels empowering for me. I just plan to channel all of that excellence into the role and do my best as a judge.

WLJ: What is the best advice you’ve received in your career, and what advice would you give to others aspiring to be judges?

Trammell: The best advice that I’ve received is to value and respect my relationships. That takes cultivating them and nurturing them. I’ve always been very diligent in terms of making sure that the people in my life and the people that I want to know and have my life understand the important role they play and how I value them.

As far as advice to any young lawyer out there that wants to be a judge, I would say don’t be afraid to take risks. Becoming a judge was something that took over 20 years for me to get to, and I probably could have done it sooner, but I think a lot of times we always want the perfect conditions. We want to have had tons of experience to bring to the table, at least as women. But there are other people out there who have a great deal of confidence in their abilities, so just take the risk and do it.

WLJ: What role do you see judges and courts playing in our society?

Trammell: Different judges take very different approaches when it comes to the environment and things that are happening in the landscape of communities they live in. I tend to be a traditionalist, and my general philosophy is that judges are the guardians of the legal process and that they play a pivotal role in administering justice. So to do that, I really have to be able to see the world from an impartial place. I think it’s really incumbent on judges not to get too involved in a lot of the things that are happening nationally that may be a disappointment to us as a community.

You have to be able to separate personal views and perspectives that we have around those issues so that the judiciary continues to be independent and when people feel that they come into the court, they feel that due process is available to them. From my personal perspective, judges really need to be careful.


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