Grace Helen Whitener becomes the first black gay with a disability to serve on the Washington State Supreme court following her appointment by Washington governor, Jay Inslee in April.
Whitener is originally from Trinidad. She moved to the United States as a teenager to attend college. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Baruch College in New York and her law degree from Seattle University School of Law.
Washington State now has arguably the most diverse court, state or federal, in American history. She is replacing Judge Charles Wiggins, who retired earlier this year.
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“Diversity, equity and inclusion need to be at the forefront of our minds, not as an afterthought,” she said. “I believe as a marginalized individual, being a Black, gay, female, immigrant, disabled judge that my perspective is a little different. I try to make sure that everyone that comes into this courtroom feels welcome, feels safe and feels like they will get a fair hearing.”
“Judge Whitener inspires lawyers and non-lawyers alike with her relentless work to raise awareness for matters of race, justice and equity,” Gov. Inslee said. “She is tireless in her commitment to building a justice system that works for all, and as a Supreme Court justice, she will have an even greater platform to promote justice for everyone in Washington state. I am very pleased to appoint her to this bench and I look forward to her many contributions to our state for years to come.”
Describing her, John Allison, Spokane attorney, and president, Washington State Association for Justice said: “Judge Whitener is an outstanding choice for our highest court. In a field of outstanding candidates, she stood out as a dynamic and exciting jurist who would add to the talent and perspectives of our Supreme Court. Lawyers and citizens who have tried cases in her court uniformly rave about her work ethic, insights, and her ability to help advance the concept of justice for all in our state. During a very challenging time, this is a real bright and shining moment for justice in our state”.
Prior to her appointment as a Supreme Court judge, Whitener litigated criminal cases for 14 years as both a prosecutor and defence attorney. She has been a judicial officer since 2013. She served as a judge on the Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals from 2013 to 2015.
“We have a limited number of judges of colour on our benches here in Washington state,” Whitener told TVW last year. “Having a judiciary that is reflective of the community that it serves is truly important in raising trust and confidence in the services that we provide as judicial officers.”
In 2015 she was appointed to the Pierce County Superior Court where she has worked as a judge for over five years. “I think my background is so diverse and so varied that I represent just about every type of individual that could possibly come before the court,” Whitener said in Washington’s Daily Record News upon her appointment to the bench.
“As far as equity and inclusion, it does not matter where you are, or who you’re dealing with. What we are to be concerned about is the impact our actions have on others and that has always been my focus and I hope I can continue doing that.”
Whitener has served on the Washington State Minority and Justice Commission, the Equity and Fairness Committee of the Washington State Superior Court Judges’ Association, she is a member of the Civil Legal Aid Oversight Committee and the International Association of LGBT Judges, amongst others.
In 2019, Whitener was awarded the Washington State Bar Association’s C.Z. Smith Excellence in Diversity and Inclusion Award, the King County Washington Women Lawyers President Award, the Tacoma-Pierce County Bar Association’s Diversity Award and the Seattle University School of Law’s Woman of the Year Award.
In this interview with Pierce County Television, she talks about diversity and equity: