LAFAYETTE — Nannette Jolivette Brown made history in 2011 when she became the first African-American woman appointed as a federal judge in Louisiana.
While Brown’s appointment to the U.S. District Court for Louisiana’s Eastern District holds historical significance, too few women, especially female minorities, hold positions in the federal judiciary, Brown said Tuesday during the Sixth Annual Women’s Conference at the Cajundome Convention Center.
For the first time in history, three women sit on the nation’s highest court, but only four of the 112 justices appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court have been women, Brown said. She added that only 30 percent of the federal district court judges are women and some districts in the country have never had a female judge.
Brown said she looks forward to the day those statistics grow more reflective of our society.
Brown said she’s seen women’s role in the judiciary transform over the years. She said it was rare to find women working as trial lawyers or as partners in law firms when she began practicing law about 25 years ago. Now, women make up about 50 percent of enrollment in the country’s law schools and more are filling the ranks of partner in major law firms, she said.
“Every day, I see women trial lawyers in my courtroom,” Brown said.
Brown, a Lafayette native who is a graduate of Northside High and the former USL, spoke to about 170 women gathered for a conference that is held each March in observance of Women’s History Month.
The event is organized by South Louisiana Community College and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and features workshops focused on education and empowerment with topics ranging from health and business to self-defense and fashion.
“It’s a day for ‘me,’ ” said Jennifer Jackson, SLCC associate vice chancellor of institutional advancement. “That’s what it’s about. Come and have some fun, but also come and learn something.”
Jackson co-chaired the conference with Pat Cottonham, UL Lafayette vice president of student affairs. Cottonham, who attended then-USL with Brown, introduced Brown, who was the university’s Homecoming Queen and its outstanding graduate in 1985.
Last year, the Alumni Association honored Brown as its outstanding alumna. She received her juris doctorate from Tulane University Law School and prior to her federal judicial appointment served as New Orleans’ city attorney.
Brown described her own road to the federal bench as “unconventional.”
Sometimes, the path to success takes creativity and innovation, she told the crowd.
During her career as an attorney, she said, she switched between practicing law to teaching it to accommodate the needs of her family.
That flexibility was tested following Hurricane Katrina when, faced with rebuilding her practice, she volunteered legal advice as a mediator in her community.
The volunteer work led to formal mediator training at Harvard Law School, which in turn led to a paid mediator job with the American Arbitrators Association helping Katrina victims and an opportunity to create a mediator clinic at her alma mater, Tulane Law School.
Brown said her ability to stay open-minded and adapt to new career opportunities led to the experiences that prepared her for her current judicial appointment.
“We all have the ability to be creative and innovative,” she said.
She said in one of her initial interviews in Washington, D.C., for the judicial post, she was asked why she thought she was a good choice.
She said she didn’t fit the “typical mold” of the majority of federal judicial nominees, who are mostly Ivy-League educated or politically connected, but rather her background and experiences were more representative of the people the judiciary serves.
“Did you hear what Pat said, I grew up in the north side of Lafayette,” Brown joked.
She called her road to the federal bench “unconventional.” She said one of her parents dropped out of school in the third grade and the other in the 10th grade.
“Only in this country could an African-American girl born to parents with no education ... no where else could someone like me be provided an opportunity for so much success and accomplishment,” Brown said.
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