Trailblazer Judges Encourage and Mentor Other African-American Leaders in New Mexico

As part of our DPBC Black History Month celebration, the Blue Review asked Judges Angela and Tommy Jewell to reflect on their journey as leaders of New Mexico’s African-American community and the importance of serving as examples. The two, who graduated from UNM Law School in 1979 and married in 1981, received the New Mexico Black Lawyers Association’s Asante Award in 2019.

By Judge Angela Jewell

Thank you to the DPBC for inviting me to write about my own and my husband’s journeys in the New Mexico Justice system. You will see that our respective paths were somewhat different, yet we are both proud to have met challenges and opportunities to contribute to history and moreover justice, for many in New Mexico.

It was never my burning passion to be a Judge. As a recent graduate of UNM, with a Bachelor of Arts and Science Degree, majoring in English/Literature, I was at a crossroads as to my future career path. A friend, and then UNM Law student, Marsha Hardeman, pestered me to take the UNM Law School LSAT exam, citing the need for African-American women to enter the field of Law.   I did take the test; graduated from law school and went into private practice.  I was appointed as the first Domestic Violence Commissioner in 1988 and became the first Domestic Violence District Court Judge in 1996. I retired from that position in 2010. My husband on the other hand, aspired to be a judge since he was 9 years old and set that as his particular goal. When he was told by a college football coach that he would not amount to anything, it only made him more determined to achieve his aim. He was appointed as the first African-American Metropolitan Court Judge in 1983 and became the first African-American District Court Judge in 1991.

My experience as an African-American judge was initially the same as my experience as one of three African-American students in my law school class,  where I was hesitant and shy. In fact, I would purposely sit in the back of the classroom in the hopes that the professor would not call on me. Tommy, as a fellow law student, was completely the opposite.  He was not hesitant to speak out in class or ask questions.  But I believe we both felt a sense of isolation and were drawn to the support organization we were members of:  BALSA (Black American Law Student Association).  In BALSA we received the mentorship and encouragement of those who came before us. 

I believe that our respective experiences as African-American District Court judges are different and somewhat personality-driven. I’m sure the initial experience of having to perform better and being more under a microscope than other judges was shared. But I think what helped us both was the support of the community, as well as realizing we were setting examples for those with similar aspirations. We both had many mentors and people who encouraged and supported us:  Raymond Hamilton, Marsha Hardeman, Sam Johnson, Harold Bailey, Dr. Charles Becknell, to name a few. The significance of our involvement is that many others followed. Subsequent African-American District Court Judges include Judge Valerie Huling, Judge Stan Whitaker, and Judge Beatrice Brockhouse.  We now have our first African-American Court of Appeals Judge: Judge Shammara Henderson. We have hopes of soon seeing a first African-American Federal District Court Judge in New Mexico. Simply put, our hopes for the future of more African-American judges in every venue have increased because of our involvement. Simultaneously, we know our responsibility to support, encourage and mentor others has increased as well.