By: Chelsea Davis-Bibb, Ed.D.
As an only child, Judge Elaine Marshall grew up as an “air force brat.” Her family moved to different places all the time. San Antonio, Texas was one of the places her father was stationed, and she ended up graduating from Sam Houston High School in1973. She graduated with honors and was one of the valedictorians (they had two).
One of the rules that was enforced in her house was “you will graduate, and you will go to college.” After high school, Judge Marshall knew what school she wanted to attend for college, but it was an all-boy school. With that in mind, she applied for Harvard, Stanford, Duke, Yale, and a few other places, but still had her heart set on one school.
One day, her college counselor comes running down the hall saying, “You’re not going to believe this…your university is going co-ed and they’re letting women transfer in. You have an opportunity to take a test to be a Notre Dame scholar and be one of the first women to go to the University of Notre Dame.” Judge Marshall was selected as one of the 12 Black women they let in. “We were like the ground breakers,” she stated.
Being there was an honor for her, but it was also a challenge. She mentioned, “We had such a crazy experience… because we were new to them, and they were new to us.”
In 1977, Judge Marshall graduated with a degree in psychology and Black studies with a minor in language. After graduating, she applied to several law schools and was accepted to The University of Texas (UT) in Austin. She had a different experience at UT from her experience at Notre Dame. At Notre Dame, they did not judge her by the color of her skin, but at UT, they did. “At Notre Dame, you worked hard, you got the grade you deserved. At UT, you had to step it up…it was just harder and different.”
In 1980, Judge Marshall graduated from law school and became a lawyer in 1981.When she completed law school, she received a job with the District Attorney’s office in Houston where she served as the Assistant District Attorney under Johnny B. Holmes for eight years. She was then appointed as a full-time judge in 1987, and she has served in this position for 35 years.
As a judge she has had obstacles as well. “For women and for women of color, if you are assertive, you’re labeled aggressive. You have to maintain the decorum of your courtroom. You have to make sure that you are running your courtroom and operating your courtroom according to the law, fairly and justly.”
In addition, she mentioned how people would always challenge her. “When I was a prosecutor and sitting on the bench, some of the things that people challenged you on as a Black woman judge, they would never challenge anyone else in the county or anywhere else, or even some of my peers that way. So, you have to always maintain your dignity in terms of how you run your courtroom, and to know that you’re intelligent enough to rule the right way and to do the things that are necessary to do it.”
She discussed how she prided herself in being the same every day with everyone. “I ran my courtroom that way and most of the lawyers would agree with me that I was fair to everybody.”
On December 7, 2016, selected by Mayor Turner, Judge Marshall was the first African American judge appointed to serve as Director and Presiding Judge for the Municipal Courts Department. She stated, “I am the first Black Director and Presiding Judge for the fourth largest city in America.”
Judge Marshall plans on retiring as a judge one day, but there are some other things she would like to do, which is to try cases with her daughter who is in the law field as well. She reflected on one of her “blessed and proud moments” was hooding her daughter when she graduated from law school and swearing her in to the practice of law when she passed the bar. She has also thought about going back to teaching as she previously taught at Thurgood Marshall School of Law for seven years.
In addition, she was part of the team who started teen court for the city of Houston. “When we first started, we had 13 student volunteers, and now I have over 180 students.” They teach the students to try real cases, serve on the defense side and act as jurors, and it is a fantastic program because these kids are really absorbing what the legal field is like.”
Judge Marshall enjoys working with the kids and giving back. “For me, it’s the kids… investing in them, investing in their future, and letting them know they can do it.”
If she had a chance to give advice to her younger self, it would be to “never doubt the possibilities that lie ahead of you, never give up, and always follow what you think is best for you.” For young Black women who want to be in her shoes one day, she stressed the importance of them reaching out to the Black women judges that are serving in the field and learning the role and what it truly means to be a Black woman judge.
In closing, she reflected on the words of her grandmother who said, “What you are is God’s gift to you and what you make of yourself is your gift to God, and further stated, “I am so proud to represent the city of Houston…I am honored, I’m humble, and I don’t take my position lightly.”