Attorney at Law Magazine sat down with family district court Judge Rhonda Hunter of the 303rd District Court of Dallas County. She was appointed to the bench in 2021 and it has “been quite a journey.”
AALM: How did your upbringing prepare you for a legal practice?
RH: I started practicing law when there were not many African Americans in the Dallas legal community. My parents made sure their five children were prepared for any situation or environment. I was the first African American in my junior high school. I integrated my high school. Then, I got the opportunity to transfer to this innovative high school that taught everything from computers to Swahili. The students were multi-ethnic and creative and super-intelligent. It was a great place having come from being the only person of color in school. After that experience it is not surprising that I was one of only five African Americans in my law school class. So, walking into the bar association building years later and seeing no one that looked like me, was familiar.
AALM: Tell us about your mentors and the lessons they taught you.
RH: My initial legal mentors were Fred Finch, a Harvard educated lawyer who hired me as his law clerk (who was the first Black member of the Dallas Bar); L.A. Bedford, who walked me through dealing with the politics of bar associations; Katherine Reed, who pushed me to get board certified; Louise Raggio, who was my example of causing fear in the courtroom and showing grace outside of it; and Adelfa Callejo, who taught how to be an advocate, a great family lawyer, and an entrepreneur while being unconcerned about popularity.
AALM: What career achievement are you most proud of accomplishing?
RH: I was an associate in an oil and gas firm where I met Katherine Reed, the mentor that steered me into family law. Three years after I went to the firm the oil and gas industry imploded and I found myself in private practice as a solo. I wanted to have a lawyer referral-based business so I started going where I would find a gaggle of lawyers, the Dallas Bar headquarters. I was encouraged to run for the entry level position of secretary-treasurer of the board, a position that had not had a contested election in a decade. Of course, when I ran, the election became contested. I won that election and became the first person of color to be elected to a seat on the Dallas Bar board of directors. After many attempts, I would eventually get on the leadership track by becoming vice-chair of the board. In 2004, I became the first African American and the first person of color to be elected president of the Dallas Bar Association.
AALM: What do you miss about being a lawyer?
RH: I was a trial lawyer, a litigator. That was my passion and what I loved to do. I developed that passion trying termination of parental rights cases to a jury. I became known for the wild ideas I used in front of those juries to get my point across. Those are very serious cases. When I transitioned from lawyer to judge, I realized that there are things a judge can do to prevent having to try what amounts to a death penalty for a parent in the family law arena. It is rewarding to be able to impress alternatives on all the parties before having them face the ultimate decision of keeping or losing their child. Family law is emotional and not everyone can do it. It is often touted as being more dangerous than criminal law. There are many dedicated professionals not only lawyers, but social workers, psychologists, volunteers as well as the court staff who work to help people maneuver the legal system. They are my inspiration.
AALM: Are there any current projects you’re excited to be involved with?
RH: I am on a task force that is re-writing the Juvenile Justice standards for the nation. The way we view children in the justice system is being re-written and I am one of 10 people in the nation that is a part of that. The very idea is daunting. Having worked in juvenile justice and in the child welfare system, I know we need to change how children are treated in court.
When I took the bench, I started a special docket to deal with children and parents at high-risk of failure in some aspect of their lives. Children or individuals caring for them could have severe educational deficiencies, medical disabilities, drug addiction, human trafficking history, suicidal thoughts and other situations that are subjecting families to trauma. The high-risk specialty court is a collaboration of professionals led by three judges – me and two associate judges, who help these families with the resources they need to deal with the trauma they are going through. This is rewarding work and I am proud of what we are doing and proud of the people we are working with.
AALM: How are you involved in the local community?
RH: I am fortunate to be able to continue my “extracurricular” activities. I represent the Dallas Bar Association in the American Bar Association House of Delegates; I serve as immediate past chair of the State Bar of Texas child protection law section; my court is the only Dallas county court partnered as a trauma-informed court with the Supreme Court of Texas children’s commission; and I have convened a court trauma team that is working on improving the experience of litigants that come to the courthouse.
AALM: Who inspires you?
RH: My parents did amazing things, and they raised their children to do amazing things. I know they were proud. Charles and Ann Hunter are my inspiration. They inspire me to greatness, and I aspire that those lawyers who come to me for mentoring and advice understand the need to be the very best person they can be while understanding that we live in this world during unprecedented times.
AALM: Tell us about yourself outside the courtroom.
RH: Spending time with friends and family, traveling the world and coming up with ideas for improving systems that change lives is what makes me happy. And I enjoy having people join me on this incredible journey.