This is the second in a two-part series of columns based on a discussion with Cook County Associate Judge LaGuina Clay-Herron. In the first portion of the discussion, Judge Clay-Herron discussed her years as a teacher in Chicago Public Schools, and the story of her first appearance in a courtroom as a new lawyer.
In this Part 2, Cook County Associate Judge LaGuina Clay-Herron spoke with me about her involvement in a class-action suit against racial profiling. Our interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
Clay-Herron: Let me tell you a story about racial profiling. My best friend and I — we’ve been friends for over 30 years, we went to college and everything — we would go to Jamaica every year, sometimes twice a year.
I was a school teacher at the time, and it went into me being a lawyer. She was a human resources director for one of the biggest companies out there. Each time we would go and come back, U.S. Customs would detain us.
Panter: Every time?
Clay-Herron: Every time. When we got off the plane, U.S. Customs had a manifest with our names. As soon as we stepped off, they would be there with the drug dogs. If the drug dogs sat down next to you, that means they smelled drugs. Of course, the dogs would never sit next to us because we didn’t have drugs. We were law-abiding citizens living on the right side of the law, had never been arrested, don’t do drugs, don’t drink. We didn’t have anything against us.
Because at this point it had happened, I didn’t know anything. Now I’m a lawyer, and I realized you can’t sue Customs, they have a right to protect the borders.
Clearly you know it was racism, but as a lawyer I kept saying, “There’s really nothing I can do, but I know this is racist.”
They would throw us against the wall. It was just horrible. They went through our luggage — every tube of lipstick they took and x-rayed like we had drugs. We would just be there forever.
We would have limos picking us up. The limousine drivers didn’t know where we were. We were unable to make phone calls. We couldn’t call our families. Our families didn’t know and they’re calling, “Well the plane landed five hours ago!” It was horrible.
One day, I was watching television. Up came the news. There was a school teacher that I worked with, she was on the news with an attorney, Ed Fox — he still practices today — and he was talking about the vacation the teacher had taken to Jamaica and she got this treatment that I had been getting for years and years.
He said, “You can’t sue United States Customs, but I’m going to see what I can do on this case.”
When I heard that, I called him. I said, “Look, I know that teacher, because we work together. I had the same experience for many years.”
Before you knew it, he had 60 African-American women — Rhodes scholars, doctors, lawyers, teachers, all professionals — none of us had any records of any kind. All the times they had stopped us, they never found anything on us at all.
He took the case on. A whistleblower came forward and said, “Oh yeah, they racially profile black women.”
It hit the news. “Dateline” got wind of it, they came out, they did a story. They interviewed all 60 of us. They only aired five people’s stories. I was one of those. My best friend was one, as a coincidence, and three of the other women.
Then right after that, 9/11 hit. Our case has been going on since ’97, it kept going. Once 2001 hit, now the country is saying, “We have a right to racial profile. See? This is why.”
That weakened our case, but we kept going, kept going. They worked for years deposing all the U.S. Customs people, deposing us, trying to figure out what’s going on. They finally settled the case. We didn’t get too much money. The money was on a sliding scale, whoever had the most egregious harm.
Now if you are detained, you get to call someone. It’s not fair that you’re gone for three days and people don’t know where you are. Now you can make a phone call. They have to tell you why they’re doing it. Each time we would ask, “But why are you doing this to me? Why?” They wouldn’t say anything. They just treated you like you were criminals. “Turn around! Shut up! We’re gonna lock you … ” It was just that type of humiliation.
Wasn’t that horrible? It was just like, “That’s how this country treats me.”
They ask you, “What do you do for a living?” “I’m a lawyer and a teacher.”
“Sure you are. Where you get your money to go flying over to Jamaica?” They would talk to us like that.
I’m like, “This is my country. I haven’t done a thing. I’m hard-working. I’m saving my money. I can go on vacation if I want to.”
Panter: Would you lose your temper with them?
Clay-Herron: No, because I was afraid. I was afraid that they could take you. We knew what they were capable of doing. I mean, you would get angry. I’m crying and I would fuss back, but I wouldn’t do anything violent.
Panter: You didn’t stop going to Jamaica?
Panter: For one minute.
Clay-Herron: Not for one minute. We kept going. We kept going, and they kept stopping us, kept doing that horrible stuff to us until we finally got legal help. That experience taught me what it feels like to be prejudged.
Panter: What did you learn from teaching that you think you brought to the bench?
Clay-Herron: Patience would be the first thing. I don’t think you learn patience. I think you’re born with it and you cultivate it and tweak it and get it just right.
After having taught school for 17 years, patience is No. 1. I can’t even rank them, but these are the things that help me. Everything about being a teacher has.
Panter: Let’s talk about it a little bit.
Clay-Herron: Being organized, definitely. Having to prep. As a school teacher, you have to prepare ahead of time — prep, prep, prep. That definitely helped me.
I’m always trying to stay ahead and know what’s coming so I’m not blindsided. You always have to go back and supplement and change, but of course you’re always working ahead.
Also, understanding different personalities, different mental-health situations with my students. When you have a classroom of 35 students, everyone is totally different. Some are easygoing, some are high-strung, some can’t work this quickly, some work faster, some are angry, some are happy --
Panter: Just like lawyers.
Clay-Herron: Just like lawyers. I have learned that if you treat everyone, at least on the surface, in terms of their treatment and not prejudging, which is crazy coming from a judge. I learned not to prejudge and to start everyone off on the same page, at the same starting line, and go from there. You treat everyone fairly, with dignity and respect. You never belittle anyone. You never try to hurt anyone’s feelings.
As a teacher, that was so important that I never, ever hurt a child’s feelings. They look up to us. It’s like attorneys, a lot of the attorneys really look up to judges. You don’t want to demean them or hurt their feelings.
Also, you want to not hold any grudges. If a child did something to me, or not to me but did something where I had to reprimand that child, after I finished reprimanding that child I go back to keep treating that child the exact same way, with all the love, care, concern, nurturing, that you do with all the kids.
You never hold on to anything. You never want that child to feel, “Now Ms. Clay doesn’t like me because I did this yesterday.”
No. Every day you start off clean and new.
That works well in the courtroom as well. An attorney may do something that ticks you off, and you’re angry or you felt that was disrespectful. The next time you see them, you start over clean.
That person has the opportunity, obviously, to redeem themselves, to show you, “That’s not who I am.”
I never want anyone to feel self-conscious or think that I’m prejudging or I’m holding on to something else. Obviously it’s in your head if someone has breached some level of trust with you that you can’t get past. You’re going to stay on notice, but you always treat people consistently the same way every time.