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History-Making Black Supervising Judge Retires in San Diego

Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement to pursue a career in law, San Diego Superior Court Judge Randa Trapp’s career was marked by many firsts. This week, she retires after serving as the court’s first Black supervising judge of the civil division.

SAN DIEGO (CN) --- As a student at Gompers Junior High in San Diego during the Civil Rights Movement, San Diego Superior Court Judge Randa Trapp had to learn using books that were falling apart.

“This was back in day --- when you got your book it had a card in the front or a slip of paper and that’s how you knew it was your book. By the time we got our books that little slip was all filled up. Our books were old and tattered we wanted the same quality of education as the kids in other communities,” Trapp said in a phone interview.

The lack of school resources and materials for students at Gompers and nearby Lincoln High School in southeast San Diego prompted a walkout. Trapp joined in.

“We walked out for a better education. We wanted teachers that looked like us --- we didn’t have many or have any. We wanted things to be equal,” Trapp said.

Judge Trapp’s lifelong commitment to education and equality --- sparked by the Civil Rights Movement --- led her to pursue a legal career during which she experienced many firsts. She retired this week as San Diego Superior Court’s first Black supervising judge in the civil division after being the first Black judge in the division, serving 18 years on the bench.

“It is the high point of my career to be in this position. I have done my level best to do not just do a good job, but a great job so that others can be appointed without any hesitance,” Trapp said.

She called San Diego Superior Court Judge Lorna Alksne “bold and courageous and insightful” for appointing her and other Black judges to her executive team.

Trapp said it took her about 10 years to get her undergraduate degree, abandoning her initial plans to become a pharmacist after serving in the Navy as a pharmacy technician. She earned a bachelor's degree in political science from San Jose State University before earning her law degree from Georgetown University Law Center.

Prior to her appointment to the San Diego Superior Court bench by former Governor Gray Davis, Trapp worked as a prosecutor with the state Attorney General’s Office, a civil litigator and as in-house counsel with San Diego Gas & Electric/Sempra Energy. In those positions, Trapp said she was either the first Black attorney to be hired or one of only a couple Black lawyers.

Throughout her legal career, Trapp remained active in multiple professional organizations for Black and women lawyers, serving as past regional director of California Women Lawyers, past president of the Earl B. Gilliam Bar Association and just recently spent five years as president of the J. Clifford Wallace Inn of Court, among other board positions.

She currently serves on the Lawyers Club advisory board and on Governor Gavin Newsom’s Judicial Selection Advisory Committee.

Yahairah Aristy, president of Lawyers Club of San Diego, said she met Trapp while working on a mock trial program for high school students run by Trapp and other Black judges from San Diego Superior Court.

“She is homegrown, so it is cool for kids to see someone that went to their high school is a judge,” Aristy said in a phone interview.

“The qualities that will be missed in our legal community is her commitment to women and youth and women of color. You could just feel how committed she was to that --- she set the standard high for advocating for youth and diversity,” Aristy said.

Trapp made a point to give back to her alma mater Lincoln High School, through the National Association of Women Judges Color of Justice Program, which brings lawyers and judges into high schools to talk to students about pursuing a legal career. She also opened her courtroom for mock trials for high school students.

“I never had that opportunity when I was growing up. I didn’t know any lawyers, or judges or pharmacists, for that matter,” Trapp said.

“I love that program. I love the students to come into the courtroom and to demystify it. That part of being able to have young people come into court, especially with students of color to see someone who looks like them as the judge I think really inspires them to do their best and reach their full potential,” she added.

But Trapp’s commitment to education did not stop with high school students. She was an adjunct professor of law at the University of San Diego School of Law for nearly 20 years.

She also worked with Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Nancy Shaffer in 2014 to develop a course on implicit bias used to train new judges in their first two years on the job through the Judicial Council’s California Center for Judicial Education and Research.

Shaffer met Trapp at a faculty development class and wanted to work with her. But doing so required Shaffer --- who is white --- and Trapp to have honest conversations about race.

“She was able and willing to be really open and candid in our conversations and I think that was absolutely necessary for us to do that in order to put on a course that had any meaning for the people who were taking it. You can’t give a course like that and try to exclude yourself from the conversation,” Shaffer said in an interview. “I have the highest level of respect for Judge Trapp.”

Trapp said she initially wanted to teach substantive courses on discovery.

“I balked at the idea because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed that because I’m a person of color that is the only thing I can teach,” Trapp said.

But after “having some real conversations about race” Trapp said she was convinced to teach the implicit bias course with Shaffer. They kicked it off at Cal County Institute, a collaboration of small counties in Northern California, many of which Trapp said didn’t have any people of color on the bench.

The evaluations of the program were overwhelmingly positive.

Trapp said a Native American woman who took the course thanked Trapp for teaching them and “saying things I am not able to say to my colleagues." That, Trapp said, really “warmed my heart.”

“I really thank Judge Shaffer for pushing me to do this and helping me to understand that me, as an African American teaching implicit bias, is just as important as teaching evidence or discovery or any of the substantive issues,” Trapp said.

For her part, Shaffer said she will teach the course for the last time on April 30. She said she and Trapp developed the course to be taught by other judges and now it will be.

Trapp says she plans for "an active retirement" in private mediation and arbitration. She will also spend time with her grandson and attend all of the Grand Slam tennis tournaments at least once.

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Categories / Civil Rights, Courts

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