For the first time in Washington history, a Black woman justice will serve on the Washington Supreme Court.
On Monday, Gov. Jay Inslee appointed Pierce County Superior Court Judge Helen Whitener to an open position vacated by Justice Charles Wiggins who recently retired. She was selected from an original list of 11 applicants.
“Judge Whitener inspires lawyers and non-lawyers alike with her relentless work to raise awareness for matters of race, justice and equity,” Inslee said in a statement.
Besides being the first Black woman justice, Whitener, who is originally from Trinidad, is only the second Black justice ever to serve on the state’s high court, according to a spokesperson for the Supreme Court. The first was Charles Z. Smith who served from 1998 to 2002. Whitener will also become only the second openly gay justice after Justice Mary Yu.
"I stand before you, the product of hard work and mentorship," Whitener said following the announcement of her appointment. She went on to offer a message to Washington students who are out of school because of COVID-19. "I want you, the students, to know just as others believed in me, I believe in you, so continue to study and continue to be safe."
In an interview with TVW last November, Whitener said in addition to being Black and a lesbian, she is also an immigrant and disabled.
In that same interview, she spoke about the importance of building “trust and confidence” in the judiciary and noted that Washington courts have a limited number of judges of color.
“Having a judiciary that is reflective of the community that it serves is truly important in raising trust and confidence in the services that we provide as judicial officers,” Whitener said.
Whitener co-chairs the Washington State Minority and Justice Commission and last year received the C.Z. Smith Excellence in Diversity and Inclusion Award from the Washington State Bar Association.
“Judge Whitener is a tenacious, fearless, and compassionate advocate of human rights for all, and she has opened pathways and opportunities for many communities,” Washington State Bar President Rajeev Majumdar said in a statement released by Inslee’s office.
In the TVW interview, Whitener spoke about her efforts to recruit the next generation of women and minorities into the judiciary, through programs like the Color of Justice, and to address what she called the “gavel gap” – that is the gap in the number of women and people of color serving as judges.
“I really believe that if you’re going to inspire folks to the judiciary that’s reflective of the community, you have to bring the community into the courts,” Whitener said.
Previously, Whitener served as a judge on the Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals. In 2015, Inslee appointed her to the Pierce County Superior Court where she was elected to a full term in 2016. Prior to becoming a judge, Whitener worked as a prosecutor and defense attorney. She is a graduate of the Seattle University School of Law.
Whitener has been appointed to serve out the remainder of Justice Wiggins' term. She will stand for election this year and will have to run again at the end of Wiggins' term in 2022. Wiggins, who was first elected in 2010, announced his retirement in January.
In December, Inslee appointed Whatcom County Superior Court Judge Raquel Montoya-Lewis to serve as the first Native American justice on the state Supreme Court. She was sworn in in January.
*This story has been updated.
**This story has been corrected to note that Charles Z. Smith retired in 2002, not 2000.