Filed Under Harris County

Harris County Criminal Court

"Black Girl Magic"

The history of Harris County and its' diversity and party affiliation. How straight ticket voting and the election of 17 African American women had an impact on the Harris County Criminal Court.

In 1836, Augustus C. and John K. Allen discovered the city of Houston. Harrisburg County was also formed in 1836, which was a small community east of Houston in the southeastern part of Texas, however, the county seat was moved from Harrisburg to Houston. So in 1839 the name of the county was changed to Harris County in honor of the founder of Harrisburg, John Richardson Harris. Harris County is the state of Texas’ biggest county. As of 2019, Harris County’s population is 4,698,619 with a growth rate of 0.76 percent according to the most recent United States census data, making it the third most populous county in the United States. In regards to party affiliation, Harris County voted Republican at the presidential level from the 20th century until 2008, when Barack Obama was elected, being the first Democrat to win the county since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Harris County is increasingly turning non-white. During the 2008 election, 39 percent of Harris County residents were Hispanic and 36 percent were White. According to recent census data, about 20 percent of the Harris County population is African American and more than 40 percent are Hispanic. Today, there is Democratic power in Houston due to its’ diversity. Houston, Texas and Harris County are one of the most ethnically and racially diverse metro areas in the country, however it has not always been reflected in its’ judges.[1]

This changed when an additional 17 African American women were elected to the bench in 2018. Two African American women were already on the bench, so this brought it to a record total of 19. The 19 African American Judges in Harris County include Judge Shannon Baldwin, Judge Lucia Bates, Judge Ronnisha Bowman, Judge Sharon Burney, Judge Dedra Davis, Judge Linda Marie Dunson, Judge Toria Finch, Judge Ramona Franklin, Judge Lori Chambers Gray, Judge Angela Graves-Harrington, Judge Cassandra Holleman, Judge Erica Hughes, Judge Maria Jackson, Judge Tonya Jones, Judge Michelle Moore, Judge Latosha Lewis Payne, Judge Sandra Peake, Judge Germaine Tanner, and Judge LaShawn Williams. They call themselves "Harris County Black Girl Magic", which is a term used to celebrate the accomplishments of Black women. The election of these judges reflect the diversity of Harris County.[2]

In Harris County, four courthouses were built but they all either deteriorated or were demolished. Finally a fifth courthouse, designed by Charles Erwin Barglebaugh, was completed in 1910 but was not dedicated until 1911. The courthouse was a Beaux-Arts style or Neo-Classical Revival, with six stories made out of Texas granite, brick, limestone, and masonry. A bond issue for a new courthouse was defeated in 1938 saving this courthouse from being demolished. However, due to the growth of the county, a new modern style courthouse was built in 1952. This new courthouse was built by George W. Rustay and Joseph Finger, made out of marble and granite. The firm of Rustay and Finger also remodeled the 1910 courthouse in 1954, which became the Harris County Civil Courts Building. The increasing needs of the Harris County court system led to the building of the Family Law Center, County Administration Building, Civil Courthouse, Juvenile Justice Center, Jury Assembly Center, and the twenty story Criminal Justice Center where the Harris County Criminal Court at Law is located.[3]

County Criminal Courts at Law hear misdemeanor level cases and appealed cases from municipal courts. There are 16 Harris County Criminal Court at Law judges, each judge serves 4 year terms. Judge Ronnisha Bowman is the presiding Judge for Harris County Criminal Court at Law Number 2. A presiding judge serves as chief administrator of the offices of county court manager and coordinator, pretrial release services and other court related services in misdemeanor cases. A presiding judge also presides at any session of the judges and holds an ex officio membership in all the communities created by the judges in session that relate to the goal of achieving a more equal and structured justice system. Judge Bowman is a former Attorney, being a judge wasn’t thought about until later on. She has always wanted to be an attorney because of the injustices she has witnessed from people around her. Bowman also wanted to be able to represent underprivileged people. As the Criminal Court at Law 2, Judge Bowman’s job is to deal with misdemeanor cases that are punishable to up to 1 year in jail, "such as petty theft, assaulting a family member, prostitution, and possession of dangerous drugs." Judge Bowman was elected along with 18 other African American women who were mainly democrats.[4]

Texas is carried by the Republicans, but during the Senate elections in 2018 Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke carried Harris County by 17 points. Democratic candidates unseated more than 50 incumbent Republican judges during this election. Many voters voted straight ticket Democrat, which also contributed to the election of these women. However, each woman worked hard for their position. During her campaign, Judge Bowman took a "hands on approach by knocking on doors, making phone calls, sending text messages, being active on social media, and attending large scale events." According to Judge Bowman, the court has not had Democratic judges in 20 years in Harris County, so she was never sure if she would make it but she loved the process and put her “best foot forward whether she won or lost.” She remained calm and didn’t pay attention to the numbers. When asked about her views on the Democratic changes, she stated that she believes there is a change in the criminal court by making it more “progressive” in criminal justice reform, and “helping people fight their cases outside the confines of a jail.”[5]

Nineteen African American women being elected all at once made an impact on the world. They defined themselves as “Black Girl Magic” during their campaign, which was designed and funded by the Harris County Democratic Party. These women change the courtroom by the presence they bring in the courtroom, bringing balance to the justice system, since African Americans are not represented as much in these professions. With diversity on the bench, they are able to represent and reflect the people and community in the diverse Harris County. They have broken a barrier not only for African American women, but for women in general. Regardless of their race or party affiliation their duty remains the same of being fair in the justice system. They are also able to relate more with minority defendants. According to Bowman she loves working with other African American women, she always has someone to go to for help. These women have made not only an influence on the world, but an influence to young black girls who look up to them and now see someone who represents them in a profession they want to pursue. There are other young Black girls who aspire to attend Law school and become an attorney or judge one day. When asked what advice she would give to other black girls with the same dream, Judge Bowman said to “take it one step at a time.” When looking at the big picture it can become overwhelming and discouraging but not to worry about it and just take it “one bite at a time.” She also advised them to be focused “on the present time and to never give up.” It can become tempting to give up, so she mentioned that it is important to “be around people who have similar goals as you and if you cannot find people with similar goals, encourage and motivate yourself.”[6]

Audio

Interview Interview with Judge Ronnisha Bowman Source: Judge Ronnisha Bowman, Interviewed by Chelsea A. Ratcliff, October 29, 2019, Houston, TX, in author's possession. Creator: Chelsea A. Ratcliff Date: October 29, 2019

Images

Black Girl Magic All 19 Judges, also known as “Black Girl Magic” Source: http://harrisblackgirlmagic.com/about/ Creator: Harris County Black Girl Magic
Criminal Justice Center in Houston, TX The Criminal Justice Center, where the County Court at Laws are located. Source: https://www.texasobserver.org/the-midterms-trigger-a-seismic-shift-in-harris-countys-courts/ Creator: Texas Observer
Harris County Harris County on a map. Source: https://www.bestplaces.net/county/img.aspx?p=4820100_TX_Harris Creator: BestPlaces
Judge Ronnisha Bowman Judge Ronnisha Bowman Source: http://harrisblackgirlmagic.com/meet-the-candidates/1b6a8918-edit/ Creator: Harris County Black Girl Magic
Plaza in Houston, TX Jury Plaza where all the criminal court buildings are held. Source: https://pagethink.com/v/project-detail/Harris-County-Jury-Plaza/4p/ Creator: Page
Judge Bowman’s representation Judge Ronnisha Bowman’s Criminal Court at Law 2 Source: http://www.ccl.hctx.net/criminal/2/default.htm Creator: Harris County Criminal Courts

Location

1201 Franklin St, Houston, TX 77002

Metadata

http://www.ccl.hctx.net/criminal/intro.htm
Chelsea A. Ratcliff, “Harris County Criminal Court,” East Texas History, accessed December 4, 2022, https://easttexashistory.org/items/show/293.