By Edward Henderson
California Black Media
The Supreme Court Ruling overturning Roe vs. Wade has opened the eyes of the public to how much representation matters when it comes to decision makers in courtrooms across America. This revelation has raised awareness on the local level as well.
On the November 8th General Election ballot will be two African American Women running for judgeships on the Superior Court of Los Angeles County. Holly Hancock is running for judge seat no. 70 and Melissa Lyons is running for judge seat 90. Both won their June primary races taking 47% and 35% of the vote respectively.
Hancock is a unique candidate for judge because she is a public defender with significant trial experience. A vast majority of individuals running for a judicial seat have been prosecutors.
“There has never been a public defender elected in Los Angeles County,” said Hancock. “Black, White, Male, Female, nothing. It says a lot about how the bench is very unbalanced. We are trying to balance the bench.”
In California, 9 out of 10 judges are appointed by the governor. For example, Gov. Newsom, just selected Pamela Dansby to serve as a Judge in the Los Angeles County Superior Court and she is a former public defender. A graduate of Southwestern Law School, Hancock believes her 16 years of experience as a public defender gives her a unique perspective when it comes to making rulings. Because defense attorneys are always negotiating, they look for solutions instead of simply handing out harsh penalties and imposing high bail amounts. Hancock has represented homeless and mentally ill individuals and believes these things need to be in consideration when examining a case.
“The county did not have the resources to give the clients the kind of treatment that they needed in lieu of sending them to jail or prison. The prosecutors continued to file for jail and prison and continued to file these cases as if the person was perfectly sane. That was always a problem for me from the very beginning … Once I was in felonies and people were getting really long sentences, I just felt like there should be more and better discretion used.”
This will be Hancock’s second time running for a judge’s seat. She suffered a narrow defeat in 2018 and believes this time around the outcome will be different because she has gained the trust of the community through her grassroots campaign.
With the small number of Black judges in the Los Angeles Superior Court compared to the number of Black defendants in court, Hancock believes more qualified people need to see this route as a possibility. “It’s 4% of black women on the bench and 3% of black men on the bench. That’s 7% total. I can safely say that it’s about 38% of black people in criminal courts in LA County. That’s a huge amount. We’re not talking about who’s behind the bench. It’s not the same look behind the bench than in front of the bench.”
Lyons offers the unique perspective of being an immigrant from Jamaica. Her family moved to the United States when she was 11 years old and settled in a small farming town in Iowa where they were the only black family. She attended Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and then attended Loyola University law school because of her desire to be a voice for others and to speak out where injustice and inequality exist. “I’m an immigrant and I personally understand the generational impact a single decision can have,” Lyons said. “That’s the mindset I’m coming into my decision making with. There is no decision that’s too small. It might be the 3000th traffic ticket of the day but for that person that’s in front of me that traffic ticket can mean the difference between rather or not they eat. Those are things you have to think about, obviously while still operating within the law.”
Lyons has been a Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney since 2006. She is currently in charge of juvenile prosecutions at the Superior Court’s Compton branch. She has completed more than 85 trials. She was assigned to the District Attorney’s Sex Crimes Division, including a two-year tenure at Stuart House, where she exclusively prosecuted sexual crimes against children.
Lyons understands the impact electing a Black woman a judge could have on fellow judges in the Superior Court. “I also think it is important behind the scenes in terms for judicial officers as well. People act different when other people are in the room. I think diversity on the bench is just as important for the public as it is for judicial officers because the more interaction you have with diverse people you get to learn things that you may not have had an opportunity to do before.”
Lyons believes that the greatest challenge her campaign has had to overcome has been bringing awareness to voters of how important voting for judgeship is and getting her name out there enough so people can make an informed decision. There are limitations on what stances candidates can take while campaigning, but Lyons does her best to leave a lasting impression when she attends events.
Hancock and Lyons hope to join Judge Carol Elswick in the Superior Court who retained her seat by receiving 68% of the vote during the June primary.