Judicial trailblazer Judge Jane Bolin graduated from Yale Law School in 1931, becoming its first black woman graduate. Subsequently, she became the first black woman judge in the United States in 1939. During four decades as a judge, she gained notoriety as a champion for children’s rights and racial integration in public agencies.
Bolin was an advocate for children who had no voice. Her legal successes include barring publicly funded childcare facilities from declining responsibility for foster children based on race or religion, and ending the practice of assigning probation officers to offenders based on ethnicity. One of her decisions, which threw out a confession obtained from a 13-year-old after seven hours of unmonitored police interrogation, was later cited by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Every child who comes before the court needs attention and his case must be heard and judgment made in view of all the factors of personality and environment entering into the particular child’s life,” Bolin told the New York Herald Tribune in 1943. In a partnership with Eleanor Roosevelt, she established a school to rehabilitate African American boys in the juvenile detention system.
Bolin’s legal prowess was reinforced by her work ethic. For much of her career in the New York City Domestic Relations Court, she often stayed at work until 11 p.m. to adjudicate as many as 70 cases per day, and was recognized for having the lowest adjournment rate of all the lawyers in the court. “No matter how late one sat,” she recalled in a 1990 interview, “one took time to give each case all the necessary time.”
Despite her legacy, law school was very isolating for Bolin. After graduating from Wellesley College, Bolin attended a Yale Law where some professors blatantly ignored her inside and outside the classroom, and fellow students allowed the heavy wooden doors to slam in her face. According to historian Jacqueline McLeod, author of Daughter of the Empire State: The Life of Judge Jane Bolin, “Though it had been exactly ten years since the University Corporation at Yale voted to admit women for legal education, the climate was no more welcoming of women than it had been before this decision, and doubly hostile for black women.”
Today, we remember Bolin for her work to validate the humanity of those people entrenched in the court system, even those convicted of violent crimes. Violent youths, she insisted, were a direct result of harsh upbringings and the government’s failure to provide for its citizens. Any child convicted of a crime, she argued, could be rehabilitated with proper care and attention. “The violence in our society is reflected in them,” Bolin reflected.