Knowing How to Lead

Retired Chief Justice Carolyn Wright discusses making a difference

Written by Amy M. Stewart

In the final session of a three-part series titled “Judges Making History,” hosted by the Dallas Association of Young Lawyers, attorney Amy M. Stewart interviewed Carolyn Wright, retired Chief Justice of the 5th court of appeals in Dallas. What follows is a summary of the oral interview.

Picture of retired chief justice carolyn write standing in front of 

the american and texas flags and holding a gavel in her hands

When asked to describe the influence her father had on her, former Chief Justice Carolyn Wright, of the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas, lamented the difficult relationship she had with him growing up. Her mother ascertained that it was due to the chief justice and her father being just alike. She recalled that her father was a strong-willed military man who despised mediocrity and was committed to principles, structure, honesty, personal responsibility, excellence, and strict discipline. “He had an incredible work ethic. It was just amazing. It was duty first. It was family. It was obligation. He didn’t believe in borrowing, and he didn’t believe in lending anymore than you can afford to give away. He also believed that leadership training should begin very early in our home. His theory about leadership training is the opposite of what most people teach. His belief was that you have to learn to be a good leader before you can become a good follower. In his view, you need to know how to lead before you follow in order to recognize and choose good leaders. In his words: ‘If you see that someone is leading you in the wrong direction, you need to know how to lead in order to self-correct. Don’t ever let anyone lead you over a cliff.’”

Wright recalls her mother as outwardly delicate and small in stature, while also being quietly and powerfully effective. “She is brilliant and began reading and playing music to all four of her birth children early in her pregnancy. She loves classical music. My father loved the blues. I happen to love both. My mom said that my father gave me a gift of a steel fist. But I need to keep it covered in a soft velvet glove because it is unbecoming when left exposed. I really love her for that because she made me much softer, much kinder. It was a great contrast.” Wright reflected on her childhood years in Japan while her father served in the Air Force. She learned to be multicultural, to like and to appreciate other people, food, and cultures. While it was a good life, it was also sheltered. Her father wanted his family to be out of the United States to decrease the probability of situations in which the family would be faced with racism. Eventually her father decided it was time for his family to move back to the States to experience the changes of 1960s America. He told Wright she had become spoiled and privileged. He had observed her teenage behavior, demands, and some complaints about the housekeeper and he didn’t like them. So, he announced they we were not living a real life. He insisted the family return to the States, where his children could see that their family couldn’t afford a housekeeper, masseuses, lawn services, and all of the amenities they enjoyed abroad. He thought it was time his children learn to be Black in America with all of its harsh realities. Despite Wright’s ongoing protests, her father was adamant. “You will never adjust to being Black in America if I don’t take you back now. America is your home. If you make a decision to come back to Japan, it’ll be on your own.” So, Wright came back to America to learn to be Black in America.

Carolyn Wright (left) at age 5 with her sister Patricia at age 3. Photo courtesy of retired Chief Justice Carolyn Wright.

After high school, she pursued an associate degree in paralegal studies to secure professional experience before completing her undergraduate studies and earning her juris doctor from the Howard University School of Law, while also working in the Washington, D.C., mayor’s office. As she began working, Wright viewed Martin Luther King Jr. as the most reasonable voice in America on the volatile issue of civil rights. Understandably, she was angry and confused by the vilification, denigration, and ultimate murder of King. Wright’s personal struggle in understanding issues of racism in America was further complicated by the involvement of some of her most revered governmental law enforcement agencies in reprehensible acts of violence and harassment of peaceful civil rights workers and protesters. As her own confusion, anger, and frustration mounted, she began to question how or if she could ever make a difference in America if this was the same America that her father had fought for in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. Wright felt quite strongly that her father had already paid her price for freedom. As she forged her way through “paths less traveled,” she would do so unapologetically, expressing that she didn’t owe anybody anything for her rights as a citizen.

Picture of retired chief justice carolyn wright in a group picture 
with her family at an event
From left, Dr. Patricia Wright, Chief Justice Carolyn Wright, Michael Wright, and Judge Tania Wright with their parents, Adell Wright and Alvora Lightfoot Wright. Photo courtesy of retired Chief Justice Carolyn Wright.

As news of King’s death spread, riots immediately broke out in D.C. as well as other major cities throughout the country. Thousands of military personnel and military tanks rolled down the streets of Washington. Wright hadn’t seen tanks since her days living at military bases. It was like a war zone. It was a painful time in her life, and the recent events of today “have just shaken me to the core, because I thought that all of this had somehow been resolved.”

Throughout her years at the D.C. mayor’s office, she worked hard to help restore the city back to some semblance of normalcy. During the restoration of D.C., Wright learned the degree to which the devastating impact of discrimination and the inability to access services can have on a community. It was also a lesson in how destructive anger and feelings of hopelessness can be when ignored and left to fester until they simply boil over. There is a point at which people who are marginalized and treated unequally at every turn “from the cradle to the grave” simply survive. They find it difficult to be optimistic or to feel invested in their country or communities. In a nation as plentiful as ours, there is still so much work to be done when so many of its citizens feel they have been denied its opportunities and advantages. Yet they are expected to fulfill all the obligations of its citizenry. This is why she felt it was so important to work with people on all sides to bring about greater harmony and substantive changes. Wright’s boss, mentor, and closest friend for more than 50 years, James Jones, Ph.D. and special assistant to Mayor Walter Washington, was so impressed with her outstanding work and dedication to public service rendered to youth and families during this crisis (1968-1974) that he insisted on her completing her undergraduate studies and threatened that her position would be abolished if she then failed to enroll in law school.

Upon arriving in Dallas as a licensed attorney, she found no African Americans in majority law firms. Judge Eric Moyé, of the 14th District Court in Dallas County, was the first African American that she knew of to join a majority law firm in Dallas. Wright was quite an oddity herself as the only African American woman in the full-time practice of law in Dallas when she first arrived. During her first few years, many people called her office just to make appointments to meet her. While Wright developed quite a diverse practice and client list, she quickly realized that she would have to start charging a fee for consultations to weed out the social visits. She also acknowledged with gratitude the tremendous showing of support from African American male attorneys and judges in Dallas, such as Judge Louis A. Bedford, attorney Fred Lander, Judge Berlaind Brashear, retired Judge H. Ron White, and former Judge Larry Baraka, who assisted and mentored her during the early days of her career.

Before Wright thought of starting her own 35-year journey serving in the judiciary, she spent years helping others with their campaigns and practicing in the courts. She was already a well-known and respected litigator when she was urged to apply for a position to which she was unanimously appointed in 1983—associate judge of the 254th District Court in Dallas County. Former Chief Justice Linda Thomas, of the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas, was then the presiding judge who recommended that she be hired. That occasion marked the first time in the history of Dallas County that an African American was appointed as an associate judge. That career move started a whole list of firsts.

During her service as an associate judge, Wright earned the respect of both the bench and the bar. Thomas mentored Wright throughout her career, urging her to teach, speak, and write with greater frequency for bar associations, professional associations, civic organizations, colleges, law schools, and CLEs. This serves the twofold purpose of keeping yourself abreast of the law while educating the public and maintaining a frequent, positive presence in the public’s eye. Mentors are keys to success for their successors and should be greatly valued.

Three years later, Thomas decided to run for justice on the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas. On this occasion, and on each occasion of her professional moves thereafter, she advised Wright in advance. She encouraged her to seize those opportunities to form the necessary alliances and secure commitments from supporters. That placed her in the position to announce her candidacy first. Both were elected in their respective elections. When Wright was elected judge of the 256th District Court in 1986, she became the first African American woman to be elected to a district court in the history of Dallas County. Eight years later, Thomas ran for chief justice of the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas and was successful, making her the first woman elected to that position. The same year, Wright then sought and received the appointment of Gov. George W. Bush to the vacant seat. In 1996, Wright was successfully elected. Her election marked the first time in Texas history that an African American woman had been elected in a multi-county election for any elective office, including the 14 Texas courts of appeals.

Upon Thomas’ retirement in 2009, Gov. Rick Perry appointed Wright to the position of chief justice. She was, again, elected. This election marked the first time that an African American in Texas history had been elected as chief justice of any of the 14 courts of appeals in Texas. Wright retired on December 31, 2018. When Wright retired, Thomas got quite a laugh and a big thank you when she quipped, “Well, I guess if I had never moved, you would have never had any place to go.” Both retired chief justices continue to mediate cases and sit by assignment of the Texas Supreme Court on Texas trial and appellate courts.

Wright hopes that young lawyers will be able to learn from a few of her life experiences and a bit of her advice as they continue their legal careers. She believes the foundation her father laid is helpful advice for young lawyers regarding their own self-discipline, integrity, and work ethic. Young lawyers must always remember how hard it was to get that law license. Remember that every day when you are handling someone’s case. The former chief justice wouldn’t trade her law license for anything in the world. It’s not to be sold, bartered, or bought. She protects it at all costs and believes in giving excellence in service to clients. The law license is the attorney’s lifeline. Attorneys should ensure they are proficient in the law by keeping up with CLE. In fact, Wright believes it is absolutely crucial not to practice law haphazardly. As Wright’s father would say: “You cannot be lukewarm about practicing law.” If you decide that it is your time to get out there, be certain that both you and your clients are well protected in your practice. TBJ

This summary of an oral interview has been published with permission by retired Chief Justice Carolyn Wright and the Dallas Association of Young Lawyers.

Headshot of Amy StewartAmy M. Stewart, founding partner in Stewart Law Group, leads the only minority and woman-owned law firm in Dallas focused on the areas of general civil litigation, labor and employment, arbitrations, personal injury, and insurance defense. She is a frequent speaker at local, state, and national legal and non-legal conferences. In 2020, Stewart received the Texas Minority Counsel Program’s Trailblazers Award for her efforts to increase opportunities for minority and women attorneys in the legal profession.

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