The woman had been booked into King County Jail for driving with a suspended license.
When she appeared between Judge Judith Hightower, she asked her to be released because she had to get home in time for her 10-year-old boy.
“And I’m like, well, you knew that,” recalled Hightower, a Seattle Municipal Court judge of 25 years. “Why didn’t you take care of your business?”
Her tone with the woman was chastising. The woman’s reply was devastating.
“She looked at me and explained that her daughter was in the hospital, dying from cancer, and that she was taking her son to see her daughter, his sister,” Hightower said. “And the whole case, the ticket, the court date – all of that slipped her mind.”
They took a break. “We were all crying. I had to go in the back so I could cry by myself,” she said.
For Hightower, this moment was a reminder to find out the stories before reaching a judgment.
Early in her career, Hightower, who retires this year, was often the only woman on the bench and the only black person as well.
“It was important to bring my experience as a black, female, single parent, working class person to that situation,” she said. “I felt strongly that there may be that perspective missing, and that was needed in the judiciary at the time.”
When she first got on the bench, a close friend advised her to use her black robe as a shield to ward away bad energy and keep in the good.
“I did that for a number of years, and it actually worked,” she said. “I always wanted to be patient, fair, compassionate. So that helped me do that.”
She would tell people in her courtroom that she was not judging them as a human being, but judging their behavior.
“I would encourage people to find out who they are,” she said. To the younger people, she would ask them who they wanted to be when they grew up.
And, “Do you have a dream? If you don't have one, I want you to get one.”
Every four years, she would examine her conscience: “Am I still compassionate? Have I become jaded? Do I still like what I'm doing?”
“And if at any time I couldn't answer yes to those questions, I knew I had to leave. Every four years something would happen that would tell me, yes, stay.”