Justice G. Helen Whitener’s career has been a series of “firsts.”
The latest came in November 2020, when she won election to retain her seat on Washington State’s Supreme Court—a position to which she had been appointed by Governor Jay Inslee in April of that year. With that victory, she says, came a revelation: “Unbeknownst to me, I became the first Black person in the state of Washington to win a statewide election.”
Having ascended to the state’s high court after nearly 20 years of serving as a prosecutor, defense attorney, and judicial officer, Justice Whitener is also the first Black woman to serve on the Washington Supreme Court and the state’s first Black LGBTQ judge.
Being a trailblazer is something Justice Whitener didn’t consciously seek, she says, but “as I moved up the ranks, my visibility became more and more important to what I was doing.” She currently serves on a number of boards and committees that speak out for those marginalized by race, class, gender, sexuality, and disability.
Born in Trinidad and Tobago, Justice Whitener emigrated to the United States alone as a teenager to receive critical medical treatment for a back condition. She earned her Baruch BBA in international marketing and, later, a law degree from Seattle University School of Law. In 2015, under the auspices of the U.S. Embassy, she returned to her native country to speak about respect, self-worth, and LGBTQ rights, at a time when same-sex relationships there were punishable with up to 20 years in prison. That law was ruled unconstitutional in 2018.
Mentorship also plays a significant role in Justice Whitener’s life. “Our judiciary is not representative of the people they serve,” she says. In collaboration with fellow judges and organizations, she has led the creation of programs that encourage marginalized girls to pursue careers in law.
“We didn’t get here on our own,” says Justice Whitener. “We’re standing on the shoulders of others, which means they created that path for us. We have a responsibility as we move forward to create a path for others.”