By Andrew Cohen
Berkeley Law alumna Judge Brenda Harbin-Forte ’79 received the Charles Houston Bar Association’s highest honor Dec. 1, affirming the biggest decision of her career: joining the bench.
“I love being a judge,” Harbin-Forte said after winning the Hall of Fame award from the association, which represents the interests of African-American lawyers, judges, and law students. “It was a lifelong dream that hasn’t disappointed. I enjoy solving the puzzles that cases present and trying to discover the truth.”
Harbin-Forte has served as a judge for nearly 21 years, the last 14 with the Alameda County Superior Court. As a minority woman in a bastion of legal conservatism, she’s achieved a series of notable firsts: the first African-American woman to be elected class president at Berkeley Law, the first to serve as president of the Alameda County Bar Association, and the first to be appointed Dean of California’s B.E. Witkin Judicial College. A fierce advocate for judicial diversity, Harbin-Forte has worked relentlessly to advance that goal.
“As law students, many of us pushed to diversify the faculty and student body,” she said. “We knew what it meant to see people who looked like we did, and the same holds true in the courts. California is almost 60 percent ethnic minorities; it enriches both our law schools and judiciary if they reflect that rich diversity.”
In 2005, Harbin-Forte was appointed to a State Bar task force charged with finding ways to increase diversity throughout the legal profession. But no mechanism existed for gathering data about the gender, racial, or ethnic makeup of California’s judges. So Harbin-Forte tackled the job.
“Judge Brenda, as some affectionately call her, almost single-handedly helped the judicial branch and State Bar leaders see that a diverse judiciary positively impacts the public’s trust and confidence in our court system,” said Donna Clay-Conti ’80, a senior attorney at the Administrative Office of the Courts. “With intelligence, compassion, and unabashed determination, she personifies the concept that diversity and judicial excellence are not mutually exclusive.”
Harbin-Forte helped convince the State Bar to convene a judicial diversity summit in 2006. As chair of a working group that had canvassed California courts, she presented its findings—comparing the percentage of ethnic minority judges and residents in various state counties. “People couldn’t believe those bar graphs and pie charts,” she said. “We had counties without a single minority judge.”
As a result, the state legislature soon passed a law, SB-56, allocating annual funds to tally and publicize judicial data.
“All three members of the state’s Commission on Judicial Appointments, which confirmed Justice Goodwin Liu’s appointment to the state Supreme Court, were women, and two were ethnic minority women,” Harbin-Forte said. “We’re still not where we want to be but we are making progress.”
One of 12 children, Harbin-Forte grew up on public assistance in Meridian, Mississippi. She gave birth to her son, Ken, before her junior year of high school, and moved to Oakland with her family just two weeks later. As a teenage single mother, her scholarly ambitions could have been thwarted. But Harbin-Forte broke the mold.
She finished sixth in her class at Oakland’s McClymonds High School, received financial aid to attend UC Berkeley and then Berkeley Law, and delivered a commencement address at her high school, college, and law school graduations.
“Growing up, my parents couldn’t afford to buy us much, but somebody always donated toys so my sisters and brothers and I would have a good Christmas,” Harbin-Forte said. “When I was a teen parent, wondering if I could make something of my life, somebody came along to encourage me and give me hope. When I wanted to go to law school and then become a judge, somebody mentored me and supported my efforts. When I needed a job, somebody, including John Burris [’73], gave me an opportunity. Whenever I got discouraged in my life, somebody was always there for me, urging and inspiring me to succeed. That’s why I’m so grateful to be perceived as a ‘somebody’ for others.”
A tireless volunteer, Harbin-Forte serves on the board of Berkeley Law’s Center for Youth Development through Law, in which disadvantaged East Bay high school students participate in a summer legal fellowship program with classroom training, internships, and a mock trial. The program seeks to develop the students’ emotional intelligence as well as their academic, communication, and conflict management skills.
Those abilities, says Harbin-Forte, have all been vital to her own success. She practiced complex civil litigation as an associate at two Bay Area firms and became a partner at Thelen, Marrin, Johnson & Bridges in 1990. Two years later, she was appointed judge at the Municipal Court in Oakland.
Never one to retreat from a challenge, Harbin-Forte calls her stint as presiding judge of Alameda County’s Juvenile Division from 2000-2003 one of the most rewarding of her career. During that time, she strengthened the Court Appointed Special Advocate program and played a lead role in combating human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of teens.
“The overwhelming majority of lawyers are wonderful people and incredible advocates for their clients,” Harbin-Forte said. “When I encounter those who aren’t prepared or want to take short cuts, I remind them that this is a noble profession, and that lawyers can advocate while also upholding important ideals.”