Be visible. Be vocal. Be vigilant.
Pierce County Superior Court Judge Helen Whitener '98 said those are her life's three guiding principles, which she shared with friends and colleagues as Seattle University School of Law and the Women's Law Caucus honored her as Woman of the Year for 2019 this week. The award recognized her accomplishments as well as her activism on behalf of human rights and diversity.
"When I walk into a room, I intend to claim it as a woman," she said, encouraging female law students to do the same. "As a member of the legal profession, you have the privilege of having a voice when others do not."
Gov. Jay Inslee appointed Whitener to the bench in 2015. She was the youngest woman of color to serve on the Pierce County Superior Court, and the first black, openly gay judge in the state of Washington. She's an active and vocal proponent of human rights, access to justice, and encouraging judges to treat all who appear before them with basic dignity and respect.
A native of the Caribbean island nation of Trinidad and Tobago, Whitener came to the United States at the age of 16 for medical care and stayed to earn a bachelor's degree in business administration and international marketing from Baruch College, City University of New York, in 1988.
With her wife, Lynn Rainey '07, Whitener visited her home country in 2015 at the invitation of the U.S. Embassy, to help celebrate LGBT Pride Month and speak about human rights. (Judge Whitener, left, and Rainey, right, are shown above at the Woman of the Year reception.)
That activism continues, as Whitener is currently co-chair of the Washington State Minority and Justice Commission, chair of the Equity and Fairness Committee of the Washington State Superior Court Judges' Association, a board member for the International Association of LGBT Judges, and is active in several other civic organizations.
She also founded an event called Color of Justice in 2017, which brings minority girls ages 11 to 18 together for a day of education with female judges, to encourage them to consider legal careers.
"The photos from that event made my heart sing," said Dean Annette Clark '89. "Judge Whitener is living proof that the quality of justice is only enhanced by bringing new and different voices, perspectives, and experiences to the bench."
Earlier in Whitener's career, she served as a judge on the Washington State Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals and as a pro tem judge in Pierce County District Court and the City of Tacoma Municipal Court. She also worked as a prosecutor and defense attorney.
She's also a proud recruit from the law school's Access Admission Program, which diversifies the legal profession by offering legal education to students from less privileged backgrounds. "That program showed me potential that I didn't even think I had," she said.