Photo by Felix Sanchez
One life lesson Latosha Lewis Payne learned from running track was how to meet a hurdle. And then overcome it.
In high school, she competed in 300-meter events, which include eight hurdles, and was good enough by her senior year that her coach suggested moving to the 400-meter level, which has 10 and is even more grueling.
By the time she was working toward her undergraduate at Tulane University, the 400-meter hurdle had become her signature event. She set a couple of records and won a title in her junior year.
What the presiding judge of the Harris County, Texas, 55th Civil District Court didn’t fully comprehend at the time, though, was that overcoming hurdles had been, and would continue to be, a theme in her life.
Winning a spot among 17 new Black women jurists that voters in 2018 elected to a county bench that had previously boasted only two is just the latest one.
Before that, she had enrolled in secondary-school honors classes on her own initiative.
She had won a scholarship to one of the nation’s most prestigious universities despite a counselor’s recommendation that, given her low-income status, she settle for a more affordable local school.
And she had become one of the first Black students to enroll at University of Texas Law after the Hopwood v. Texas ruling in which a federal appeals court barred consideration of race in the institution’s affirmative-action admissions policy.
Once she became an attorney, she even handled her own parents’ divorce.
“The way that I was taught to attack a hurdle is to take on the challenge with an aggressiveness,” explains Payne, who is seeking re-election this fall. “There is a confidence. There is an ability to fall and get hurt that I take from being a hurdler that I applied to my life. And every day when something doesn’t work or doesn’t go the way I want, I continue to jump up and look forward to the next hurdle.”
LD: That’s such an important skill to have. Tell me a little more about your background, where you grew up and what you hoped your career would be.
LLP: I was born in Florida, but we moved to Houston when I was about 5 years old. My mother was young and had two other daughters, a 2-year-old and a 1-year-old; she had to get a GED because she had me in her senior year of high school, so she didn’t graduate.
She was married to my father, who was in the military at the time, and although she left him after about five years, they remained married for about 30.
LD: Life is always interesting.
LLP: It is: I ended up handling my parents’ divorce because my dad wanted to marry again. He thought that my mother had divorced him some time ago and was about to tie the knot again, so my aunts had to stop him and say, “Actually, you’re still married.” He’s like, “What? I’m still married?” And he called my mom, who told him, “Yes. We never divorced.”
Fortunately, because I was a lawyer, I could file the paperwork for them. The judge looked at all of us and said, “Lewis, Lewis, Lewis. All of y’all?” I replied, “Yes. These are my parents.” So I put that degree to good use.
I’m the first high school graduate on my mom’s side and the second college graduate on my dad’s side. I had an uncle who earned a basketball scholarship to Providence College and eventually went into the NBA and played for about 16 years. He’s the first college graduate on my dad’s side but I’m the second, and I’m the only lawyer.
LD: That’s impressive. Graduating from college is a major accomplishment for anyone, but when you don’t have immediate family members who have carved that path before you, it takes a different level of creativity and perseverance, I think.
LLP: I agree. My mother’s goal, in addition to raising us well, was for us to graduate from high school because she hadn’t. Of course, she wanted us to go to college, but she really didn’t know how to guide us in that process. I knew it was something I wanted to do, so fortunately I figured it out and my sisters followed. When you don’t have someone around with that experience, you just look around and do your best.
LD: What were some of your biggest influences before you reached that point?
LLP: Sports was huge in my life. I told you about my uncle, Otis Thorpe, who played for Sacramento for a long time, and then came to the Houston Rockets and was a part of the 1994-95 team that won the NBA Championship. He “stumbled into college” because of his talent.
My mother, meanwhile, was a huge softball player. We grew up playing softball. That was the first sport we were introduced to, and then my sisters and I all played basketball. We all played softball. We all ran track.
My mom was a super athlete; she was phenomenal. If she had had resources and had not had me, I think she definitely would’ve gone on to play in college. But I was offered a basketball and track scholarship, so I ended up going to Tulane and paying for it with a track scholarship and other scholarships as well.
LD: Your mom must be so proud.
LLP: She is, but it’s all due to her. She worked really, really hard. She always had two jobs. She always was asleep, working or running us around to sports events to make sure that we stayed out of trouble.
‘The Only one’
I had initially intended to go to Tulane and not be an athlete. I was a low-income student, so I was like, “I’m going to get financial aid, and I’m going to take loans, and I’m going to have scholarships.” And then the track scholarship came up.
Later, when I graduated from Tulane’s Newcomb College – one of the last remaining women’s colleges in the United States – one of the deans really pushed me to apply for a fellowship, which I received.
I became a Thomas J. Watson Foundation fellow, receiving about $16,000, and had to commit to a study of my own design and live outside of the United States for a year. I traveled on the continent of Africa and visited a number of countries there.
When I returned to the U.S., it was a year after the Hopwood decision, and the rumor was that I would be the only African-American student in a class of about 550 at UT.
LD: Wow. What was your reaction?
LLP: I had missed a lot of the Hopwood coverage while I was away, and I was given mixed advice on what I should do after talking to friends and to the dean. Some people were like, “Are you sure you want to be that person?” I finally went to my mom and said, “What do you think? I’m going to be the only one. There’s all this media, and there’s all this pressure. Everybody says it’s going to be racist and I’m going to be called this and that, and it’s just not going to be good for me.” And my mom said, “Tasha, you are going to be OK. You have always been the only one. This is not going to be any different. You go to that school and get that law degree.”
LD: What a wise woman.
LLP: Very wise. I never forget her saying, “Whatever, you’ll be fine. This is your environment. You are going to be just fine.” I was like, “You know what? You’re right, mom. You’re absolutely right.”
LD: Wow. And so, were you the only one?
LLP: I ultimately ended up not being the only one. There were four of us in a class of 550, but there was lots of media. There was lots of hoopla. The school put us all in the same section, which they thought would be helpful because we could be a support system for each other. And we were bombarded by national news entities calling our homes, trying to get interviews. We also got comments from classmates and people who divided us, the four of us, from the other students. Because the prior classes had larger numbers of African Americans, some of them would ask, “Y’all came in post-Hopwood; does that mean you’re smarter?” I actually think the African-American students admitted to the University of Texas before me were just as smart, if not smarter, than my class, because it’s difficult to achieve.
LD: I know you spent much of your career in law firms. Did you go to one of them right after graduation?
LLP: I did. I had an environmental studies degree along with a political science degree, and I wanted to do environmental litigation because I wanted to be in the courtroom. I looked at several different environment-focused firms, both in Austin and in Houston, and also clerked for the Environmental Protection Agency. Ultimately, I discovered that Gardere Wynne Sewell had an environmental section, and I got along well with them. I started there in 2000.
LD: And you rose through the ranks to become a partner?
LLP: I did. When I started, there was one other African-American woman ahead of me who was an associate in an office that had about 150 attorneys. Now, of course, the firm had 450 or so attorneys altogether. I did not think I was going to be there long enough to make partner. That was not a part of my plan, but I put my head down and worked hard. I knew nothing about how to make it in law firms or how to avoid critical faux pas that would derail your career.
I count myself really fortunate to have some African-American and non-African American female and male mentors who saw that there were times when I was flailing, stepped in and helped right the ship and gave me good advice. That’s how I was able to figure out what you had to do make it at a law firm and stay there, because I saw many other African-Americans come through that firm who didn’t make it.
LD: And then later, you decided to form your own firm with some other women. Tell me about that.
‘A FIRM FULL OF WOMEN’
LLP: There were actually three women whom I started the law firm with. One was a friend I made from law school, Samantha Trahan. We were both environmental majors and just really good friends. As women at Gardere, we had similar experiences. Even at a partner level, we had seen the difference in valuation in terms of our business. Samantha practiced with another lady, Nancy Kornegay, who had risen through the ranks and joined us as well. The third partner was Amy Dinn, who was also a law school classmate of mine. Three of us had gone to UT, graduated in 2000, had gone on to Gardere, and then eventually formed our own firm. We were happy to get together and be a firm full of women, run by women and very smart, kind and expert women.
LD: Take me from that point to your decision to run for a judge’s seat.
LLP: Once I became a lawyer, I had always wanted to become a judge. But when looked at the political landscape, I knew I didn’t have the connections to become a federal judge. Plus, I was a Democrat, and most of the judges in Harris County and the rest of Texas, were Republican. So I just put that on the shelf and focused on other things. About nine months after I made partner at Gardere, I got a call from a local committee exploring candidates for appointments to judgeships by the governor, a Republican. They said, “Hey, your name came up as somebody whom we thought would be a great judge. Would you be interested?” And I said, “Well, let me think about it. Is he going to appoint a Democrat?”
LD: That would be a twist.
LLP: Right? I heard crickets for a few minutes after asking that question. Although I had been very politically active as a Democrat, even serving as a poll watcher on Election Day, I never really talked politics at the office because I was generally outnumbered except for my close friends. And I did defense work, handling exposure claims for chemical companies, so I think they just presumed that I was a Republican.
They eventually said, “Well, why don’t you let us know when you think about it?” So I did. I talked to a couple of sitting judges who had received appointments and I talked to my friends, and I ended up calling them back and saying, “I don’t think I could do that. I don’t know that I’m comfortable representing myself as a Republican when I’m not.”
LD: Because you couldn’t just take an appointment from a Republican governor and then continued to be an active Democrat. You would have to fall in line, as it were.
LLP: Exactly. That really opened my eyes to the possibilities, though, and I started paying more attention. About a year later, in 2010 or 2011, the Democratic Party reached out to me and said, “Hey, would you think about running? We’re trying to field candidates. We think the tide is going to turn, and we think at some point Democrats will get elected.” I didn’t actually run until 2014; I had had three kids by then and I was looking for the next thing I could do in my life.
Even though we all lost that time around, I got my sea legs. I learned a lot, but it was tough because I only know one way to do something and that’s with as much effort as I can give. I put a lot of hard work into the process, but winning eventually came down to whether you were a Democrat or a Republican. There were candidates who just sat at home the entire time after they put their name on the ballot, and we fared the same.
When people urged me to run again in 2016, I knew it wasn’t the right time. I needed a break. My family needed a break, and my kids needed to be a little bit older. So I didn’t run then, and that’s how I ended up with the 19.
LD: Were any of the judges from 2016 part of the 19?
LLP: No. Some of the other African-American women who ran in 2016 and urged me to run with them, however, won. They were like, “See? We told you, you should have run with us.”
Then in 2018, none of the 19 knew that we were all running at the same time. Everybody made their decisions independently. It wasn’t until the Democratic Party had a meeting of potential candidates and we gathered in this room that we looked around and realized, “Wow.” For me, and I’ve said this before, I really think that God ordered for me to be a part of this group because I certainly ran in ’14 and could have run in ’16, but for whatever reason, I was supposed to be a part of this group. I really do believe that there was something in the works that I didn’t even know was in the works when I was deciding not to run in ’16. I think it was the best thing ever, because I feel so lucky to really be a part of this group of women who are just fantastic. They are extraordinary in their own fields. They knew what they were doing even before they got on the bench, and I think that’s amazing because that’s not the perception that people have of the African-American women or African-Americans, period.
I’m not shy to say, “Yes, I think I was qualified and experienced, but I think the women who came in with me, the 19, are equally qualified, if not more qualified, in the courts that they were elected in.” That puts a huge smile on my face.
LD: What has running a court been like? Have you made changes?
LLP: Yes. I made changes. Among the issues that were important to me before I took the bench were pro bono and self-represented litigants and individuals who aren’t lucky enough to have either the money or the knowledge to work themselves through the legal system. I increased the number of hearings that I have and any time there is an unrepresented litigant, they are given an opportunity to appear and to speak.
A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE
And I try to give as much grace as I can under the law in those circumstances, in order to allow them to either retain an attorney or work through the system themselves. That’s been a huge change, because the law says you can do a lot of things without granting additional hearings or without requiring the opposing party to give notice of certain motions and dispositions. I’ve added those requirements in there to say, “No. You’re going to have to give somebody notice if you’re about to get a judgment.”
Previously, there were not a lot of opportunities to come in and actually speak your piece to the judge or the court. That was, I think, a significant change, and I think the attorneys appreciate it as well.
I also believe that women and African-Americans in leadership positions in court bring a different perspective. We’ve been able to make changes that are obviously within the law but bring more empathy, grace, kindness and compassion to the system when it’s allowable.
I have the perspective of having been poor and not having the access, the know-how, to get justice. I can’t lawyer for people who are in that position from the bench, but I can give them more time. I can refer them and make sure that we have a pro bono, self-represented brochure that gives them access to attorneys. I want to make sure we do that. That’s important to me.
LD: Is there anything else that you’d like to share?
LLP: One is that I was recently elected as the Harris County local administrative judge, and while we have had an African-American who served in this role before, I’m the first African-American woman to do so, and I think it’s good for Harris County and for the judiciary. As a judge, the different perspective that you bring is, in many instances, like a door opening for the people who appear before you, who were maybe appearing before people with whom they had no life connection.
Second, I think of hurdles from my track competitions as an analogy, and I hope that people see in my life story the ability to really embrace the hurdles that come along and love that process because I have.
When I was in high school, I was in honors classes in addition to being an athlete. I was always juggling a million things, and I worked at McDonald’s part-time, whenever I could get hours in, I would go after school, or if I didn’t have practice on the weekends, and I would make a little bit of money.
In my junior year, I met with my counselor to talk about college and she asked what schools I was considering. And I was like, “Well, I’m going to apply to UT and I’m going to get a waiver because I’m poor.” I had taken a PSAT and I was getting brochures from all these different schools I knew nothing about, one of which was Tulane. And I said, “I’m going to apply Tulane.”
And she says, “Well, do you how much Tulane costs?” And I was like, “Yes, because it was included in the brochure.” And she said, “Well, that’s a lot of money. Your mother, you guys don’t have the money for Tulane. Prairie View University is a wonderful institution. It is affordable. I think you should apply to Prairie View, and that’s where you should go.”
And I looked at her and thought, “Wait a minute. I’m in these honors classes, I’m making As. I’m in the top 10% of my class, and you want me to just go down the street ?” So I said, ” I think I’m going to still apply to Tulane.” I walked out of her office and I never returned. I did it on my own. My summer track coach, fortunately, had gone to college – to Prairie View – but he pushed me to apply to Rice and Tulane and other places because he knew I was a smart kid.
I also had a summer track coach who had gone to Stanford and went through my financial aid options with me and provided the counseling that the school counselor had not.
I was lucky I was in the honors classes, where I was hearing about the other schools that non-African-American kids who were my classmates were applying to: Dartmouth, the Ivy Leagues, the University of Texas and Rice and all of those. I realized that I could apply to those places too. I mean, we’re in the same classes. Why not?
I will never forget that experience, and I know that I’m not alone. That was just another hurdle that I had to get past in order to get where I am today.