People of SU / Society / Justice and Law

First But Not the Last

Written by Andrew Binion

February 27, 2023

Graphic featuring WA Supreme Court judge Whitener

The first Black woman to sit on the WA Supreme Court didn’t consider any other law school but Seattle University and sees her work as mentoring others.

As we celebrate Black History Month, The Newsroom is spotlighting Black-owned small business owners and civic leaders. In this second installment, get to know Justice G. Helen Whitener, ’98 JD, who sits on the state’s highest court.

Though Justice G. Helen Whitener is the first Black woman and first Black openly LGBTQ justice to serve on the Washington state Supreme Court, the 1998 Seattle University School of Law graduate does not think this stands out as an accomplishment deserving of special recognition. 

“All it means is that I'm the first, but I'm not supposed to be the last,” Whitener says. “It puts a little pressure on you to do well, but it's nothing fantastic. It just means you have work to do.”

Appointed to the state’s high court in April 2020 by Gov. Jay Inslee, Justice Whitener has since won election twice, first in November 2020 and then again in 2022 when she ran unopposed for a full, six-year term. Whitener is the second Black person to serve on the state’s high court, after the late Justice Charles Z. Smith, who served on the court from 1988 to 2002. 

Whitener’s appointment followed a career at the trial court level as a prosecutor and defense attorney. After catching the eye of a judge who encouraged her to consider becoming a judge herself, Whitener served as a pro tem judge, then as a judge on the state Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals and next as a Superior Court judge in Pierce County. Originally from the Caribbean island nation of Trinidad and Tobago, Whitener came to the United States for medical treatment at age 16 but remained to attend college and begin her career.

With the WA State Supreme Court, Whitener sits on what has been described as the most diverse high court in the country. Not only is she the first Black woman on the high bench but is also the first openly gay Black state Supreme Court justice in the country and the only Black openly gay judicial officer in the state.

She also identifies as someone with a disability due to her back condition, for which she will be on medical leave starting next month to allow for her to undergo major reconstructive surgery.

The work Whitener sees before her in being the first includes continuing mentoring and creating pipelines into the legal profession for others. But being the first also means breaking down barriers and showing the general public that people besides white men, who have historically been in positions of power and authority, are capable. 

Though watching Perry Mason growing up may have planted the seed of a legal career, she credits mentorship for her path into the law from working for a Bellevue accounting firm. There, another SU law alum recommended she attend Seattle University School of Law, the only school she considered.

When she applied she learned about the Academic Resource Center, or ARC, which gives students support and guidance up through the bar exam. She knew this school was the right fit for her.

“I thought, ‘Yeah, this is where I need to go,’” Whitener says, noting that her prior exposure to the law was through the British-based legal system growing up in Trinidad. “I had no idea about the American legal system, had no interaction with it whatsoever. So (ARC) was a really helpful program to come through. It helped acclimate me to what I was about to experience.” The law school would also, years later, factor into her connection with an alum, Lynn Rainey, ’07, who she would later marry. 

“Justice Whitener is an extraordinary alumna,” says Seattle U Law Dean Anthony E. Varona. “She has blazed trails, shattered ceilings, made history and is a sterling role model for our students as a jurist and attorney committed to inclusive excellence and to bridging law and justice.”

Since taking the bench, Whitener has not actually sat with her colleagues at the Temple of Justice on the Capitol campus in Olympia.

First, with the COVID-19 social-distancing protocols in place, she heard oral arguments while in the “vacuum of Zoom.”

But with the court hearing cases last term in-person, justices are hearing oral arguments while housed at a temporary facility while the Supreme Court’s building is renovated.

“It took me two years to actually sit with my colleagues on the bench, which was the last term we just finished,” Whitener says. “That was the first time.”

Whitener praised the attorneys who appear before the court, her colleagues and her clerks and says she loves the challenges the job presents.

“I grasp things fast, but I get bored easily,” she says. “I haven't been bored yet. So, I think that's a good thing.”