La Tia Martin
New York State Supreme Court Justice and Founder, Scales of Justice Academy
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A decade ago, Bronx-born-and-bred New York State Supreme Court Justice La Tia W. Martin wanted to find a way to encourage young women from disadvantaged families to do what she had done: pursue a career in the law. So she founded Scales of Justice Academy, a nonprofit summer college preparatory program for students from New York City area public high schools.
Based at Fordham University and enrolling about 50 students annually, Scales of Justice enlists a small army of lawyers, judges, and law professors as volunteer mentors and teachers. The free three-week program culminates in a trip to Washington, D.C., and a private tour of the US Supreme Court, where, as Martin (Questrom’76) reminds the students, another woman from the Bronx, Sonia Sotomayor, sits as the first Latina, and the second woman, on the country’s highest court.
Martin considers Sotomayor a friend. “There’s a success story for you,” she says.
After earning her undergraduate degree from BU, Martin went on to graduate from Rutgers University School of Law in 1979. She began her legal career as a Bronx County assistant district attorney and then served as inspector general for several New York City government agencies and as general counsel to the sheriff’s office. She was appointed a criminal court judge in 1995, and the following year she was assigned to Bronx County’s domestic violence court. Voters elected her to the county’s Civil Court in 1998 and to the State Supreme Court five years later.
with La Tia Martin
Bostonia: Can you talk about the purpose of Scales of Justice and why you started it?
Martin: At this stage in my career, being a member of the legal profession for almost 40 years, it’s been an awesome opportunity for me. I think doors were open to me. I was blessed to be in the right high school. BU was a wonderful opportunity for me—coming from a high school for 400 students and then attending a college with more than 30,000 students. And I had a great education at Rutgers. It was important for me to give back.
I want these young women to have exposure to the law. How would they know if they’re interested in the law or not? They’ve never met a lawyer, they’ve never met a judge. They’ve never been in a courtroom.
We started Scales of Justice as a pilot program at Pace University in 2009 with 15 high school students from Westchester County and maybe one or two from the Bronx. We recruited students by sending invitational letters to high schools. We were seeking underserved girls, for the most part from low-income families, who had some interest in the law. They had to complete an application and have a reference. We thought it would be a good idea to not only recruit A and B students, but also C students.
We’ve since moved to Fordham, which donates the space; 95 percent of our teachers and mentors are women. We operate on donations from the New York Bar Association, and we have a board of lawyers that helps to raise funds. Because I’m a judge, I can’t participate in any fundraising myself.
The students are there from 9 am to 3:30 pm for three weeks. They have to be in their seats by 9, no latenesses, no absences. At the end of the program we take them on a daylong field trip to Washington by bus. They get a private tour of the Supreme Court and visit the White House and the Capitol, as well as Howard University. These are all experiences they most likely wouldn’t have without this program.
We just celebrated our 10th anniversary, and today have 400 graduates of our program. We’ve identified three of them that are in law school now and others are in attendance at over 20 colleges. Many of the students serve as interns in my chambers.
Tell us about your own upbringing and how you gained exposure to the law.
I never met a lawyer growing up. My parents were both federal government employees. My father worked for the US Treasury Department. My mother worked for HUD [the US Department of Housing and Urban Development]. Education was the key. My parents told me I could do anything I wanted if I worked hard. They put money aside so my brother and I could attend parochial school. It was understood that we would attend college—there was no choice. I excelled in high school. I was president of the Afro American Society. I was involved in a lot of civic organizations. I got a partial scholarship to BU. I was good at math, so I thought I’d go into accounting.
How did you get interested in the law?
I was doing a lot of volunteer work in Roxbury. I was helping out at a food pantry and doing tutoring. In my junior year I got an internship at the Roxbury Defenders Office. I had a mentor—his name was Winston Kendall, and he was a graduate of Harvard Law School. He was really encouraging. So were the other lawyers in the office. I’d go to jail with them when they’d interview defendants. I’d sit at trials with them. That’s how I got interested in criminal and public interest law.
I want our students at Scales of Justice to have that kind of exposure.
You attended BU during a difficult time in Boston’s history—during court-ordered busing to desegregate the public schools. What was that like?
There was a cadre of African American and Latino students at BU and in Boston. We didn’t see much racism. We could just walk down the street. We took the trolleys. I had friends at MIT, at Harvard, at Boston College that were from the Bronx as well. We were really protected. We socialized among ourselves. We had no money, so we didn’t participate in any events in the city. We ate in the cafeterias. We’d socialize in each other’s rooms. There were a lot of folks my age at that time that were pro civil rights. We weren’t really affected by busing.
Did you experience any racism yourself?
We just didn’t feel it. It’s not that we didn’t hear about it. During those times, society was probably more inclined to understand and accept affirmative action. A lot of colleges were reaching out to us during that era. We were all excellent students. My roommate was premed. She’s now a physician. But none of us wanted to stay in Boston after graduation because of that aura of racism.
Was it important to you to begin your career as a prosecutor in the Bronx?
I wanted to come back to the Bronx, where I was born and raised, to have the authority to decide which cases should be prosecuted, which really didn’t merit prosecution.
Have you experienced discrimination in your career?
There’s quite a bit of discrimination in the legal field—in terms of jobs. But for me personally, because I was in the public sector, you tend to have less overt racism. I can’t say specifically that I’ve been a victim of discrimination.
There are attorneys and probably other judges that are not necessarily as cognizant of implicit bias as they should be, but the court system has training sessions on this for judges.
What are the barriers facing your students at Scales of Justice?
The first barrier is that they don’t even know they might have the opportunity to become a lawyer. The second is their parents are saying, “We don’t have the money for college.” Most of these girls are coming from families where the household income is less than $30,000 a year. Then they come to our program and they meet lawyers and a judge and we give them resource materials about grants and scholarships and contacts at different colleges. A whole world opens up to them that they haven’t thought of before.
With every class, we have a graduation ceremony and every student writes an essay about what they took away from the program. They make you cry. The students go home and tell their parents they’ve met a judge, they’ve met lawyers.
They meet lawyers who say, “I grew up in a disadvantaged neighborhood, look at me. I came from a single family parent household, I’m an immigrant and didn’t have status—and look at me.” That’s what we’re telling these girls, and then they say: “Omigosh, I can do this.”
Do you know BU alumni, faculty, or staff who are opening doors or breaking barriers? Email John O’Rourke at email@example.com and recommend them for our “Opening Doors” series.
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