United States Supreme Court Building in Washington DC, USA.

When a real queen holds court: Tracey Cosby says being a judge was fulfilling, but most of her work is off of the bench | The Light Series

6 mins read

In every crease and fold of the judicial robe worn by Tracey Cosby, there are complex stories showing a robust journey to judgeship. From an organizational leader to a US veteran, she continues to work towards giving voice to those who are silenced.

There are two moments that define me in the light series. The first and only time I received an epiphany, was when I was deeply involved with the NAACP in my early thirties. It was at that time and moment, I realized my calling was as an activist for social change, and an advocate for uplifting historically oppressed and disadvantaged populations in America. 

That moment I felt compelled to bring change was the genesis of all my pursuits, including Law School. At the time, I was a wife and mother of a toddler, working in Corporate America, when I decided to attend Law School. For me, being an attorney would enable me to bring back a body of knowledge to better organize the community and create positive changes toward the advancement of those whose voices had been silenced.

The second moment that defines me is when I realized I could do much more for the underserved community by becoming a judge.  At the time, I had a per diem public defender contract with a local urban city. I loved representing those who could not afford to retain private counsel. I also recognized the deep flaws in the judicial system that were often, and unknowingly, disparate in how it dispensed justice between those with private counsel and those with a public defender. 

The skill sets of the public defender and private counsel are on par, but the resources and ability to know and prepare the client are inequitable.



I saw judges issuing excessive bail and many

were appointed without any prior criminal or municipal court experience.



While most municipal judges go on the bench with the intent to do the right thing, too often they are unequipped and rely on the prosecutor’s recommendations while they are still getting their “frog legs.” In other words, getting acclimated to their work as a judge. This incensed me and I found myself battling judges, hence, began the process to be elevated.

. . . .
According to American Progress, women of color make up 8 percent of state judges in comparison to 58 percent of white male judges. Only 228 African Americans have served as US federal judges.

I was appointed in two different municipalities where I served for five years. It was the most emotionally demanding, yet rewarding, position I have held in my life. It was a significant opportunity to dispense justice viewing each defendant as a person, not a docket number or statistic. It was important for me to understand the background of the defendant standing before me, and wherever possible to impose, when a sentence was necessary, an alternative or diversion to incarceration. Everyone has a story, and many have skeletons. Let those among us without sin cast the first stone. For me, life is always about second and yes, third chances.

Those who deserve another chance are our family, our neighbors and we have a moral obligation to be the village that seeks to restore the fabric from which they have torn. That is because the system’s pendulum does not swing toward rehabilitation, but rather deterrence and punishment. 

A judge’s responsibility is not to be an activist in furtherance of her own philosophical or political ideology, but to be the arbiter of justice, understand the law, hold the state to its burden of proof, and be compassionate. It is a balancing act, but so rewarding when we get it right.  The interaction between a judge and defendant can change the life of the defendant if it’s a positive experience. This doesn’t mean the experience is meant to be pleasant.

Appearing in court is never pleasant for a defendant. A positive experience is one where the defendant understands his or her rights, understands why he or she is before the court, and the consequences of his or her actions if adjudged guilty. True compassion and respect are not simply a smile from the bench, but an effort to understand the person behind the allegation and to mete out the consequences or lack thereof as justice dictates.

AR: How do you define your work?

TC: My current work is primarily in the area of civil litigation defense. This is my profession, not my vocation, and I am always quick to point out that the hat I wear to make a living is not the one I wear home.

AR: What population does your work serve?

TC: I serve Urban Cities.

AR: How do you do your work differently than others in your field? 

TC: I have a diverse background in community service organizations. I have served as a past president of the Oranges and Maplewood NAACP, two terms, and every other position within that organization. I am a past President of my local Rotary Club, past vice chair of a hospital, as well as having served on several boards and committees. This is in addition to being a Voter Empowerment Grant writer and trainer during a Presidential Election. I am also a United States Army Veteran who served in the United States as well as Europe.

AR: How did you create an audience or community?

TC: The pandemic shift created a necessary time for me to personally shut down and reassess my professional and personal endeavors and goals. The uprising brought me out of civil rights retirement, as I could not sit idle and not place my feet on the ground in support of the demand for social justice reforms.

AR: How did the pandemic or protests change or shift your life?

TC: I am not religious, but I am very spiritual. I pray daily, but I also speak in affirmations. I was formally introduced to the law of attraction by my uncle. More than simply believing in one’s self and speaking in terms of affirmations, it’s a highly disciplined process, which requires focused and consistent thinking of that which we want in a life experience. This introduction originally grew out of a crisis in my family but has since been part of my lifestyle when I need to excel or pivot.

AR: Who or what gave you the courage to continue on?

TC: I derive my strength from myself and my daughter. However, it was my socialization and early mentoring from my family that has allowed me to turn inward, and to those early life lessons, when strength is needed. My father was a great mentor who taught me as a young child that I could accomplish anything. Indeed, I was a late bloomer, and but for his words and unconditional belief and love, perhaps I wouldn’t have been confident enough to pursue my higher ambitions.

AR: Which of your accomplishments gives you joy?

TC:I always harken back to the same two events in life: being a young NAACP Branch President, when Kweisi Mfume and Julian Bond were the “Twin Towers” of the National NAACP and change was being dictated by the Association, and becoming a Judge. It is through these life opportunities that I made my greatest impact and where I had the farthest reach.

AR: What is a philosophy or idea that keeps you grounded?

TC:I am grounded as a matter of course. I am truly an “everyday person.” I cheer the victory of the underdog. I still believe that the truth will always prevail. I make conscious efforts to do good deeds because I have some faint belief in Karma..lol.

AR: 2021 and forward is about reimagining and repair. What is your great imagining or construction of what the world must look like and be?

TC: 2021 and beyond, we will continue to go through a societal reconstruction. What we witnessed in 2020 has been somewhat of an oxymoron. People certainly rose to the occasion during the initial COVID crisis here in the New York/ New Jersey Metropolitan Area. The blending of all people to protest the deaths of George Floyd and Breanna Taylor, gave hope through these optics that the injustices perpetrated against Blacks in America would result in national policy changes.

However, the 2020 elections, and documented incidents of blatant racism, must remind us that momentary acts of kindness or temporary engagement in a popular movement, does not remove the systemic and deeply held beliefs among the privileged. How we change this reality will mean changing what has been the politically correct dialogue and perhaps, continuing to “televise the revolution.” 

Indeed, the uprising will continue, and a full out economic diversion of funds must take place, on an almost global level, in order to create parity between the haves and the have-nots. This doesn’t mean a redistribution of wealth; this theory has proved fruitless in other nations and does not comport with the founding principles of America. What is meant is an economic boycott of oppressive policy makers and supporters, and a divestiture from entities that are not engaged in a holistically inclusive America.

The beautiful thing about America is our Constitution. The Constitution is America’s roadmap to revolution. We have the power to create the change we want to see if we organize, mobilize and are consistent in the pursuit. The means by which we accomplish economic and social equity may differ, but if we don’t lose sight of the prize, we shall meet at the finish line.

I cannot predict or re-imagine exactly how this will occur, so I am not able to share that here. However, I know that a pivot should be in the forefront of each person who dreams of world peace. As an American, I think of peace starting on the city streets and the kitchen table, as much as on the war-torn fields abroad. Forward ever, backward never.

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