Out of nowhere, life throws a curve ball that changes everything. Undaunted, Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Sherry Powell stepped up to the unexpected and deftly handled an emotional courthouse crisis. That moment galvanized her into running for L.A. Superior Court, seat #97.
It started as a regular day for central trials prosecutor Powell until she was asked to handle a case for another DA. It was supposed to be perfunctory but when she went to court, she learned there was an issue. For some reason, the defendant was refusing to put on clothing or to come out of holding.
“She was classified by gender as a male and was being denied estrogen. She was not being addressed as a female and was going through hormone withdrawal. She was in distress,” Powell tells the Los Angeles Blade. “No one in the courtroom understood the importance of being respected and recognized as one knows one’s self to be and not as how the other people might perceive that person. People in court, whether they are judges, attorneys, bailiffs, and other courtroom staff have difficulty understanding how someone appears to look to them does not necessarily reflect how that person sees themselves. They get confused.”
As the prosecutor, Powell was not permitted to speak directly to the defendant but she found another way to deescalate the crisis.
“I immediately started referring to her as ‘her,’ ‘she,’ and ‘Ms.’ through the open lock up door. She started to calm down and agreed to put on clothing,” Powell says. “She came out into the courtroom and I, again, just started using the correct pronouns over and over to reassure her that at least someone in that courtroom understood her and saw her. She would only look at me and she would only respond to me, even though I was the prosecutor in the room.”
Powell’s soul was unsettled.
“I really felt bad for her,” says Powell, 51. Though Powell and her wife Janie Brackenridge believe society is “moving in the direction of understanding,” Powell felt the need to be more proactive and decided to run for LA Superior Court.
While most eyes are on the March 3 Democratic presidential primary, the too-often-ignored judicial races are critical right now as impeached-but-not-convicted President Donald J. Trump believes he is above the law, abetted by his loyalists.
“In just a few short years, the Trump administration, aided by Mitch McConnel and the Senate, has fundamentally changed the federal bench for the next generation,” Brad Sears, Associate Dean of Public interest Law, UCLA School of Law, tells the Los Angeles Blade. “With machine-like precision, they blocked appointments during the Obama administration and then have stacked the federal bench during the current term. The result: an increasingly less diverse bench in terms of race, gender and ideology; one that is hostile to individual rights and our social safety net; and one that is willing to grant this President all the broad powers he seeks to take.”
If elected, Powell — who came out to herself in her 20s — would be the sixth lesbian on the LA Superior Court, out of 477 LA judges who responded to the 2019 survey conducted by the Judicial Council of California. Lesbians account for 1.5% in the entire California court system of 1,743 justices and judges.
Like her chance encounter with a trans woman in county custody, Powell’s lived experience helps inform her actions.
“Law is a second career for me,” Powell says, noting she worked 20 years in printing and educational publishing and then became an owner/operator of a graphic design business before putting herself through UCLA Law School.
“I decided to start from a blank slate and go to law school at the age of 35,” she says. “My entire legal career has been with the LAC District Attorney’s Office and I currently prosecute gang homicides. In a prior assignment, I prosecuted rape, child molest, elder abuse, hate crimes, human trafficking and domestic violence. The majority of my legal career has been spent serving victims of violent crime and families who have lost a loved one to murder.”
Powell has a slew of prominent endorsements, including Kevin Brazile, the Presiding Judge of LA County Superior Court, and Eric Taylor, the Assistant Presiding Judge, as well as “the LA County judiciary, courtroom staff, the defense bar,” colleagues in the DA’s office, LA County Democratic Party, Stonewall Democratic Party, HONOR PAC, SEIU 721, The Los Angeles Sentinel Newspaper, progressive politicos, and the highly regarded legal publication, Metropolitan News-Enterprise.
In the nine contested judicial races for LA Superior Court, the LA Times endorsed only one woman. They also touted prosecutorial strength for one candidate but endorsed Powell’s opponent Timothy D. Reuben because he is “a breath of fresh air” civil litigator.
“The Superior Court bench is disproportionately made up of former prosecutors, and it’s important for the court as a whole to have judges from a variety of backgrounds,” The Times opines, dinging Powell for being a prosecutor and failing to recognize her inherent diversity.
Meanwhile, MetNews reported that January campaign finance filings show Reuben spent $519,202.87, “largely on a plethora of slate mailers,” while Powell’s expenditures were $917.75. Her grassroots campaign is buoyed by Superior Court judges Carol Najera, Emily Spear and Danielle Gibbons, who “are generally thought to have won election through their heavy use of social media.”
Can Powell replicate their grassroots success? Surely, vulnerable minority defendants might hope so.
“I think having LGBTQIA judges on the bench will help all judges serve our community with respect and just serve effectively and fairly,” Powell says. “That’s what I would like to contribute.”
Top Photo: Sherry Powell with her wife Janie Brackenridge and their dog Rudi. (Photo courtesy Powell)