Tanya M. Bransford
Originally published in the January/February 1995 issue.
Author: Thomas Gallagher
Appointed to the Hennepin County bench by Gov. Arne Carlson on July 1, 1994, the Hon. Tanya M. Bransford has a history of being a bright, hardworking trial lawyer and judge, powerfully committed to justice. She also brings to the bench her life experience as an African American and as a woman. Bransford has involved herself in solving problems in the areas of criminal law and juvenile law, as well as in finding improvements in court fairness for all regardless of disability, gender, or race.
When asked what she sees as her most important goal as a new district court judge, Bransford thoughtfully answered, "It’s important to make sure, as much as humanly possible, that each person coming to court feels that they had a fair opportunity to be heard." This goal is defined both by Bransford’s experience as an African-American woman and by her conscious effort to improve the justice system’s fairness to racial minorities, women, and those with disabilities. Judge Bransford pointed to the finding of the Minnesota Supreme Court’s Racial Bias Task Force that "a perception exists among people of color that the justice system is not fair to them." She continued, "I look forward to any part I can play in improving this, by being there, and by finding solutions."
Advocate of Justice for All
On a judge’s role, Judge Bransford reflected, "A judge can’t be an advocate for a party, but can be an advocate for the system." An advocate for the system means "improving it—making it better by helping it achieve the goals it has set out to accomplish." She offered an example:
We can make sure we have certified translators available in the courts for those who don’t speak English. Yesterday while presiding over the in-custody arraignment calendar, I met a defendant who spoke only Polish. I had skimmed the file early, before court. So I was able to call and find an interpreter. But there were problems with the interpreter. I had to prompt him on when to interpret, on what "bail" meant, what "order for protection" meant, what "beyond a reasonable doubt" meant. The interpreter seemed to speak Polish well, but lacked training in the legal system.
Bransford sees much work ahead to achieve perceived fairness among members of historically disenfranchised groups. She also relates that progress is being made in this area.
Judge Bransford praised the mandatory cultural diversity training in Minnesota for court personnel, including judges, clerks, administrators, court reporters, and assistant county attorneys and public defenders. In one training exercise, participants are asked to write about the ways they are individually unique, and their diversity within the group—not only in terms of race and sex but also in terms of training, background, physical limitations, and religion. Another exercise brings common stereotypes out into the light of day for discussion.
What’s the point? We should appreciate and embrace our differences, not fear or shun them. And we should do what we can on our own to learn about other cultures.
Judge Bransford serves as co-chair of the Diversity Committee of the Hennepin County Bar Association and as a member of the Minnesota Supreme Court Committee on Multicultural Diversity and Racial Fairness in the Courts, chaired by Justice Alan Page. Bransford is a past president of the Minnesota Minority Lawyers Association and past secretary of Minnesota Women Lawyers. Currently, she serves on the Adolescent Advisory Committee of the Institute on Black Chemical Abuse as well as on the board of the Minneapolis YWCA.
Born in St. Paul, Judge Bransford grew up in Maplewood, a suburb northeast of St. Paul, and attended North St. Paul High School. She then attended Gustavus Adolphus College, graduating cum laude in 1980 with a double major in political science and criminal justice. While an undergraduate, she studied a semester at American University in Washington, D.C., and worked as an intern for Congressman John Conyers of Detroit.
Judge Bransford’s legal career has progressed in stair-step fashion to her judicial position. While in law school Bransford clerked at the Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office and for the three-lawyer firm of Spicer, Watson & Carp, in Minneapolis. Following her 1983 graduation and admission to the bar, she continued with Spicer, Watson & Carp, immediately handling court trials and client interviews, while soon after taking responsibility for settlement negotiations, appellate briefs, and oral arguments. Bransford’s work then centered on personal injury, workers’ compensation, criminal and family law, and general litigation. "It was a good experience for me. They gave me a great deal of responsibility quickly," she said.
In June 1987, Bransford became the first African-American female to serve as a workers’ compensation judge in Minnesota, with its Office of Administrative Hearings. She presided over hearings and pretrial and settlement conferences in contested workers’ compensation cases, and issued orders and written decisions resolving disputes of liability, causation, rehabilitation, and medical issues.
Judge Bransford began her work in Hennepin County District Court, as a referee in the Juvenile Division, in January 1990. While a referee, from 1992 through 1994, she also served as truancy coordinator for the court’s Juvenile Division, managing over 400 truants per year and working to solve truancy problems with schools and social workers as well as through an experimental program to reduce truancy. She left the court’s Juvenile Division on taking office as district court judge on July 1, 1994.
Judge Bransford reflected on the differences in her professional roles as district court judge, district court referee, workers’ compensation judge, and trial lawyer in a four-lawyer firm. "Being a district court judge, as compared to being a juvenile court referee, offers more variety, a larger menu of choices in handling individual cases as well as a wider variety of cases," Bransford reported. She added, "I look forward to working hard, to the variety of cases, and to the challenge of doing the best I can as judge."
She said that her work as a juvenile court referee was similar to her new assignment, except for a few areas. "Bail," she said, "is different." In juvenile court "we rarely set bail. Usually children were released to their parents or home detention. But we don’t have to worry about where the person is going to live in adult court, like we do in juvenile court." Judge Bransford pointed out that "in juvenile court we are guided by what is in the child’s best interests. Homelessness is never in the child’s best interests, which may mean a foster home." In contrast, Bransford said that in adult criminal court, the court just doesn’t have the resources to solve problems like homelessness. "You see these problems, but sometimes you have to accept that there is nothing the criminal court can do about them," she said.
Judge Bransford said, "I really enjoy being on the bench." Comparing her role to her previous one as a trial lawyer, she said, "As an advocate, you need to strongly persuade the trier of fact that your side is right—even if you don’t believe in your position in your heart. But as judge—it agrees with my personality to act as arbiter—to find solutions." From 1987 through the time of this writing, as workers’ compensation judge, district court referee, and district court judge, Bransford has acted as sole trier of fact. Concerning her current assignment to the criminal calendar, Bransford said, "I’m looking forward to presiding over jury trials. That will be new for me."
Life Outside the Law
In her personal life, Judge Bransford enjoys bicycling and walking around the lakes and parks. Bransford and her husband of three years, Jeffrey Lewis, have two children from his previous marriage, now at college, Dwan and Jamarr. Like most of us, Bransford loves to travel to warm places in the winter. She belongs to a reading club of women, who meet once a month to discuss a commonly read book. Bransford loves singing in her church choir, the Rance Majestic Choir, of Pilgrim Baptist Church in St. Paul. The choir has performed at the Lowertown Arts Festival, in the Guthrie Theater’s Gospel at Colonus, and at other community events.
"Leave No Child Behind"
Although it might surprise some, Judge Bransford looks forward to her eventual return to the district court’s Juvenile Division, this time as judge instead of referee. "I will ask for Juvenile Division as an assignment," she said. "We need to focus more on juvenile court and on children, to prevent the problems that lead to children later graduating to adult criminal court." Bransford continued:
We need to spend more money on the lesser offenses, like truancy, instead of the most serious crimes. The court should continue to work more closely with the schools and the community. There is a high correlation between truancy, high school dropouts, and later adult criminal behavior. One of the most empowering things I’ve done lately was participating in the Conference of Black Juvenile and Family Court Judges, sponsored by the Children’s Defense Fund. One of the themes of the conference was that judges can be leaders of community and advocates for justice for children.
As part of that conference, Bransford joined the Black Community Crusade for Children. Bransford cited the group’s theme: "Leave no child behind and ensure that every child has a healthy start, a fair start, a safe start, and a head start in life with the support of caring parents and nurturing communities."
Judge Bransford’s energy and enthusiasm, her legal expertise, her experience, and her commitment to justice are invaluable gifts she brings to us all. Members of the bench and of the bar, as well as the public served by the legal system, are fortunate indeed to have Judge Tanya M. Bransford serving on the Hennepin County District Court bench.
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