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Breaking barriers: Judge keeps civil rights dream alive in Kansas City

Hardwick first Black woman on MO appellate court
judge lisa hardwick.png
Posted at 4:00 AM, Feb 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-19 08:04:14-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Judge Lisa White Hardwick is no stranger to pressure. She first felt pressure as a 7-year-old girl in Kansas City, Missouri, in the days after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. died.

“Intuitively, it helped me to understand the connection between law and civil rights and that if we’re going to have a fair and free society, truly, we had to enforce our civil rights,” she said.

Hardwick feels the pressure today, as an appellate court judge. In 2001, she became the first Black woman to serve in such a capacity in Missouri’s history.

"I think Billie Jean King said pressure is a privilege that comes with being the first person through the door,” Hardwick said, summarizing the tennis star’s famous words. “The pressure is to make sure the door stays open and that you do a good enough job that people will be able to follow behind you."

In the past 20 years, three other Black women have served as appellate court judges in Missouri — all in the Eastern District. Still no Black woman has served as a Supreme Court judge in Missouri.

Hardwick’s been nominated twice and plans to apply again this year when Judge Laura Denvir Stith retires in March.

“You want to believe the judges on the court understand what it means to be an American, like you’re an American,” Hardwick said about why diversity is important in the justice system.

Some of her most impactful work on civil rights happens outside the downtown Kansas City courtroom. Since its creation in 2015, Hardwick has served as a co-chair of Missouri’s Commission on Racial and Ethnic Fairness.

“It’s been eye-opening,” Hardwick said. “I’ve been in this system 21 years now and I had not realized the statistical disparities that exist in our criminal justice system.”

She points to data from the Missouri attorney general’s office that shows Black residents are more likely to get pulled over, searched and arrested compared to White residents. After a conviction, data shows Black people receive longer prison sentences than White people in Missouri.

In 2019, the commission implemented diversity training for lawyers and made changes to jury proceedings to eliminate unconscious biases. Hardwick said the results haven’t been perfect.

"Sometimes when you highlight stereotypes to people, for some reason, it reinforces them, rather than cause them to change,” she said. “We have to figure out how to do that."

So Hardwick will continue to strategize ways to ensure everyone gets a fair chance at justice when they step into her courtroom, or any other courtroom in Missouri.

“I think that’s one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed my legal career so much,” she said. “I knew from the beginning what it was I wanted to do and I’ve always tried to structure my career so I was moving along that path and making progress in terms of ensuring civil rights laws were enforced and we’d have equal access to justice.”

For Hardwick, pressure is the best kind of motivation.