NewsBlack History Month 2024


KC native makes history as first female African American Presiding Judge in Jackson County's history

KC native makes history after being the first Female African American appointed to presiding judge in Jackson County
Posted at 7:23 AM, Feb 29, 2024

KANSAS CITY, Mo — Black History Month is a time where we reflect on those who have paved the way for future generations. A Kansas City native is breaking barriers in the legal System.

Judge Jalilah Otto made history in 2021 after being named the first African American female appointed to presiding judge in Jackson County. But prior to becoming an honorable judge, Jalilah Otto came from humble beginnings.

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"Originally, we lived off of 39th and Olive which is in the heart of the city, when I got little older we moved out to the area of 60th and Paseo," said Judge Otto. “I was a public school kid through and through. Love school, I always said I would be a teacher."

Growing up, Judge Otto quickly learned a passion for educators.

"In my neighborhood, teachers were what people respected the most," said Judge Otto. "There weren't any doctors or judges in my neighborhood. But my teachers always just garnered a lot of respect.”

In college, Judge Otto was set to take on a new program called Teach for America, but those plans quickly shifted.

“I had a good friend of mine that was applying to law school, she was pre-law. And they were offering a free LSAT which is an admissions exam to law school," Judge Otto said. "She was really nervous about taking it. And said to Otto, “hey, could you come with me and take this test?” Judge Otto replied, “Okay”. As a friend, I went with her to take the test and I did really well on the test.”

A test that changed the trajectory of her life. Jalilah was on her way to Pre-Law School at the University of Missouri.

"I always say I didn’t choose law school. Law school chose me," said Judge Otto.

Her legal career, spanning several decades, has been characterized by a passion for justice and a commitment to upholding the law.

“I was kind of in disbelief when they they said they wanted me to be the presiding judge," Judge Otto said. "It really was like, oh wow, okay, I didn't see that coming, but I'm here and I will do my absolute best.”

The appointment of Judge Otto reflects a broader trend of increasing diversity within the judiciary across the country.

According to data by the ABA Profile of the Legal Profession, Black lawyers were 4.8% of the profession in 2013 and 5% in 2023. That’s far less than the percentage of Black people in the U.S. population (13.6%). And According to data by the Federal Judicial Center— only 5.7% of all active federal judges are Black women.

“It means a lot," said Judge Otto. "America has made a lot of promises that they are working to be a more perfect union.”

As the first female African American presiding judge in Jackson County, Judge Otto said she hopes to inspire the younger generation, and showing them that your skin color doesn't define your future.

"I am a big advocate for showing young people, you can be this. Because oftentimes it can't be what they can't see, but then we have to say, I know you see me, but now I need you to dream bigger than me," Judge Otto said.