Houston judge becomes trailblazer for women in law with historic career on federal bench

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Judge Vanessa Gilmore is a trailblazer in the legal field who made history when she took the federal bench.

But Gilmore will be leaving the bench on January 2, 2022, pivoting to a destination unknown.

She already bought a retirement gift for herself.

"I just wanted to have a ring that symbolizes me leaving the gilded cage of the federal judiciary and going out into the world," she said.



In 1994, Gilmore was the youngest ever appointee to a federal judgeship at just 36 years old.

A legal career wasn't the plan when she enrolled at Hampton University, historically Black college and university, at age 16 to study fashion.

After graduating, she worked as a buyer for Foley's in downtown. Then an inside job apartment burglary changed everything.

"I filed my little lawsuit, went to court, tried my little case, got me a little bit of money. I thought, 'Hang on. I could do this some more. I'm going to go to law school.'"

Being a female student at the University of Houston Law School in 1979 was still rare, but she didn't experience sexism there or when she practiced law.

"Now, do I have lawyers who try to push back on me and think that they might be able to take advantage of the fact that I'm a woman? Of course, I do. Does it work? No."

And her accomplishments have also not shielded her from racism. You might remember the 2007 trial of Tyrone Williams, the truck driver who smuggled 70 immigrants in the back of his trailer in 2003. Nineteen of them died of dehydration, overheating and suffocation.

Judge Gilmore had Williams' case, and the other defendants who recruited him.

"I said, 'I don't think that this is a death penalty case. Why are you seeking a death penalty against this man? And why are you only seeking a death penalty against this man and not the 13 other defendants that were involved in this case?'"

The fifth circuit took the case from her after she said that.

"There was so much explicit bias in the way that the entire case was handled that it really made me lose confidence in the justice system," Gilmore said.

The jury eventually agreed with her and Williams was sentenced to life.

SEE ALSO: How Houston continues to become beacon in the fight for women's rights

Outside of the courtroom, Gilmore speaks to her peers often about implicit bias and to her students about her journey.

Gilmore is also an author of several books, including one for kids who have an incarcerated parent. She lobbied Texas Southern University to start a program to support those families.

"I'm not there in a judicial capacity necessarily. I tell them, 'I know you don't think that we're here to help. You think that we're just here to put you in jail, but we can help too.'"

But her biggest passion is reserved for her son, whom she adopted when she was 44.

"He got a job as a diaper model, earned some money and we use that and put that money away in his college account."

Sean is in college now, and his empty nester mom is ready to spread her wings.

WATCH: ABC13's Gina Gaston's extended interview with Judge Vanessa Gilmore
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ABC13's Gina Gaston's one-on-one interview with Judge Gilmore



Gilmore tells women you can have it all, though not at the same time, and the time has come for her to try something new.

"I've enjoyed being here. I would not have picked it for myself but I'm glad it picked me."

She was the first UH law school grad to sit on a federal bench and is now looking forward to golfing, practicing her salsa dancing, and not shy about saying, making time for romance!

Watch "Our America: Women Forward" streaming now on the ABC13 Houston app through Roku, Fire Stick, Google TV, Apple TV and Android TV.

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