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Journey to the US bench was tough, but I love it– Nigerian-American, and first African immigrant to be elected as a State District Court Judge in America

Cutting across different spheres of human endeavors, Nigerians no doubt are doing extraordinary and remarkable things wherever they find themselves. There is hardly any part of the world you will not find a Nigerian doing one great thing or the other, adding value to the way people around him/her live, and making his/her community proud.  You can then imagine what the country would have been like if the environment is that conducive for most Nigerians to thrive and give their best in what they do right here in Nigeria. Thus, while the country loses to brain drain, many other nations that value talent and merit, and which create the enabling environment for such talent to thrive, are gaining from our loss.  So, despite the negative stories, we may hear about Nigerians now and then and in different circumstances, the fact remains that Nigerians are among those doing great things in different fields, globally.  One such Nigerian, call her a Nigerian-American, if you like, is Mrs. Chika Anyiam. She is the first African immigrant elected as a State District Court Judge in the history of the United States of America. Mrs. Anyiam beat two aspirants in the Democratic Party Primary Election and her Republican Party opponent in the General Election by a landslide to win her bench.  Judge Anyiam is the Presiding Judge of the Criminal District Court 7, Dallas, Texas, USA, which hears serious felonies, including death penalty cases.  An honors graduate of the University of Calabar in 1987, Judge Anyiam was called to the Nigerian Bar in 1988, having passed the requisite exams with honors. She attended Federal Government Girls College, Owerri, and attended elementary school in London.  She notes that as a young pupil in London, she fell in love with the law, watching a TV program called “Crown Court,” and decided to study law.  Before ascending to the bench, Judge Anyiam practiced criminal law in Dallas for over two decades with extensive felony trial experience. During her time as a criminal defense attorney, she was selected three times by her peers as one of their best.  With a strong work ethic and a reputation for integrity and fairness, Judge Anyiam is committed to holding dangerous criminals accountable, and extending drug and mental health rehabilitative treatment where appropriate. She has been recognized for and won several awards, including, Orlu Regional Assembly, USA “Trail Blazer” Award; 2019 Honoree of “Who’s Who in Black Dallas,” 5th Edition; The African Film Festival “Leadership Award for Rewriting the African Diaspora Narrative”; and First-ever Dallas County Democratic Party “Best in Field” Award. Judge Anyiam has been married for 28 years to Attorney Iheanyi Okey Anyiam, a former law office partner, who she met while both of them were practicing law in Kaduna. They are the proud parents of two adult males, who are engineers; a teenage son, who is also engineering honors sophomore in the university; and a daughter in the 10th Grade, who is a member of the National Honors Society. In this chat with The Nigerian Xpress Newspapers in her office located at 133 N. Riverfront Boulevard in Dallas, Texas, USA, she takes ROSE MOSES through her career experience and why justice must feel fair, to be true.

How does it feel as an immigrant that serves as a judge in the Dallas County of the State of Texas?

Well, it’s an honour. Before I became a judge, I practised here in Dallas for about 22 years. So, I’ve been in all the courts in this building, practised before all the courts in the building.

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We are in Criminal District Court No. 7 right now. This is one of the Felony Courts, that is, courts that hear felony cases, including capital murder that carries life sentence or death…serious cases, you know. So, it has its responsibilities. You have to be someone, who is fair, is impartial, and has a good head on her shoulders. I believe I am all these things.

My peers at the Dallas Criminal Defence Lawyers Association with whom I practise side by side in the building…these are Criminal Defence Attorneys that are experienced and they have voted me three times, as one of their best lawyers as a practising defence attorney. And the reason for that is that I take my work seriously.

I’m knowledgeable in the law and I work for each client, regardless of who they are, their social background, their ethnicity or anything like that. And as Judge, I am applying the same principles of hard work, the things that I saw as a defence attorney; the things that I didn’t quite like about the system or some judges, I’m fixing them right now on the bench.

Like what, I mean the things that you didn’t like?

For example, people who are stuck in jail because they are not able to post a bond, maybe a high-cash bond, and they are probably low-level offenders. Maybe they have jobs out there in the community, they have families. There is no reason they should be stuck in jail over a minor case or nonviolent case.

What is posting a bond when compared to the term of meeting conditions of bail as we hear in Nigeria? Do they mean the same thing?

Well, no. When a person is arrested here, within hours a magistrate in the jail sets an amount of money as the bond. The monetary amount depends on the type of case, a risk assessment that is conducted by professionals, and the financial affidavit filled out by the arrestee, amongst other things. When the arrestee posts the bond, there are bond conditions he has to comply with. For example, ‘don’t drink alcohol’, ‘don’t go to certain places’, and ‘make sure you appear in court’.

The money bond (also known as cash bond) amount might be too high for a poor person to post. For example, if your bond is $50,000 and you don’t even make up to $10,000 per year, that’s a problem. There are bail bondsmen or companies that help people post bonds. They charge about 10% of the bond amount. You also have some attorneys, who also post bonds, have a bond account. They can post bonds for clients.

And so, if it’s a defendant, who doesn’t have enough money to post that bond or pay the bondsman, they get stuck in jail. And if it is someone who is innocent, and who would have ordinarily liked to take their case to trial, because they are in jail and they can’t afford to lose their jobs, or maybe they have family, they have little kids, the Child Protective Services (CPS) might step in because they are in jail and take over their children. That’s another process.

Because of these types of pressure, they end up pleading guilty just to get out of jail, maybe take time served, and that results in a conviction on their record, which haunts them down the line because maybe they won’t be able to get the type of jobs that they want. They might lose their housing. Because of the conviction, now they are not able to apply for certain housing and so many other things. And so, that’s one of the things that worried me.

So, is this bond still the same thing with certain conditions given in Nigeria so that one can be released on bail, where a huge sum of money, among other conditions, is asked for?

If you don’t pay that cash bond, you won’t get released. Here, bonding companies charge a percentage. So, for example, if it is a $5,000 bond, the bonds company might charge 10 percent of that then put a defendant on a payment plan to pay that back.

But guess who is able to make the bond? People who have money, who have resources, who have families that can support them! Not everyone has that. If you look at it historically in this county (USA), in this state (Texas), the people who end up in jail mostly are minorities. The poor! So, they get stuck in there and the jails continue to profit off of them.

So, my solution to that as a defence attorney, I always asked the judge for a personal recognizance (PR) bond. That means you won’t have to pay any money at all. You just get out and you make that promise. You sign documentation, promising that you will come to court, that you will stay out of trouble, and you follow up on that and you are released.

So, as a judge, I am granting those PR bonds for low-level offenders, you know, people who have mental health issues, who need to get out and get treatment, people who have jobs and legitimate issues that will keep them in the County and keep them accountable.

So, that’s one of the things that I am accomplishing on the bench. Also, I didn’t like the practice of people pleading guilty to offences where they can get an alternative solution. For example, if you can take classes, let’s say you have been arrested on a theft case, you can do some anti-theft classes, re-orient your mind, and be rehabilitated in that fashion. Then why would we give you a conviction that would affect you down the line?

Because remember, we are talking about the community that we live in. If we are fracturing our families and giving people roadblocks that they can’t surmount when they get out of jail and out of the system, what happens? They are unable to get jobs so they go back to crime and that’s not the solution. So, we are looking for a solution. I think that’s part of the solution – don’t use a sledgehammer to kill a fly.

I like the diversion programs where people get alternative sentences. That way, they don’t go back to jail. They can keep their jobs; they can keep their criminal history clean because some of these people just made mistakes. They are not career criminals. So that’s one of the things we look at.

So there are career criminals by nature?

There are. In fact, earlier this morning (day this interview was conducted), we just handled one. I have a series of cases in this court where street gangs, one of the really notorious street gangs, killed an individual and committed various crimes. So, they’re in the process of trials and pleading out and all that. And each time that happens, my court has to have extra security, in case there are other members that are out there.

So, yeah, we do have those. We have capital murder cases in this court, aggravated robberies, aggravated sex assaults, all kinds…theft, welfare fraud, you name it. Felony is there, we have them in this court.

Have you ever passed a death sentence?

No. No, I haven’t. But I have two post- conviction death penalty writs filed in my court on behalf of two defendants who were sentenced to death by the jury. The basis for the writs is that the trial attorneys were ineffective and failed to present certain evidence to the jury during the punishment phase of their trials that might have persuaded the jury to sentence them to life imprisonment, instead of death after they were convicted. So I am reviewing that to see if they should or should not get a new trial for the sentencing portion. That’s set in two weeks’ time (at the time of the interview). Next week (at the time of the interview), I will be out for a judicial conference. So when I get back that’s what we will be doing.

Unlike in Nigeria where capital punishment is not likely going to be eventually carried out on any criminal for any crime, would a death sentence here be carried to the letter?

Yes. It happens after they have exhausted their appeals, unless the appellate court finds a reason to reverse the judgement, or stays execution of the sentence.

When did you leave Nigeria for the United States, and did you practise back there in Nigeria?

That was in 1995. I practised in Nigeria for about seven years before we moved to Texas.

Would you compare the judicial system in the US with what goes on in Nigeria?

One of the stark differences is that the judges, and I don’t know if it’s changed, take testimony and evidence down in longhand. Ok, well, I will show you when you are leaving where my court reporter sits in the court. They are stenographers, so to say. They take down everything that is being said in real time. Therefore, the lawyer’s presentation, evidence, testimony and the court’s rulings flow naturally. That’s very good; it saves a lot of time, and then there is an accurate record that I would say is neutral, by a neutral person – the court reporter/stenographer.

So, if a defendant decides to appeal or the court needs the transcripts, you order the transcripts from the court reporter. Then she will print them out for you, and certify them as accurate. Everything is there word-for-word. Not that I know that this happens in Nigeria. I met a lawyer, who came in about a year and a half or two years ago from Nigeria; he said that they were trying to pilot it in Lagos. But I don’t know more than that.

Right here, there are a lot of resources for the judge’s support system. We have staff attorneys here, and if a judge has a question or an issue, whether it’s ethics or on point of law or something, they get on the research and they tell you what the current situation is.

You have online resources, on the bench, I have a little library right there – my computers, everything is synced. We have the district clerk’s office and I will show you around in a minute. So, anything that is filed in my court, the clerks have it. They stamp and put it on what we call “onbase”. So, I can go on onbase and look at the documentation and print them off. So, there are lots of things that are different.

Most of the time in Nigeria, some people argue that judgments are slanted to favour those that have something to do with the political party in power. Is there any such thing here?

Well, I think it just depends on your philosophy of justice. You know, some people believe in deterrent justice and some people believe in rehabilitative justice. I am one of those people who believe in rehabilitating someone and not throw them away, unless you are an absolute danger to the community and you need to be locked up.

Otherwise, if I think there is hope, if you are a drug addict, an alcoholic or a prostitute, who has mental health issues and we know that drugs are the main factor that is driving you, then, I like to get to the issues and treat those issues because we have a lot of resources. We have mental health professionals; we have psychiatrists and psychologists that are hired by the County to assist in these things. We have various resources out in the communities, hospitals where we commit the mentally ill and different programmes run by different courts. And so, I like to utilise those resources.

So, if we can make you better, if we can treat you, the underlying cause of your criminal way, or criminal thinking, then that’s what I will do instead of putting you in prison or in jail.

Can you briefly take us through your school and career journey?

I attended the University of Calabar and graduated in 1987. I finished from the Nigerian Law School, Victoria Island, Lagos, in 1988 and practised in Nigeria. I did my mandatory national service in Warri, Delta State, and practised in Imo State for a short while and then moved to Kaduna.  That’s where I met my husband.

When I moved to Kaduna, I had friends, lawyers I went to school with, who were living there. And so, they said well, you know, come over, and I didn’t want to work in Imo State. And so, I decided I needed to see other places, get a job elsewhere, move on and work with different people.

So, I left for Kaduna. The law firm that I was working for in Imo State was Chris Ahumibe. I moved to Kaduna, where I met my husband in court. I got a job immediately in Kaduna, working for another firm, which was really nice. Shortly after, I met my husband in court and after a while, we started working together. He’s also a lawyer and four years my senior at the Nigerian Bar. We had two kids, two boys and moved over to the States in 1995.

My kids were one and two years old when we moved to the States. We took the Bar exam here in 1997. I passed it the first time and practised for 20 years or so; I’ve stopped counting now (laughs). And then I decided I wanted to run for office because, as I said, I had seen a lot of things practising as a defence attorney that I wanted to fix as a judge.

You know, sometimes, no matter how hard you try as a defence attorney, if the judge doesn’t go along with it, decides to look the other way, or decides to just be a rubber stamp for anything that comes in front of him, there is nothing you can do. So, I wanted to change all that and bring justice to Criminal District Court Number 7.

So, I decided to run for the office. It was tough. The first time, I didn’t make it. That was in 2016. But I took that as tilling the ground, as the foundation. You know, with a name like mine…. You are not born here, you are an immigrant…of course, I ran into the usual obstacles that had nothing to do with my qualifications. But the second time that I ran for the Bench…and ironically that’s the bench that I ran for…the next court right there (points towards it). So, we are neighbours now (laughs).

When I ran for this one, people already knew about me, my philosophy, they knew what I was about and I still had those obstacles but I overcame those – the racial ugliness of things. I had a great campaign manager and I had a lot of support from the base and all around. My primary election was…. I worked really hard and it was a resounding victory and I thank God for all that.

My husband was a driving force, also. He was with me from the beginning because I don’t think I would have done it without his support.

Having come this far, do you notice any form of discrimination from any quarters in the cause of carrying out your duties?

Well, who’s going to discriminate against me? I am the head of the department. These are my employees and then the prosecutors work for the District Attorney’s office, the clerks work for the District Clerk and whatever I say goes as far as how I want to run my court.

So, being an African presiding over this court doesn’t attract any discrimination, whatsoever?

The first thing I did once I got on the bench, I published my court policies and rules. So, each attorney and all my staff members know what my rules are and so far, so good. Nobody has flouted it or anything like that. So, yeah, when they come in, they respect me like they respect any other judge and my rulings are my rulings. If anybody doesn’t like my rulings they know what to do. They can appeal; that’s just the normal course of business in every court. So, I don’t see where discrimination can come from.

Is the office run on a tenure basis?

Oh yes, four years. The District Court Judges’ term is four years. So, I guess my term will be up, when? I am not really looking down the line, but I think it is 2022. And it all depends. If I don’t have an opponent, then I just continue. If I do, I have to campaign. So here, it’s via election although in Nigeria it’s by appointment. The only time that a judge is appointed here, at the state or District Court level, is if a judge retires early or dies. Then, the governor appoints someone to sit for the remainder of the term. When the term is up, then there will be an election. You have to contest under one or the other political party, either as a Democrat or Republican or whatever other party you want.

Why does it have to be on under a political party platform?

That’s the way it works in this Texas. The governor is a Republican, so, of course, when there is a vacancy in one of these courts, he will appoint a Republican.

Isn’t this political arrangement putting the judges in a position of partisanship and bias along party lines?

When you have defendants in your court or people charged with crimes, you don’t know who’s a Republican or who is a Democrat. So, it doesn’t really play into how you are treating people. Even if you have a politician from the other party that is charged for a crime in your court, hopefully, you will be impartial and neutral. Remember, I talked about judicial philosophy. As a Democrat, I believe that Democrats have a better judicial philosophy because we are rehab-oriented.

From my experience practising in this building and in other courts out of the County, Republicans are more… they are strict, very strict. You know, those long sentences that we’ve been complaining about, people serving 50 years over drug cases or minor cases, those were mainly under Republican judges. And so, Democrats believe more in treatment and finding the underlying cause. We are not all about exemplary justice, unless it is absolutely necessary or the circumstances warrant you to make an example of someone and give them a long term in prison.

Otherwise, if it is someone who you think you can salvage, then we Democrats we are more into salvaging that person because in the long run, they are coming back into the community, right? When they come back into the community, you want them to have the tools to survive. And, so, we believe in education in the jail; if you are serving a jail sentence, make use of the resources because you can actually get your college (university) degree in jail. Or if you are out in the community on probation, enroll in classes. Our conditions of probation will help you to become a better person. And, so, that’s why our judicial philosophy is different. If you are the judge and you are Republican, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you should be harsh. But that’s their general party platform.

So, will it be right to say that Democrats are more liberal to criminals?

Well, Democrats are liberal, ok? But I wouldn’t say we are more liberal to criminals… You know, it depends on how you look at it. We are more rehab-oriented. We believe in a holistic approach to justice. We are treating the underlying issues and causes as a whole. If you want to call that liberal, I guess it is nomenclature.

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How do you qualify to run for office of a Judge, what are the criteria?

You have to have practised as a criminal defence attorney for a certain number of years. You have to have lived in the county for, at least, two years, I believe. And then you can run. So, it’s not… I wouldn’t say it’s an uphill task to qualify to run, that is, to meet the requirement to be able to run. But then after that, are you qualified to be a Judge in the real sense of the word? Do you have the experience? 

Any other thing you would like us to report back in Nigeria, especially, that we’ve not touched on?

I would say that wherever you are, whether you live in the country or you are in the Diaspora, try to be the best that you can be. Be a good ambassador because if you are not a good ambassador and you rack up a bad reputation, you won’t advance as far as your potentials ought to allow you.

Don’t be afraid that your name is different. Folks were asking me to change my name when I first thought about running. They said ‘change your name to Chris. They know you are an African, and they won’t vote for you’. And I said, no, if I am running, I am going to run as myself and I want to set an example for the future generations so that they will feel confident in who they are.

And also, don’t be mediocre. Do what you do well so that when the time comes you will be confident to step into the shoes or into the office or into the role. And then when you get there, don’t slacken. Do what you promised to do. And that’s what I am doing right now. You have to take charge of who you are and not allow people to define who you are. You define yourself. And that way people respect you on your own terms.

(To be continued)