Who was Judge Earl B. Gilliam?

Earl Ben Gilliam (1931-2001) is remembered as much for his warm, expansive personality and gregariousness as for his matchless accumulation of professional and civic awards. With a bachelor's degree from San Diego State and a law degree from Hastings College of Law, he was admitted to the State Bar of California in 1957 and began work in the San Diego District Attorney's Office. From 1961 to 1963 Gilliam was in private practice operating from a "storefront" and volunteering a considerable amount of pro bono legal assistance. At age 38, and at a time when there were only five Black attorneys in town, he was appointed to the Municipal Court in 1963, thereby becoming the first African American judge in the city and county of San Diego. He was elected Presiding Judge in 1971.


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The Honorable Elizabeth Riggs

Without a doubt, Judge Elizabeth Riggs' path toward becoming the first African-American woman to serve on the bench in San Diego County had its challenges, but she often preferred not to dwell on those. A close friend and colleague recalled recently a time when she heard Riggs give a speech to a local lawyer's club that was honoring her for her achievements. Riggs' remarks were inspirational but didn't go into a lot of detail on the difficulties she had faced. "I know your story, and all the trials and tribulations, why didn't you mention them?" Judge Patricia Cookson remembered asking her friend that day. "She said, 'What would be the point? I want to encourage people to succeed.'" Friends and family members said Riggs had a long history of encouraging success in others, something she kept up long after she retired from the bench in December 2001.

After a long career as a prosecutor, Riggs was appointed to the El Cajon Municipal Court in 1979 by then-Gov. Jerry Brown. She spent the bulk of her tenure as a jurist in El Cajon, where she opened its first domestic violence court in 1997, the year before she became a Superior Court judge. Riggs remained the only black female judge on the county trial court for two decades. Superior Court Judge Desirée Bruce-Lyle, who in 2001 became the second black woman appointed to the local bench, said Riggs mentored a lot of people in the legal community, herself among them. In fact, it was Riggs who urged her to apply for a judgeship. But the two didn't share the bench for long. "She said, 'I've been holding on, waiting for another African-American woman to be appointed. Now that you're here, I'm retiring,'" Bruce-Lyle recalled with a chuckle. Judge Randa Trapp, a black woman who was appointed to the Superior Court bench in 2003, said many women of her generation regarded Riggs as an inspiration. "Just (her) being in that position gave me hope that I could be there as well," Trapp said.

Riggs served in a variety of assignments as a judge, including in the Juvenile Court. Even in retirement, she regularly filled in on juvenile delinquency and dependency assignments when other judges were unavailable, court authorities said. She helped found the Association of Black Attorneys of San Diego County, which later changed its name to the Earl B. Gilliam Bar Association, and was a past president. She served as a board member of the San Diego Legal Aid Society, Urban League of San Diego and the African-American Museum of Fine Arts. Public service and activism, family members said, were in her bones. "We grew up in a family that was fully expected to be active, and you were expected to work in the community," said Barbara Riggs, the judge's younger sister, one of seven siblings.

Judge Riggs was born and raised in Camden, N.J., where her mother had been a school board member for 30 years. Riggs earned her undergraduate degree from Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C., and later earned her juris doctor degree from Rutgers Law School. "Both my mother and father expected excellence," said Barbara Riggs, who lives in North Carolina. Over the years, the judge was recognized many times for her achievements in San Diego's legal community. She has been named a "Legend of the Bar" by the San Diego Bar History Committee, and in 2007 was honored as Woman of the Year by California's 39th Senate district. In 2008, she was inducted as a "trailblazer" in the San Diego County Women's Hall of Fame.

Trailblazing aside, to her three sons, she was simply mom. "Even though she had a tremendous responsibility to her job, she was first and foremost a mother," said Riggs-Zeigen. He said his mother, who was divorced, was involved and engaged in her children's endeavors into their adulthood. Riggs-Zeigen described his mother as a private person, but said she cultivated a large group of friends whom she met with regularly in book clubs and for theater outings and other social gatherings. And she was a top-notch Scrabble player. "I called her the Scrabble queen," Cookson said.

Original Article by Dana Littlefield of the San Diego Union Tribune

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