‘A Law Degree is a Powerful Tool to Do Some Actual Good’

Dane County Circuit Judge Nia Trammell rules with patience and understanding. Born in Nigeria, Trammell said she was keenly aware of the role the court plays in society and the impact judges can make in administering justice. It’s a responsibility she doesn’t take lightly, especially as she holds the distinction of being Dane County’s first Black judge.

In honor of Women’s History Month, UMOJA Magazine interviewed the judge about her journey to the bench and how she hopes to inspire the next generation.

UMOJA: You are the state’s first Black female judge sworn in outside Milwaukee County and the sixth Black woman to serve as a judge in Wisconsin history.  Does hearing that ever get old?  

Hon. Trammell: I don’t think it ever gets old simply because it has to have its place in history. The fact that we had to wait until 2020 to have our sixth Black woman appointed shows there is so much more work to be done to close what we call that gavel gap.  

UMOJA: What makes Madison and Dane County so special to you?  

Hon. Trammell: My story is not uncommon. So many people have migrated to this country and come to Madison for educational opportunities. My father lost his father at a young age, and his mother did not have any formal education. It literally took a village to move him through the educational system in Nigeria and secure a scholarship to come to the United States. The Madison community embraced my parents as immigrants and allowed us to live the American dream. Both of my parents got their degrees here and encouraged us to attend UW-Madison, all supported by our village. That is of great significance to me, and I will always appreciate the Madison community for that.  

UMOJA: Throughout your experiences, when did realize the legal field was your calling?  

Hon. Trammell: The law school had a program allowing undergraduate students to audit law school classes. I had the opportunity to sit in on lectures, watch actual practitioners in the community talk about their work and how they used the law to positively impact people’s lives. I realized a law degree is a powerful tool to do some actual good.  It can change the positions people find themselves in and improve their quality of life. So, I switched my major from business to behavioral science and law and then went to law school.

UMOJA: What is the importance of representation, specifically behind the bench?  

Hon. Trammell: Representation brings an equity lens to the bench. It brings different viewpoints, different lived experiences, and it helps legal actors have a more informed view of the law. I understand there is an intersection of identities and circumstances; there is an amalgam of dynamics we often see in the criminal and civil justice system. While there is a requirement and a need that the law be applied, there are many areas that allow for discretion. In exercising that discretion, I can bring a level of cultural competency and understanding to how the law may be applied to the facts before me.   

UMOJA: You see lots of cases about different topics keeping your mind and your body active. What do you do to exhale?  

Hon. Trammell: For me, being present in the job is something I always put front and center. It is my duty as an elected official to make sure people in this community get what they need and to not delay. When there is an emergency, I always give access, even if I am on vacation. I need to do a better job striking and keeping a balance. I don’t do it enough and I don’t think Black women do it enough. I like to travel to get away and get cultural experiences with family and friends. I love the spa because it allows you to rejuvenate and meditate.  

UMOJA: What advice would you give to young people of color that may want to follow in your footsteps?   

Hon. Trammell: Any goal they set is absolutely possible. I never thought I would be a judge let alone the first Black female judge here in Dane County. Growing up, my culture and language wasn’t always respected or tolerated. Those challenges I faced made me.  It gave me the courage and confidence to succeed. I encourage them to have courage and to rely on their intelligence because it’s God-given. Also, when I realized a key to my success was nurturing the relationships I built around this community, that helped me see the power within myself. They should know that there are so many people out here that want to see them win.