Winter 2008: Of Note
National TV star Judge Glenda Hatchett 77L lets her passion be her guide
By Paige P. Parvin 96G
A week after she was sworn in as a juvenile court judge, Glenda Hatchett 77L found herself looking down from the bench at a frightened eight-year-old boy. His mother had dropped him off nearly three months before at a homeless shelter and told him she would be back to get him, but she never came. He had been in the state system ever since. “Nothing in my education could have prepared me for that moment,” said Hatchett, herself a mother of two, during a recent appearance at the Emory School of Law. “He was trembling as though his whole soul had been drained from him. He was holding on to hope that if he just made it to court, his mother would be there.”
Hatchett removed her robes, stepped down from the bench, and took the boy in her arms. It was one of the many times during her career when she would forsake convention to follow her gut, doing what seemed right in the moment—however unexpected it might be.
Fiery and theatrical, the diminutive Hatchett paced the carpeted stage of Tull Auditorium in stiletto heels when she spoke during Unity Month in November, sponsored by law firm Smith, Gambrell, and Russell and the Black Law Students Association.
When Hatchett entered law school at Emory in 1974, she never intended to practice law. “I came to law school because I thought, what in the world am I going to do with a degree in political science and history from Mount Holyoke?” she said. She went on to become the highest-ranking African American woman at Delta Air Lines, serving dual roles in the legal and public relations departments and on the fast track to senior vice president.
Nearly ten years later, when a friend and colleague called to tell her about the opportunity in Fulton County Juvenile Court, Hatchett resisted. “I was comfortable at Delta,” she said. “I was going to retire from Delta Air Lines. But while you’re busy planning, God may have something else for your path.”
So, in a dramatic change of direction, in 1990 Hatchett became chief presiding judge of Fulton County Juvenile Court, a sprawling system where cases like that of the abandoned boy were commonplace. By nature a woman of action, Hatchett quickly learned to focus on what she could do to reach children and their families, rather than agonizing over those beyond her grasp. Her constant hope, she told the audience at Emory, was that if she could influence children in their adolescent and teen years, she might help prevent them from slipping into a destructive cycle that would lead them back to the court and prison system as young adults.
“It ended up being the most difficult job of my life, but it was where I was supposed to be,” Hatchett said. “Sometimes your passion has to find you.”
In 1999, Hatchett left the juvenile court system to spend more time with her family during her older son’s senior year in high school. But just a few months later, Sony Pictures approached her with the idea for a television show. Hatchett set off on yet another new path to what would become the popular Judge Hatchett, now in its eighth season. With her trademark warmth, confidence, and no-nonsense style, Hatchett uses innovative methods of sentencing and intervention to help plaintiffs and defendants see the broader implications of their actions and handle problems better in the future.
Hatchett also is the author of the best seller Say What You Mean and Mean What You Say, a parenting book. She has advocated for intergenerational after-school programs that would foster community for children and adults alike.
Toward the close of her talk at Emory, Hatchett revealed that the eight-year-old boy whose case she heard in 1990 was reunited with his mother the following Christmas Eve, after she underwent drug treatment.
“Let there be something in your life that you are passionate about and are willing to just pour yourself into,” she said. “And be open to the possibilities.”