I was asked to share about my motivation to become a judge. I’ll start with what may sound cliché, but if someone told me 10 years ago that I would be a circuit court judge, I would have laughed them out of the room.
I was the first in my family to graduate college and the first to attend law school. I went to law school with a plan of never being in a courtroom because I wanted to become a sports agent. After a successful track career and my general affinity for sports, I just knew that was the path for me. I found out very quickly looking for internships after my first year – that there were not any firms that handled sports and entertainment law in or near the Richmond area. I instead worked as a server at a restaurant to cover tuition and other expenses. During my second year in law school, a professor asked me to play the role of a witness in a mock trial for the local Inn of Courts meeting. During that meeting, I met attorney Murray Janus. Luckily that day, Mr. Janus had just reviewed my internship application and offered me an interview the next week. My internship with his firm the summer after my second year was my first exposure to criminal and civil litigation in state and federal court. I immediately was drawn to being in a courtroom.
During my internship years and first year of practice in the Richmond area, I regularly saw Black judges on the bench. At the time Judges Cheek, Hairston, and Jamison were on Richmond General District Court, Judge Margaret Spencer in Richmond Circuit Court, and her husband Judge James Spencer in federal court, to name a few. But even then, I had no desire to become a judge.
In 2007, I relocated to Northern Virginia to work for a domestic relations firm. I fully expected to see the same level of diversity on the bench in Northern Virginia that I saw in the Richmond area. I was very shocked to see that across heavily populated and diverse Northern Virginia area, there were only a handful of Black judges on the bench. After relocating, one of the first events I attended was the investiture of Judge Nolan Dawkins to the Alexandria Circuit Court. Shortly thereafter, I had the opportunity to hear Judge Gerald Bruce Lee speak to a group of students about his background and path to the bench. I think this was the first time the thought ever crossed my mind that someday I could have my own investiture and someday share with a group of students how a young black boy “from the hood” could ascend to the bench. It was a quick thought and certainly didn’t not become a goal at the time.
I opened my own firm in 2010 and my practice took me all over the Commonwealth and into Washington, D.C., trying primarily domestic relations and criminal cases. In those travels, I had the opportunity to appear before a lot of different judges. I appeared before some judges that were great at their job and it was readily apparent that they took the bench prepared, listened carefully to the evidence and argument, and based their ruling on the facts and law at issue. More often than I can count, I appeared before judges that did not take the bench with that same level of preparation and appropriate judicial temperament. I would be at a loss for words in post court conferences with my client or their family why it seemed that the judge was in a rush, angry or had prejudged the case. This experience never sat well with me and at times personally brought me to tears over how my client or I were treated in the courtroom. This frustration with the administration of justice made me want to do something about it. I started volunteering to serve on judicial selection screening panels with the local bar associations.
As my practice grew, my wife at the time and other members of the bar began to encourage me to submit my name for one of the upcoming judicial openings. It was not until receiving the support and encouragement of those around me, that those thoughts of one day taking the bench became a real goal in my mind.
I decided to submit my name for the opening on Arlington Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court after Judge Wiggins announced her retirement. I eventually built up the courage to meet with a member of the local delegation about what I needed to do to improve my chances. I was quickly convinced in that meeting to seek an opening on the Fairfax General District Court and applied for a judgeship for the first time in 2015. I spent hours and hours preparing for judicial screening interviews, brushing up on civil law and procedure, and seeking out support from members of the bar and community for my candidacy. Ultimately, I was not selected and frankly unprepared for the sense of rejection and public failure that comes along with an unsuccessful judicial candidacy. Despite not being selected, I was encouraged by a member of the delegation to apply to become a substitute judge.
After licking my wounds, I submitted my application and was fortunate to be selected by the judges of the circuit court to serve as a substitute judge. My experience as a substitute judge confirmed my personal belief that I could serve as a full-time judge and that I was best suited for the circuit bench based on my life and professional experience. It was that belief that I could do the job, coupled with my continuing frustration with the administration of justice that motivated me through two other successful judicial candidacies, the last of which I swore that I was never subjecting myself to the judicial screening process ever again. With the encouragement of my support system, I changed my mind and applied for the opening created by the retirement of Judge Jan Brodie. I doubled down on my preparation efforts and tried to address everything that had been previously cited as a weakness during my prior attempts. I was selected by the Fairfax delegation in December of 2018 to fill the vacancy on the Fairfax County Circuit bench.
I am always mindful of what motivated me to seek this position and do my best to take the bench each day prepared, to listen attentively to the evidence and law presented, and deliver my ruling in a way that demonstrates to all involved that they have been fairly heard. No one on this earth is perfect and I cannot profess to be the exception to this rule. However, it is not lost on me that in a profession where only 5% of lawyers are Black, the percentage is drastically lower for the number of Black judges. The desire to do the job the right way and a sense that whenever I am performing my duties, there is someone watching me the same way I watched Judges Lee, Alston, Dawkins, and Newman. My hope is that the work that I do in this position creates a spark that will motivate them to diversify the legal profession and the bench. Which I firmly believe will benefit the bar, bench, and our community.
Hon. Dontaè L. Bugg is originally from Newport News, Virginia. He is a Circuit Court Judge in Fairfax County Circuit Court in Virginia's 19th Judicial District. He attended University of Maryland where he obtained his Bachelors degree, and University of Richmond for his law degree.