Judge Anne Elise Thompson never had specific career goals, and never imagined she would be part of a historic class of women judges appointed to the federal bench in 1979.
A theater arts teacher in her early years after college, she entered law school, and then thrived in one professional challenge after another—succeeding as a public defender, prosecutor, and judge.
In 1979, 23 women were appointed to life-tenured U.S. judgeships—more than doubling the number of women appointed as federal judges in the previous 190 years. The doors they opened never swung shut again.
Today, there are 363 female judges, including three Supreme Court justices. Women make up one-third of the courts’ full-time, active Article III judges. There are currently 870 authorized Article III judgeships: nine on the Supreme Court, 179 on the courts of appeals, 673 for the district courts and nine on the Court of International Trade.
Forty years after their confirmation, the women judges of 1979 remain proud of their role in history.
Before becoming a U.S. district judge in the District of New Jersey, Anne Thompson was a public defender, a municipal judge, and among the very few African American women to serve as a county prosecutor.
She was inspired by her father and mother, who attended segregated schools in the South before becoming a dentist and teacher, respectively, in Philadelphia.
“My mother was a woman who knew nothing but discrimination, but she had an openness and energy, embracing the world and people of all types,” Thompson recalled.
“I didn’t have any ambitions at any point. For me it was, does this sound like something I would want to do,” said Thompson, of the District of New Jersey. “I loved every job I had.”
She received inspiration from both her African American parents, who had successful professional careers despite attending segregated schools. Thompson’s father earned a dental degree, but still had to work several years as a railroad baggage handler until he could afford to buy the equipment to set up his dental practice in Philadelphia. Thompson’s mother became a teacher.
“My parents were from the South, and for them, education was very important,” Thompson said. “I had wonderful encouragement and support all through my young life.”
After a few years of teaching theater, Thompson enrolled in Howard University Law School. She worked for the U.S. Department of Labor, then moved to Trenton and married her husband, Bill, who also was a dentist. There, her legal career quickly advanced.
In Trenton, Thompson became a state public defender in 1967, and a municipal prosecutor in 1970. That led to a part-time municipal judgeship in 1972.
“The mayor was an idealistic person,” Thompson said. “I had been active in the War on Poverty. He had the idea that the municipal court should have judges who were connected with the poverty population.”
In 1975, Gov. Brendan Byrne named Thompson as Mercer County prosecutor. According to a 1979 New York Times profile, she was the first African American woman in America to hold such a post. “It was a job that I loved. The challenges were so great,” Thompson said.
When new federal judgeships opened in New Jersey, she was appointed to a nominating commission evaluating other candidates, but her fellow commissioners recommended Thompson to the New Jersey U.S. senators.
Despite her varied resume, she had infrequently been inside a federal courthouse, which felt isolated and austere compared to the buzz of a prosecutor’s office.
“It was a huge change in atmosphere and environment,” she said.
Throughout her career, Thompson’s husband was a staunch ally.
“He was a wonderful person, he was kind and loving and supportive in every way,” she said. “He was always anxious for me to take the next job. I think I might have said no to some of these posts if he hadn’t been there to say, ‘Oh, that’s wonderful.’ ”
Throughout her career, Thompson made friends, and kept them. Fellow judge Dickinson Debevoise remained a close colleague until his death. She still dines with several county prosecutors she served with in the 1970s. The former theater student befriended Kitty Carlisle, a onetime Broadway idol.
In the courtroom, she enthusiastically continues to hear cases. “It’s been a marvelous, magnificent job,” Thompson said. “It becomes more interesting as time goes by.”
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Thompson received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Howard University in 1955, a Master of Arts from Temple University in 1957, and a Bachelor of Laws from Howard University School of Law in 1964.
She was an attorney in the Office of the Solicitor of the United States Department of Labor in Chicago, Illinois from 1964 to 1965.
She was a grant writer for United Progress, Inc. from 1966 to 1967, when she became an assistant deputy public defender for the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender in the Mercer-Somerset-Hunterdon Region of Trenton, New Jersey, where she served until 1970.
She was the municipal prosecutor for Lawrence Township in Lawrenceville, from 1970 to 1972; a municipal court judge for the City of Trenton, from 1972 to 1975; and Mercer County prosecutor, from 1975 to 1979.
The first woman and the first African American to serve as a federal district court judge in the state of New Jersey assumed senior status on June 1, 2001.
Thompson continues to preside over some high profile cases, including the criminal trial of former Ocean County GOP Chair Geoerge Gilmore, who got a conviction for tax evasion; a racketeering lawsuit accusing Nationstar Mortgage of inflating premiums for property insurance that some borrowers were forced to buy; and a civil lawsuit filed against a Rutgers surgeon accused of filming women in restrooms.
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