February 25 was just another day at Hennepin County Juvenile Court, but behind the door of Judge Pamela Alexander’s chambers, it was a day of reflection and celebration. Twenty-five years ago, the late Gov. Rudy Perpich appointed Alexander Hennepin County Municipal Court judge. This landmark appointment made Alexander the first African American female and the youngest appointed Hennepin County judge.
Alexander, a third generation South Minneapolis native, was led early to a career in justice after being called to testify in the rape case of a childhood friend. She was struck by the constant complaints about the lawyer assigned to the case. She made up her mind to become a lawyer who truly advocated for her clients.
Alexander’s career has been devoted to equality and justice. After graduating cum laude from Augsburg College, and receiving her J.D. from the University of Minnesota Law School, Alexander became a criminal defense attorney for the Legal Rights Center. Later, Alexander became the first African American female prosecutor at the Hennepin County Attorney’s office where her focus was sexual assault cases. She has also served as the presiding judge of the Hennepin County District Court, Juvenile Division and as assistant chief judge of the entire bench from 1996-1998. She is the first African American judge to serve in these positions.
Alexander’s 25 years as a Hennepin County judge have been rewarding, but not without controversy. With an increase in the use of crack cocaine in the 1980s, lawmakers sought tougher drug sentencing laws. This led to an inequitable sentencing of 20 years for three grams or more of crack possession compared to a five-year sentence for similar amounts of powder cocaine. In addition, statistics showed that the majority of crack users were Black while the majority of powder cocaine users were white. In 1990, Alexander heard arguments from a lawyer who insisted that his client, charged with crack possession, was facing an unfair and racially biased sentencing. Alexander agreed with the lawyer and dismissed the charges. In her opinion, Judge Alexander stated:
“There has been a recent outcry in this country for control of drugs. This concern has led to a rash of new laws with tough penalties designed [to] aid in this “war.” While the concern of the nation is justified, the reactionary impulses that have come from the legislatures, in this case the Minnesota Legislature, do not necessarily get to the root of the problem. These actions must be kept in perspective and shouldn’t be instituted at the expense of basic civil rights . . . There is no justifiable reason to uphold a statute which results in such unequal treatment of similarly situated individuals. The Constitution is designed to prevent this type of injustice.”
Her decision was, subsequently, upheld by the Minnesota Supreme Court. Late last year, the U.S. Sentencing Commission took a similar position to Alexander’s ruling. As a result, some 19,000 federal inmates will receive a reduction in their crack cocaine sentences.
This victory, however, came at a cost. In 1994, late Sen. Paul Wellstone nominated Alexander to the U.S. District Court. Seen as an “activist judge” and soft on crime, Alexander did not get the nod.
At the surprise 25th anniversary party hosted by several of Alexander’s clerks and colleagues, U.S. District Judge Michael J. Davis, spoke to the significance and challenge of Alexander’s career.
“The road has not always been easy. It takes a lot of energy and talent to be a part of the community, a mother and a wife. We have tried cases together, went to the capital together and both got the phone call. She is a beautiful, strong African American woman. There are struggles we have gone through that may not have been worth it. She’s gone through things people have never seen,” said Davis.
For Alexander, the commitment to her work remains steadfast, despite the struggles.
Said Alexander, “Children have always been my passion. These children really need us. You should not be in juvenile court if you don’t love children. It’s amazing what we are seeing. I want to raise awareness. We have to do something to save our kids.”