Judge Shauna Graves-Robertson encourages all, shares her path toward successAug 11, 2023 10:25AM ● By Rachel Aubrey
Speaking to attendees at a Women in Business luncheon, Judge Shauna Graves-Robertson shared the philosophies she has implemented within her career as a Salt Lake County justice court judge. (Rachel Aubrey/City Journals)
Judge Shauna Graves-Robertson gave her tips for success to participants of the South Valley Chamber Women in Business luncheon in June at the public safety building in South Jordan. Born and raised in Salt Lake City, Robertson was a graduate of West High School. She then went on to earn a degree from Arizona State University before attending the University of Utah for a master’s degree as well as a juris doctorate.
Her professional accolades are many. In 2007, she received the Racial Justice Award from the Young Women’s Christian Association for her dedicated service to the residents of Utah, the Martin Luther King Jr. Drum Major Award in 2008, the Social Justice/Civil Rights award in 2013, the Meritorious Service Award from the Ogden branch of the NAACP in 2014 and an honorary doctor of Humane Letters from Salt Lake Community College in 2017.
Graves-Robertson has had a lot of experience, not only on the bench, but in life. The following are the tips she has learned and implemented on her path toward success.
Always be your authentic self
“It doesn’t help to try and be someone that you are not,” Graves-Robertson said.
The only African American female judge ever appointed or elected to serve in Utah, Graves-Robertson was appointed in 1999 and has gone through a general election every six years since her appointment. She reflected on her career and said that her race has been a factor as she has gone through her path, and that being the only African American judge has had its elements of loneliness.
“Just because something is a factor, you don’t let it bar your determination,” Graves-Robertson said.
Another factor she pointed out with some humor was her height. At just 5 feet, Graves-Robertson admitted that she does not let too much get her down or get in her way.
When she was first appointed, Graves-Robertson worked with four other female justice court judges, or her “peers,” who have since retired. Graves-Robertson is one of 81 Salt Lake County justice court judges who serve in one of 115 counties and municipal courts.
Part of being her authentic self is knowing that people were not always going to agree with her decisions, but trusting in herself to make the fairest decision with all the facts she had at any given time.
Do what you love doing
“If you don’t love doing it, it’s absolute drudgery,” Graves-Robertson said. “We spend so much time at work, you want to make sure your work is something you enjoy.”
During her undergraduate work in Arizona, Graves-Robertson spent a semester in Washington, D.C., where she had the opportunity to work for Sen. Orrin Hatch, who served as the senator from Utah from 1977 until 2019 and practiced law in Utah until 1969.
It was during that semester that she discovered her unrecognized love of the law. Upon returning home to Utah, she enrolled at the University of Utah and received her juris doctorate in 1990.
Robertson worked as an attorney for approximately five years in the State of Utah public defender’s office. She currently presides over a court of limited jurisdiction which includes cases involving theft, DUIs, simple assaults, graffiti and other class B and class C misdemeanors. Graves-Robertson’s court processes more than 11,000 cases a year, a significant amount according to Draper Mayor Troy Walker.
“She’s fair and she treats people with dignity,” Walker said. “She is a pleasure to practice law in front of.”
That sense of fairness stems from her belief that everybody deserves grace and the benefit of the doubt. Among those 11,000 or more cases a year, there have been many instances where Graves-Robertson was poised to alter the trajectory of someone’s life, however she holds strong that people are good and that they can change, and thus she makes recommendations to a defendant to do better.
“I’m afforded grace every day,” Graves-Robertson said. “We all make mistakes and you want to give people a chance.”
Without fail, however, according to Graves-Robertson, defendants end up back in court. To have so much power over another person, and to be able to decide whether someone will do jail time is something she does not take lightly. A self-proclaimed “copious note taker,” Graves-Robertson keeps track of everything that gets said or done in her courtroom to help her make cautious decisions about how to hand down a verdict.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help
“There are people out there that you have never even thought of, that if you ask them to help you, they are more than willing to do something for you to make sure that you get to where you need to go,” Graves-Robertson said.
Growing up on the west side of Salt Lake City in the Rose Park community, Robertson was raised by a single mother. However, she would be the first to tell you that despite her mother working, Graves-Robertson always felt like she had a place to go and people who cared about her and her family.
“I am a true product of the village,” she said. “If I needed something, I had all [those] people to go to.”
Despite being less than 1% of the population, Graves-Robertson said that there were true African American communities nearby that believed in her and helped bolster her forward along her path even after she left Utah to pursue her education.
At the time of her appointment to the bench, Graves-Robertson had two of her three daughters and she admitted that she had to ask for help from her surrounding community to help her raise her children. It was also at that time her mother came to live with her and her husband John and provided a great deal of help in looking after her kids.
As a long-time member of the sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha, a service-oriented sorority, Graves-Robertson said that she also had help from her sorority sisters, once again relying on the village to help raise her family.
“You want the village to help,” Graves-Robertson said. “I didn’t want my children raised in a vacuum.”
Graves-Robertson has been a devout member of the Calvary Baptist Church and served with Pastor France A. Davis for more than 43 years, and has leaned on her faith to guide her along her path. The best advice she has been given in her life?
“Be true to your word,” Graves-Robertson said. “Keep your promises.” λ