Trailblazer Series Welcomes Judge Tonya Parker '98

SMU Dedman School of Law welcomed back an accomplished and highly regarded alumna to speak with students and faculty at its Trailblazer Speaker Series event held in Karcher Auditorium on February 28, 2024. The Honorable Tonya Parker, Judge of the 116th Judicial District Court in Dallas, spoke about her early career and ongoing tenure as a judge in an insightful conversation with Erika Fadel, Assistant Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at SMU Dedman Law.

Born in Chicago and raised in Richardson, Texas, Judge Parker made her entrance into social justice matters as a student at the University of North Texas where she wrote letters to the student newspaper discussing important social issues of the day. Encouraged by Judge Maryellen Hicks to attend law school, Parker attended SMU Dedman Law and graduated in 1998.

At the Trailblazer Speaker event, Judge Parker expressed her belief that many aspiring lawyers go to law school to make a difference, and that her personal journey was no different.

“I think so many law students, people who are entering law school, people of color, people in the LGBTQ community, people who are from disenfranchised populations—you go to law school with the aspiration that you're going to do something with your law degree that rights those wrongs, that participates in finding solutions to the world's problems. I went to law school wanting to be a civil rights lawyer, and the closest I came to being a civil rights lawyer was when in the championship round of the moot court competition in Las Vegas, Nevada, I got to argue a case before our fake Supreme Court in favor of marriage equality.”

Fate would have other plans for her. After law school, she started as an associate at White Hill Sims & Wiggins (n/k/a White & Wiggins LLP), where she rose through the ranks to become a partner in 2004. In 2007, she moved to Gruber Hurst Johansen Hail LLP where she was also elected to the partnership and worked as a trial attorney until her election to the bench. As an attorney, Parker specialized in complex commercial and tort litigation matters, representing plaintiffs and defendants as well as individuals, closely-held and Fortune 500 corporations.

She was elected to her current judicial role in 2010 and is currently seeking higher office in the Fifth District Court of Appeals.

As a judge, Parker has been consistently recognized for her judicial performance and has scored top marks in the Dallas Bar Association Judicial Evaluation Polls. From 2013 to 2021, her overall approval ratings exceeded 92 percent—among the highest ratings of all judges evaluated in the polls. She attributes much of that success to her service-based approach on the bench. From the start of her career, Judge Parker said her mantra has been: Shrink from making no sacrifice in service of God, family, and community.

“It’s a customer service job. I talk to my staff that way—about litigants and lawyers as customers and how we can serve our customers. How are we speaking to our customers and interacting with our customers? I try to embed within them that attitude that we go above and beyond and outside of what they would expect.”

In pursuit of that goal, and as a component of her judicial philosophy, Judge Parker places an emphasis on the deliberative process—something that all parties have a right to, even when no jury is present. She said, “I do things like reviewing the docket blind. I don’t look at the docket sheet because I don’t want to know who’s presenting the arguments because it has the lawyers’ names on it, and I don’t want to know their names. I want to read the brief and arrive at a conclusion. It’s really important to me not to issue decisions but to arrive at them through a deliberative process.”

Parker said the most difficult part of being a jurist is helping bring legal closure to the parties before you. “You cannot give back what has been lost. You cannot redress every insult and injury that they have suffered; you will not bring back their loved one who is gone; you will not take their body and restore it. That's tough because we're there because we have a heart to serve, and we want to help people, but you have to be mindful that the way you get to help is by doing your job by making just and fair decisions that offer them the deliberative process where you arrive at timely decisions. That's how you get to help. And it's hard sometimes because you wish you could do more.”

She said that judges must also confront from time to time a careful balance between the needs of their personal lives against their duties on the bench. “It is not that personal life should take a back seat to the bench necessarily but that the call of service is high, and judges serve daily while dealing with weighty personal issues. Eventually, every judge has to learn as did I that there are times where it’s in the public’s best interest and our own that we take a break from sitting on the bench, whether to grieve, support family members, or just reset from a health challenge. And, in the end, the lawyers and litigants will understand and be better for us having done so. “

She told the students: “I have taken the bench the day after my father died,” she said. “I have taken the bench while waiting on biopsy results. I have taken the bench while my mother was being transitioned from a hospital to a rehabilitation facility. I still have to take the bench.

“My son was hospitalized, and they were doing a spinal tap on him. I was in the middle of a crisis, and I had to tell the lawyers [in my courtroom] this is something where I am going to have to stop this trial and be somewhere else. People are very understanding…You have to learn how to manage your humanity against the responsibilities of this office.”

Considered to be the first self-identifying gay African-American official in the State of Texas, Parker took the national spotlight in 2012 for refusing to exercise a privilege of her office to conduct marriage ceremonies because the State of Texas had a constitutional amendment that banned civil marriage for same sex couples. It did not seem an equal application of the law and Parker refused to exercise a privilege under color of law, for some that she could not exercise for others.

Parker won the Stonewall Award from the American Bar Association’s Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Commission in 2017, along with three other awards that year, including the SMU Dedman Distinguished Alumni Award for Judicial Service. She was recognized in 2021 by the Dallas Bar as the winner of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Justice Award.

Judge Parker said the best piece of advice she has received over the years is to find the power in the things that make you different. “Once I was able to tap into looking at the unique things that have come about within me because of my identities, and seize that power, I think it's helped me to be a better person, to be a better jurist, to be a better public servant. All of you are different in some respect or another. Everybody has times when you feel like you are the outsider; you're the one who's different. I invite you to really investigate the power of that, and then seize that and use that for good.”

When asked about problematic trends she’s noticed in the courtroom, Judge Parker points to a noticeable decline in the quality of advocacy since the COVID-19 pandemic began. She believes there is a lack of formality and thoroughness that must be reversed.

“There are times where lawyers will write an entire brief and not cite a single authority and then take umbrage when the court coordinator calls them and says, ‘The judge would like for you to amend your motion and actually cite a statute or a case.’ And then they will respond by saying, ‘Well, this is well settled.’ Well, if it’s so well settled it seems like the authority would be at their fingertips, so why not just get it and cite it in the brief.

“Even if it’s well settled, if I just intuit it into the brief, I become an advocate. I’m not the advocate; I’m the judge. Cite the authority in the brief so the court can decide the matter that is before it. So, the advocacy has declined, and we are really working hard to get people back up to where they were before the pandemic in terms of putting more quality effort into their written and oral presentations.”

Judge Parker concluded the conversation with helpful tips for law students to get started on the right track. Her most important piece of advice was to find one’s way into the courthouse as early as possible. “A judicial clerkship is one of the most valuable things you can get,” she said. “Take the opportunity to actually go over there and sit in a courtroom and see these things come off the page of the books that you're reading; actually see them play out. Our dockets are online at, so you can actually go and see what's going on and what's on the docket.”

Students at SMU Dedman School of Law will get more opportunities in the future to talk with and learn from Judge Parker. She will be teaching Texas Pre-Trial Procedure for 2Ls and 3Ls at SMU Dedman Law in the fall of 2024.