With her appointment as a Dane County judge in August 2020, Nia Trammell made history, becoming the county’s first Black female judge.
It’s a distinction she doesn’t take lightly, one heaped in responsibility. It was also a career path she’d considered much earlier, and though she’d had encouragement, she waited until her experience made the time right.
Trammell, 49, was born in Adazi, a small village in southern Nigeria. She came to Madison at age 4 with her parents, who were students at UW-Madison. Her father ultimately worked in probation and parole for the state Department of Corrections, while her mother was a librarian in the Madison School District.
She has traveled back to Nigeria, where she still has family, though it’s been more than eight years now. It’s not an easy place to get to, and traveling there can sometimes be dangerous. But travel has always been an interest for Trammell and her husband, Geoff, and their three children, who range in age from 9 to 20 years old.
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“I am looking forward to another trip back there,” she said. “I still speak the language, not great, but I understand my native language.”
The West High School graduate headed to UW-Madison, initially to pursue a business degree before realizing she was more interested in social justice issues and changed her studies to behavioral science and law.
From there Trammell enrolled at UW-Madison Law School, having audited some classes there during her undergraduate days. She was drawn to employment and intellectual property law, and after graduation she spent nine years as a civil litigator at Michael Best & Friedrich in Madison.
Trammell then turned to public service, becoming an administrative law judge for the state Department of Workforce Development. She traveled the state hearing workers’ compensation cases.
“I went to places that I’d never even heard of,” she said. “It really allowed me to see the beauty of the state and also visit with people from all walks of life.”
After 11 years as an administrative law judge, Trammell was appointed deputy secretary of the state Department of Safety and Professional Services. Leaving law for management was a drastic change, she said, which lasted for about a year and seven months. That’s when she heard about an opening on the Dane County bench.
Why did you decide to get back into law and become a judge?
I was not the lawyer for the agency, and obviously I could always give my input, but I certainly missed the law a great deal. I had also been in discussions about maybe going back to my old job as an administrative law judge because I absolutely loved being a judge. So when I learned that there were opportunities for appointments in Dane County through the Evers administration it seemed like a no-brainer. As a young attorney, I had certain individuals in the community approaching me, asking me to consider either running for judge or pursuing an appointment. I never wanted to run for office or apply for a position or appointment not feeling that I was fully ready, so I did my homework. It took awhile, but the opportunity finally presented itself.
When you set out in your career, did you ever envision being a judge?
It seemed completely out of reach. I never saw images that looked like me on the bench really, at least not locally. I think at least within law school, it’s something that I had considered, but really didn’t think that it was within reach and it wasn’t until after years of practicing as an attorney that I then realized that it obviously was something in my mind to accomplish.
And now that you have, you certainly have a place in history here. How does that feel?
It feels good. It’s remarkable. I think the first time that I walked into the courthouse, I was overwhelmed because it is an awesome responsibility. I just had to remind myself that there definitely was a place for me, I earned it, and that my responsibility was to do right by the community in terms of discharging my duties in a fair and equitable way as a judge. But I also knew that there would come with it a certain level of pressure and expectations in being the first.
How has the first year on the bench been?
It’s been an amazing experience. There were challenges that presented simply because I came in during the midst of a pandemic. I think being able to get up to speed and have a full experience that most judges would have in ordinary times, it was lacking. But I think that what it forced many of us judges to do is learn how to be very self-sufficient and to get up to speed very quickly. For me, it’s really refreshing now that the courts opened back up and we’re able to have people coming to the courthouse. I think it certainly gives a much different dynamic when you’re able to just look someone in the face rather than via Zoom.
One thing that this entire experience has done for me is it has opened my eyes a great deal to many of the things that we are experiencing as a community. I think as judges, we get a bird’s eye view of a lot of the things that are happening in this community that most people would not get to see from the vantage point that we do. There are things as a community we can be very proud of. There are things that certainly there could be room for improvement. Just having served in the juvenile court, I saw a lot of things where I don’t even know how to choose the words. We’re experiencing some issues and crises in our justice system, and there are things that I wish we had a better handle on.
What experience would you say has best prepared you for becoming a judge?
The two primary experiences probably would be the work that I’ve done as an administrative law judge, because I think what that job really allowed me to do is to have the one-on-one interactions with litigants. The work that I did at Michael Best, I think, gave me the broadest range of experience in terms of my exposure to different legal disciplines. But I also just want to add that the community experience that I’ve had and the volunteerism that I’ve been involved with, my civic life, definitely shapes who I am as a judge as well. I served on the (Madison) Police and Fire Commission. I also served on the (Madison) Equal Opportunities Commission. I’ve worked with folks at the Urban League to understand the different challenges that people face when there are economic disparities and social justice issues that they face. I’ve worked as a court-appointed special advocate serving abused children.