Dana M. Douglas, a magistrate judge for the Eastern District of New Orleans, will be sworn in Friday, March 10, as the first woman of color on the Court of Appeals for the Fifth District. Credit: Official photo

Dana M. Douglas will be sworn in on Friday (March 10) as the first Black woman on the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. 

Planners are expecting an overflow crowd at her investiture, given its historic significance, Douglas’ stature in New Orleans and the size of her extended family. U.S. District Judge Ivan R.L. Lemelle, whom Douglas clerked for two decades ago, will emcee the ceremony. Douglas’ 10-year-old daughter, Charli, will lead the audience in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Douglas succeeds Judge James Dennis, 86, a 1995 appointee of President Bill Clinton. Dennis announced in 2021, after Joe Biden’s election as president, that he is ready to move to a reduced caseload, called “senior status,” once his seat is filled.

Of 300 sitting federal appeals court judges, only 15 are Black women, according to the Federal Judicial Center database, which showed that 17 sitting appellate judges are Black men.

Dana Douglas in an undated childhood photo Credit: Courtesy Douglas family

“[R]epresentation matters enormously,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., speaking on the Senate floor after Douglas’ confirmation. “The health of our federal courts hangs on judges who will both apply the law correctly while earning Americans’ trust in the first place. The more our courts look like the country at large — the more languages and backgrounds and specialties we have on the bench — the more likely that trust endures.”

U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson expanded further on that point. “Sometimes for justice to be achieved, judges of different life experiences should be at the table,” said Jackson, who is chief judge of the Middle District of Louisiana and a former law partner of Douglas’ at the firm Liskow & Lewis.  

“Dana provides a perspective that no judge of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has ever offered before, not only because of her race and gender but because of her life and her background,” Jackson said. “She is the child of working-class parents, educated by the Sisters of the Holy Family in New Orleans, who attended college in the Midwest and law school in New Orleans. That range of life experiences enables her to really appreciate the range of issues that litigants bring when they come before the federal courts.”

The U.S. Senate voted 65-31 in December to confirm Douglas, who had served since 2019 as a federal magistrate judge on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. She was Biden’s first nomination to the Fifth Circuit, which covers Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi and is considered one of the nation’s most conservative courts.

Though Douglas was nominated by the Democratic president, her nomination was supported by both of Louisiana’s Republican senators, Bill Cassidy and John Kennedy.

A family ‘rooted in service

Ida Woodfork, left, with daughter Dana Douglas, a new graduate of Loyola University Law School. Credit: Courtesy of Douglas family
Dana Douglas as a toddler in Treme with her father, Daniel Douglas Credit: Courtesy Douglas family

When Douglas was young, she often visited her mother, Ida Woodfork, who worked for the Civil Sheriff Paul Valteau in the Civil District Court building on Loyola Avenue, according to a recommendation letter written to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee by retired Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Bernette Joshua Johnson. Johnson started her career as a civil court judge in New Orleans.

“Dana comes from a family rooted in service and committed to the rule of law and she has the same commitment,” Johnson wrote. She also noted in her letter that many members of Douglas’ family have worked in law enforcement. She pointed to Douglas’ uncle, Warren Woodfork, the first Black superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department. Interim NOPD Superintendent Michelle Woodfork is Douglas’ first cousin. Though she has one child, Charli, Judge Douglas also helped to raise two of her younger cousins.

“I’m not trying to sugarcoat any of Dana’s characteristics. But she is someone who really has a burning desire to serve people,” Lemelle said. “And she’s got a big, close family of uncles and aunts and cousins, who share her strong work ethic and desire to serve others.” Lemelle has a special admiration for her parents – “both hardworking people” – her mother, with the job in civil court and her father, Daniel Douglas, who worked as a bellman at the Intercontinental Hotel.

Douglas grew up in New Orleans East, attended St. Mary’s Academy, and received a bachelor’s degree in social work in 1997 from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where she was chapter president of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.

She used her position to help create an organization that brought together the campus’ Black and white fraternities and sororities, to respond to racial tensions at the school at the time, said Nikol Miller, a close friend and roommate of Douglas’ at Miami University.

Dana Douglas as Zulu maid Credit: Courtesy Douglas family

Though she was studious and focused, she also made time for more light-hearted moments. “We were at every football game,” Miller said. “Dana loves football. We would be at every football game at kickoff and would not leave until the last second of the last quarter.”

Douglas earned her law degree in 2000 from Loyola University College of Law, where she edited the school’s Public Interest Law Journal.

After graduation, she clerked for Lemelle. She brought her parents to his chambers — and they realized that they’d met years before. In 1974, Lemelle was an Orleans Parish prosecutor assigned to the prosecution of a drunk driver who had killed a 4-year-old boy — their son, Daniel Douglas IV, Dana’s older brother.

“It was what I would describe as a bittersweet reunion,” Lemelle said. “Because it brought back memories of terrible loss but also a kind of joy about how we live in a small world and that things come around.”

‘She makes sure that people are cared for

In any room, Douglas exudes a certain warmth, Lemelle said. “When you meet Dana for the first time, she’s gonna put you at ease.” 

That ability to connect with everyone also struck Miller, her former roommate.

Dana Douglas, high school graduation photo, St. Mary’s Academy Credit: Courtesy Douglas family

“Traveling with Dana, I learned a lot,” Miller said. “I don’t know if it’s a New Orleans thing or if it’s just Dana, but she is always generous in how she tips and treats people in the service industry. She makes sure that people, even those who are not on stage or have the spotlight, are cared for. She’s very passionate about making sure that people are treated fairly.” 

After clerking for Lemelle, Douglas joined the corporate law firm Liskow & Lewis, rising to partner there in 2008. She litigated cases involving energy, product liability and intellectual-property litigation. She also served from 2004 to 2013 on the New Orleans Civil Service Commission, becoming vice chair there. In 2017, Douglas became the third Black president of the New Orleans Bar Association. She spearheaded efforts to establish legal clinics to help indigent clients across town.

“Sometimes it takes strong leadership to kind of nudge lawyers to fulfill our civic obligations to assist all citizens, who deserve access to the courts and to the legal system,” Jackson said. “Dana has always understood that there are segments of our community that are historically underserved by the legal profession.”

Lemelle, who was appointed to the bench in 1998 by President Clinton, said that when he hires clerks, he instructs them that they shouldn’t be afraid to disagree with him about an issue of law or a case’s resolution. “I tell them that I need someone that will challenge my thought processes,” he said. “And Dana did that in a professional way. She would discover issues that I might have missed or that even the lawyers might have missed in their briefings and motions to us.”

On the Fifth Circuit, Douglas will again be considering Lemelle’s work, he said. “Now she’s going to be grading my papers — and deciding whether or not I’ve correctly interpreted law. And I know that she’s going to do that in a professional manner.” 

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Katy Reckdahl joins Verite after working as a staff reporter for The Times-Picayune and the alt-weekly Gambit before spending a decade as a freelancer, writing frequently for the New Orleans Advocate |...