The Catalyze podcast: Karen Stevenson ’79 on her nontraditional path to federal court judge: “No one else can tell you what your path should be”

When reporters and public relations professionals come calling, Karen Stevenson ’79 knows what to expect: They are going to ask her about being “the first.”

As a high school senior, Karen became the first African American woman to receive the Morehead-Cain Scholarship as part of the inaugural group of female Morehead-Cain Scholars. In 1979, the alumna made national headlines as the first woman from the University and the first African American woman from the United States to receive the Rhodes Scholarship.

On this episode, Karen shares her thoughts about the renown she's received for being "the first" of so many accomplishments; how she approaches her work as a U.S. Magistrate Judge for the Central District of California; and how she's maintaining a sense of equilibrium during the pandemic. 

The Los Angeles-based alumna will deliver the keynote address during Morehead-Cain’s Virtual Final Selection Weekend on February 26.

How to listen

On your mobile device, you can listen and subscribe to Catalyze on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. For any other podcast app, you can find the show using our RSS feed

Catalyze is hosted and produced by Sarah O’Carroll for the Morehead-Cain Foundation, home of the first merit scholarship program in the United States and located at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. You can let us know what you thought of the episode by finding us on Twitter or Instagram at @moreheadcain or you can email us at communications@moreheadcain.org.

Music credits 

The intro music is by Scott Hallyburton ’22, guitarist of the band South of the Soul. 

The music for the mid-episode break and ending is by Nicholas Byrne ’19. Follow Nicholas @art.sandcrafts on Instagram.

Episode Transcription

(Sarah)

Judge Stevenson, thanks for joining us. 

(Karen)

My pleasure. Good morning, Sarah. 

(Sarah)

In reading your bio, there are a lot of firsts associated with the things you've done. You were the first African American woman to receive the Morehead-Cain Scholarship as part of the first female class of Morehead-Cain Scholars. 

You were the first woman from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the first African American woman from the United States to receive the Rhodes Scholarship. And there are many other examples, I'm sure.

But if you removed those firsts, what would remain is incredible because of how much you've accomplished. I'm wondering to what extent you'd say those firsts are still important to you at a personal level, and has that changed at all?

(Karen)

Very good question. I think it has changed over time. Being the first . . . I respect it if it allows younger people, particularly younger women and younger women of color, to believe that they can achieve their dreams and that they can aspire to the highest levels of excellence in whatever it is they wish to pursue. It is meaningful to me to that extent.

It's not something that looms large in my own consciousness, and it's not something I particularly care to advertise for myself. Numbers, primacy in certain endeavors . . . in some ways, I think, can be a distraction. We need to focus on service. It is the substance of the work and the substance of the service that we give, in whatever areas that we choose, that's the only meaning it has to me. Because it doesn't matter if you're first and do a lousy job at something. What was the point?

(Sarah)

Well, as I was learning about you, I was struck by how you just seem to refuse to fit in a box or anyone's preconceived notions. As a Morehead-Cain Scholar at Carolina, you studied art history, Russian, among many other languages. You've traveled all over the world. How much of your life would you say has been in pursuit of flourishing according to your own terms and your own interests, versus mapping out a clear path by design for a career?

(Karen)

I think it is both, and. One of the great blessings of the opportunity of being in Chapel Hill and having been awarded the scholarship, was that I felt a great deal of intellectual freedom to pursue the things that engaged me intellectually, and not to fit in any particular box. A blessing of the scholarship is that it doesn't assume that one has to be any particular thing. 

For most of us, with the advantage of time, you see that there are those things you are drawn to – I’ve always loved languages, loved history – and there are those things that are brought to you, almost like gifts, by friendships, by mentorships, by serendipitous encounters with people, and all of those things can enrich your life.

(Sarah)

So, even if following different interests has come pretty naturally to you, by virtue of your own curiosity or the influences of those around you, would you say that courage comes from more of an innate sense or something you've shaped over time?

(Karen)

In my experience, it comes with time. Like I often tell people, I was not the kind of person who knew in kindergarten, “When I grow up, I want to be a judge.” That was not the plan. And in fact, that's OK. There are people who know, absolutely at seven [years old], “This is what I want to do.” It is what they are passionate about for their entire careers and all the way through. 

So even though I was very driven towards those things, for me, just as you mentioned, it was just a lot more eclectic and a lot more of figuring it out as you go along.

I now have young adult children, and I have to now live the experience of letting them figure it out on their own. No one else can tell you what your path should be. Folks can help you along the way. Folks can inspire you all along the way. But at the end of the day, we all have to find our own path. And for some of us, like I said, that’s passionately and absolutely clear very early on. And for others of us, it's a little bit of this, and it's a little bit of that. And it's left turns, and right turns, and dead ends. And it’s maybe this, hmmm, maybe not so much. And that's OK, too.

(Sarah)

Well, I think that should come as some relief to finalists or even scholars who are considering their next steps and maybe feeling a little anxious. Now, you're a U.S. Magistrate Judge for the Central District of California. 

For those of us who are not in the field of law, can you give us a sense of what that looks like and share about the kinds of things you're routinely asked to do? 

(Karen)

Yeah, first of all, a United States magistrate judge is an Article 1 judge, as opposed to an Article 3 judge. An Article 3 judge is nominated by the President, confirmed by the Senate, and appointed for life to a district judgeship.

Article 1 judges are selected around the country. This is a position created by statute, and there is a merit selection process. It has no political overtones and no political aspects to the process whatsoever. And you are appointed, voted on, and appointed by the sitting district judges in the district where you will serve. 

Our jobs vary from district to district around the country, but in this district, a lot of what we do is in assistance to the district judges. I handle criminal bench duty matter, initial appearances and arraignments, and preliminary hearings for folks who have been arrested or charged with federal crimes. I also handle Social Security appeals, which is a bit more of an appellate type function. 

I also handle a great number of prisoners’ civil rights cases, where prisoners are representing themselves and indicating that they believe something has occurred in the facility where they are incarcerated that constitutes a violation of their constitutional rights. I handle a lot of settlement agreements and I also do a lot on the civil side. I do a great deal of discovery, managing discovery disputes in civil cases, a broad range, anything from trademark infringement to patent infringement to business disputes to security-related matters. 

It's a broad range of work. I love it. It's a remarkable job. I feel privileged every day to come and do this work of the federal courts. I find it both meaningful and challenging.

(Sarah)

Given the variety of cases you work on, is there a type of case that really reinforces for you why you do what you do, and also what helps you orient your mind before heading into court? What do you think about?

(Karen)

What I think about every day is that no matter who comes in front of me – whether they are an incarcerated person, a prisoner representing themselves, sending me their complaint on notebook paper, handwritten in ink, or if it's a Fortune 500 corporation – everyone who appears in the federal courts deserves dignity, respect, and the full and fair attention of the judicial officer, before whom they are appearing. And that's really the thing I think about. Every case is unique, and every case matters immensely to the people who are involved.

The primacy of that for the parties matters to me. Cases don't always come out the way folks want. In trials, there are winners and losers on motions, and we have to decide who's right and who prevails and who doesn't. But what is important is that everybody comes away from the proceedings feeling that they got a fair shot, that their positions were fully heard, and they were given the full due attention of the federal court that they're entitled to as citizens.

(Sarah)

Well, it's clear you've really held firmly to this belief and desire that all individuals who come through the court system receive a high level of dignity and respect. Can you pinpoint any experiences that have really informed this conviction for you such that it remains so important for you today?

(Karen)

One thing that has deeply touched me personally [is that] I've had the experience in some of my prisoners’ civil rights cases to actually go into a state prison and conduct civil settlement conferences in a couple of the state facilities here. And that is a very sobering experience. It's very sobering. And I made a point when I went on the bench to make sure I took a tour of the Metropolitan Detention Center, which is the large federal detention center right next to our courthouse, where pretrial detainees are housed.

I also require my law clerks to do that. I require law students who work for me as summer interns to do that, because it is never a light thing to take an individual's liberty. You apply the law fairly and exactly as it is required, and yet I find I cannot ever just disconnect from the humanity of the process. So, I felt like it was important to know where we are sending people.When I make a decision that someone must be detained pending further proceedings in the case, it's important to see that, to know that. 

And also, I require all of my law clerks when they come on board to work in my chambers to read Brian Stevenson's Just Mercy, because the application of the law, particularly in the criminal context, has human consequences, and it's important to not become inured or numb to that.

(Sarah) 

We'll be right back. Stay with us. 

Tomorrow, on February 17, Cecilia Polanco, Class of 2016, will deliver a SEVEN Talk about authentic leadership and social entrepreneurship, and how to make your work part of a movement. That event begins at 4 p.m. Eastern Time. 

Next week, on February 24, Ray Sawyer from the Class of 2013 will talk about the memories that make us, and why looking back helps create the way forward. Ray’s talk begins at 2 p.m. Eastern Time. You can find more information and RSVP on the Morehead-Cain Network. 

(Sarah)

Well, switching gears a bit, in your SEVEN Talk in the 2015 Alumni Forum, you shared about being among the first class of female Morehead-Cain Scholars, or “The Dirty Dozen,” as you mentioned. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience? And were you all close? And would you say any or more of them influenced your career aspirations at the time?

(Karen)

Yes, the twelve of us were good friends, and I respect each and every one of those remarkable women. Some are physicians now, some are environmentalists. One of my classmates, Katie Ziegler, is at the art museum in Chapel Hill now after a long career at the Smithsonian. Just extraordinary women, all extraordinary women. 

None of them were particularly influential in telling me what I should do or recommending what I should do in our life. We were all twenty-somethings, college kids, trying to figure it out for ourselves. And if you look at that group of the dozen of us, it's a wide, wide range of things that folks have engaged in over their lives. 

And so not in any direct sense was anybody in my class particularly influential over what I’d do for work or later study. What it was influential in was having a community of women friends who were all leaders, who were interested in leading, and interested in finding for ourselves what were the best places we could make those contributions. And that sense of community for me, even though we haven't seen each other hardly at all, and I only exchange Christmas cards maybe with a handful of people in that group, I still have a deep sense of affinity and community with that group of women.

(Sarah)

That must have been just really neat to be part of such an elite group on campus, although I'm sure it came with a tremendous amount of pressure. So, if not from that group and having not grown up in a family of lawyers, where then do you think the interest in law and becoming a judge came from for you?

(Karen)

I had planned to go to law school when I graduated from Chapel Hill, so that was always sort of in the back of my mind. And eventually it came to me that that was the right thing for me to do. I thought for a little bit that I might trend towards the State Department or the Foreign Service. But I love what I'm doing now, and really have enjoyed my career in the law. And I love, really deeply enjoy the work of the court right now.

(Sarah)

Well, it’d be great to hear a little bit of your life outside of work as well. You're based in the greater Los Angeles area, so you've now lived on both East and West coasts. How do you like California living?

(Karen)

Yes, I've lived in California for a long time now, and this is my home. Today is February the 5, and I'm looking out on a beautiful blue sky, it's going to be about 70 degrees today, and the mountains are lovely, and I don't need a coat. I'm very, very happy, to just put it like that. 

But I will always I love being in Chapel Hill. There is a wonderful spirit in the state of North Carolina. And there is a warmth and just a beauty to the state of North Carolina that it will always stay in my heart. And I've had a chance since then to, for example, to go to an American Bar Association conference that was up in Nashville. And I flew into Charlotte and then drove to Asheville in the fall. And it was just so beautiful. It reminded me how much I had enjoyed my four years in Chapel Hill.

(Sarah)

Once it's safe to travel more freely, I do hope you'll be able to make a trip back to campus. I know we're all anxious to see one another again in person. During the pandemic, is there anything you've gotten into that helps get your mind off your caseload and all the stressors at the moment?

(Karen)

I have found ways to get outdoors once some of our local gardens and arboretums reopened to the public, allowing the public in with reservations, and I’ve spent a lot of time at the Huntington Gardens where you can get outside and hike and not be close to people if you make a reservation. I’ve been to the Los Angeles Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, hiked in Griffith Park, gone to the South Coast Botanical Gardens. I've become an afficionado of outdoor spaces where you can get fresh air, be in a space of beauty, and still be safe. And that's been a great balancing and healthy way for me to try to maintain some personal equilibrium during all this. But it's hard. It's really hard.

(Sarah)

Well, we are looking forward to your talk later this month. Is there anything you'd want to share with finalists as we anticipate Final Selection Weekend?

(Karen)

First, congratulations. And second, be yourself. It is being your genuine self that has gotten you all this success and to the remarkable position of being a finalist. I would recommend they come to the weekend expecting to meet like-minded friends to engage with, maybe even people who are not so like-minded, but to enjoy the experience of this. The finalist group is a community in and of itself. And take advantage of that opportunity to be together with a cohort of peers and enjoy that process.

And I think that's something that has stayed with me. One of the remarkable things about being part of the Morehead-Cain community is that it is a community. It's more than just a scholarship to go to college, which is extraordinarily wonderful, but even above and beyond that, it is the opportunity to be a part of a global community of folks who are going to be there to support you, encourage you, inspire you, maybe even hire you at some point as you grow in your career and find those things that are uniquely yours to do in the world that are of unique importance to your further and larger contribution in life.

My only advice to the finalists would be welcome, come engage, enjoy and be grateful for this opportunity, because it's an extraordinary experience.

(Sarah

Judge Stevenson, thank you so much, and we will talk with you soon. 

(Karen)

Thank you, Sarah, very much. It was a pleasure speaking with you today, and I look forward to being with the finalists soon.

*The episode has been edited slightly for clarity. 

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