Chesterfield judges Travis Williams (left) and Curtis Hairston
As it has grown into one of Virginia’s largest counties, with a dynamic and increasingly diverse population, Chesterfield maintains a reputation within the state bar for having a cadre of knowledgeable, thoughtful and high-character judges in its courtrooms.
Until Oct. 1, 2021, however, a Black man had never served as a full-time judge in the county.
Curtis Hairston and Travis Williams made history that day when they were sworn in as judges in Chesterfield’s General District and Juvenile and Domestic Relations courts, respectively.
Appointed to the bench during an August 2021 special session of the General Assembly, the significance of the moment was not lost on either man.
“The whole aspect of it sometimes is surreal to think about. It has been many years. Our court system is not new. So to say you’re the first is big – it means I’m hopefully creating a path for people to follow me,” said Williams, who grew up in Chesterfield and graduated from Matoaca High School as its valedictorian in 1987.
“It meant a lot that Curtis and I got sworn in on the same day, to be there to support each other on such a monumental moment in the county’s history,” Williams added.
Neither Hairston nor Williams had ambitions of becoming a judge when they decided to pursue careers in the law.
Hairston, a Martinsville native, graduated cum laude from Harvard University in 1984 and from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1987. He has been a practicing attorney for more than 30 years, representing a wide range of individuals and corporate clients at Williams Mullen before becoming a partner at the Gee Law Firm.
Since being appointed by the Virginia Supreme Court in 1995, Hairston also served on the Board of Bar Examiners’ character and fitness committee, which evaluates whether attorneys should be permitted to practice law in the state.
“I think after I had been practicing for a few years, I came to the conclusion that the best way I could impact the system would be as a judge,” Hairston said. “It is very important to me that the system be fair. Ultimately the judge has control over whether people are treated fairly or not.”
Williams graduated from the University of Richmond in 1991, then received his juris doctorate from UR’s T.C. Williams School of Law three years later.
After serving as a clerk under retired Circuit Court Judge John Daffron, Williams spent two years in solo practice before becoming a partner in the local firm of Daniels, Williams, Tuck and Ritter in 1997.
Prior to their appointments, Hairston and Williams had a combined 27 years of experience as substitute judges in Virginia. They also had spent a considerable amount of time observing, listening to and learning from several of the most highly regarded judges across the state.
“Going to Old Dominion Bar Association meetings as a young attorney, I was able to meet people like Judge Jim Spencer and Judge Randall Johnson Sr., who I still believe is one of the best judges ever in this area. It gave me a chance to meet them, see what they were like … and they really were role models,” Hairston recalled. “Judge [Robert] Laney was a huge help. I would sit with him in his courtroom, then go back to his chambers, and we’d talk about what he had done and why he had done it.”
“I’ve practiced law all over the state and have seen all types of judges in different places, and Chesterfield has great judges,” Williams said. “Practicing in front of them, just watching them and seeing how they interact with the public, seeing their thought process, molded me. It still helps me to this day.”
Both judges strongly believe it’s vital that Chesterfield’s judges look like the community they serve, which has gained many Black and Hispanic residents over the past two decades. Not simply for the sake of diversity, but for the unspoken message it sends to people who come into the county’s courtrooms daily.
“For a lot of people, perception is reality. If you perceive the judicial system as being fair, you’re much more likely to buy into the system and be willing to accept the consequences or the rulings that come from that system,” Hairston said.
“Representation creates a sense of fairness and equality,” Williams added. “When you walk into a courtroom and see somebody who looks like you, it makes you feel like the outcome is something reasonable.”
That’s particularly true for Williams, who has many family members and friends in Chesterfield.
“I’m still out in the community. I didn’t become a judge and decide to isolate myself,” he said. “I still go to the store and the gym and other places so I see people. I’m very visible and that’s very important to me -- when people say ‘I knew him growing up,’ they realize this is not someone who was plucked out of some place and put on the bench in our community.”
While their names will be included in history books as the first Black men to serve as full-time judges in Chesterfield, both Hairston and Williams look forward to a day when judicial appointments of people who look like them become far more routine.
“I don’t really see being first as a burden, and I guess the reason for that is since I was a small child, I was always the first [Black person] to do this or the first to do that. For me, that has become a part of who I am – looking at my professional career, I was the first African-American at Williams Mullen and I was the first African-American to make partner there. At some point, you get used to that,” Hairston said. “Now it’s much more important that I pave the way for others. I’m really focused now on doing a good job so others will be appointed to the bench just like I was.”