First a Judge, Then a Lawyer: Graduating Student Pursued Law To Better Serve Public

Dominique Fenton ’21 Explored Several Forms of Hands-On Legal Practice
Dominique Fenton

Graduating UVA Law student Dominique Fenton ’21 will work in criminal defense after graduation. Photo by Julia Davis

May 10, 2021

Dominique Fenton holds a distinction not many law students can claim: Before he entered law school, he served as a judge.

When Fenton later decided to pursue a law degree to complement his knowledge and advance his public interest goals, he chose the University of Virginia School of Law, from which he’ll graduate May 23.

“I came into law school with a pretty clear sense of why I was here,” he said. “Ultimately, it was about doing right by the people that got me to this place: my family, my loved ones, and the clients and communities I served in various capacities before I came to Charlottesville.”

Fenton’s path to becoming a judge, and now a lawyer, began after graduating from Yale University with a degree in history. He first worked in New York’s media industry, including as an editorial assistant to Arianna Huffington at The Huffington Post and as an intern on “The Colbert Report.”

“It felt like I was doing the things I should be doing to fit in with a demographic my college education primed me to be a part of,” he said. “But at the end of the day, it didn’t feel right.”

So he sought a job that could better people’s lives more directly. He landed an interview for an investigator position at The Bronx Defenders, an organization that he admittedly didn’t know much about at the time.

He would end up working there for three years and that time would have a profound impact on his career trajectory.  

Across the nation, professional backgrounds differ for those who do the investigative fact-finding work that informs court cases. But at The Bronx Defenders, at least, being less experienced isn’t necessarily considered a drawback, he said.  

“They look for people who are good on their feet and can talk to anybody,” he said. “At its core, the job involves showing up in folks’ lives during incredibly difficult moments, so being genuine and thoughtful goes a long way.”

Fenton rose in his department and was soon training others. But he began to think about how public interest resources are often more plentiful in urban centers — The Bronx Defenders has no shortage of qualified applicants, for example — and less so in more rural parts of the country. He wondered if he could transfer his skills to a more underserved community.

He joined AmeriCorps in 2014 and moved to South Dakota, where he began teaching American literature to about 60 11th graders at Red Cloud Indian School. The school serves the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, home to the Oglala Lakota.

In the spirit of helping out wherever he could, he also drove a school bus.

But Fenton’s interest in the law never subsided. He resumed his investigative work, by federal court appointment, on Indian reservations throughout the Dakotas, Wyoming and Montana. His background also led to pro bono legal advocacy opportunities in the local tribal court. Fenton wrote specifically about the reservation’s criminally accused and the lack of public defenders for The Marshall Project.

Still, the court system had a limited budget earmarked for certain advocacy. Fenton began working with clients facing involuntary commitments, for a flat rate of $75 per client. He quit his teaching job after a year as his advocacy work in the Oglala Sioux Tribal Court expanded.

Fenton then learned that the Tribal Council wanted to appoint him to the bench. “They asked me to do it in part because I was not from Pine Ridge, but I lived on the reservation and was a known entity. They were especially concerned with bias or favoritism playing a role in family court decisions.”

Because there are approximately 400 tribal justice systems in the United States, and each is informed by the unique customs and traditions of the tribes they serve, it can be difficult to speak broadly about how justice is administered in Indian Country, Fenton said. While many of the Oglala Sioux Tribal Court’s proceedings resemble those found in Anglo-American courts, the only people who are required to hold law degrees in the system are the chief judge and the attorney general. The Youth and Family Court, in particular, is intended by law to be less adversarial and incorporate more traditional forms of conflict resolution.

Informed by justice system failures he witnessed in the Bronx and as a teacher on the reservation, Fenton made it his goal to ensure that the juvenile delinquency, abuse and neglect, involuntary commitment, custody and support cases he oversaw followed culturally informed tribal law. It was as a judge that he first started thinking about the critical role “procedural justice” plays in meaningfully resolving conflict.

“My clerks would tease me sometimes about how long our hearings would run,” he said. “But it was important to me, especially as an outsider, to make sure everyone felt heard.”

Fenton is especially proud of his work with juvenile delinquency proceedings. Traditional restorative justice with community and culture in mind began to win out over jail time.

“The juvenile detention facility stopped being the place where we put kids we didn’t want to deal with,” Fenton said. “Instead, we worked hard to tailor probationary periods that were responsive to the needs of both juveniles before the court and the community. Some would write book reports or chop wood for elders. Others would write apology letters or participate in sweat ceremonies.” 

All of these changes, he said, weren’t just mandates coming from him. Before instituting anything, he sought feedback and buy-in from his fellow court administrators, community members, the tribal attorney general’s office and the Tribal Council.

Fenton loved the work, as challenging as it was. But when a child was killed by his mother following a custody decision he and two other judges were involved in, Fenton reached a moment of reckoning.

“At that point I had spent over five years working in legal systems in Indian Country and the Bronx, witnessing every day all the convoluted ways that people hurt each other and themselves. I saw how easy it was for people to rationalize violence against others, and — more importantly — I saw how our systems of justice often leave that violent pain unresolved or even amplified.”

Fenton said he wanted his work to help address the pain that justice systems were leaving unremedied. So while the custody decision was made at the request of the tribal prosecutor and based on misleading information from Child Protective Services, Fenton said, the tragedy of the child’s death still weighed heavily on him.

“This innocent 2-year-old’s death ended up being, for me, the most tragic example of our limitations within these systems — the limitations of legal work’s ability to heal lives, the limitations our abstract critiques of justice systems have in the face of vulnerable subjects, and the limitations of our own reach as advocates in the face of deep structural inequalities. I will think about him for the rest of my life and legal career.”

Fenton resigned from his position and left the reservation. The career pause provided him an opportunity to reflect on his public service work: what he could learn from the past and what he should learn in anticipation of the future. Law school would be a critical part of that process.

“We bear an enormous responsibility as advocates and, depending on our line of legal work, must come to terms emotionally with real violence while staying committed to an underlying set of values,” he said. “I knew law school would help me better understand those values.”

In a gap year before matriculating to UVA Law, Fenton helped start the Forensic Project, a unit of the Texas nonprofit Capital Area Private Defender Service. A friend from The Bronx Defenders needed assistance launching the project, which reviews DNA evidence processed at the Austin Police Department’s Crime Lab that may have led to improper convictions.

Fenton quickly figured out what needed to be done, then trained others.

After that, he started law school, at age 30. He worried that he would be viewed as “the old guy,” but he found rapport with his section mates, including peers of a similar age. He also found kindred spirits in the Program in Law and Public Service. The program is designed to provide a select group of students intensive training for their anticipated public service careers.

Fenton continued to pursue hands-on public interest work each of his three years. As part of his coursework, he took part in the Innocence Project Clinic, the Civil Rights Clinic and the Federal Criminal Sentence Reduction Clinic.

He said he may be most proud of helping clients reduce their sentences. Students in that clinic are given several clients who are entirely their own responsibility, just as they would have in the working world. Two of his clients have already received compassionate release, while a third awaits a decision.

“I feel very fortunate to have had fantastic supervisors in each clinic I did. They’ve helped me grow as an advocate. And each clinic helped me fine-tune a different sets of skills.”

Fenton worked one summer during school for the Southern Center for Human Rights, based in Atlanta, and another as a Peggy Browning Fellow at the Equal Justice Center, based in Austin, Texas. The Law School’s public service program fully funds students for qualifying summer work.

For the Southern Center, which he served as an inaugural Justice John Paul Stevens Public Interest Fellow, Fenton represented two clients in Alabama parole hearings, securing the freedom of one of the men, who had served twelve years of a life sentence.

The work was personally meaningful, he said, because “While I’ve had many successes in my life, like most people, I’ve also made mistakes. I’ve been able to benefit from the grace and kindness of others in those moments and feel an obligation to pay that forward.”

Terrica Redfield Ganzy, the center’s deputy director and a 2002 UVA Law alumna, was among his supervisors. She reflected on the commitment to public interest lawyering that Fenton demonstrated.

“We strive to ensure that our interns receive meaningful work that impacts them on a personal level. Dominique certainly felt that during his advocacy on behalf of a man seeking parole in Alabama,” Ganzy said. “I am proud that Dominique, my fellow Cavalier, loaned his talents to SCHR and the people we serve, and I look forward to following his career as he embarks on the road less traveled, seeking to advance justice.”

In addition, Fenton served on the board of the Law School’s Program in Law and Public Service, as co-director of the student chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, as team leader for the Innocence Project’s pro bono clinic and as a Peer Advisor.

Equal Justice Works gave its 2021 Regional Public Interest Award (South Region) to Fenton for his dedication to public service.

He will work as a public defender after graduation, serving as a UVA Law Robert F. Kennedy ’51 Public Service Fellow doing appellate work at the Office of the Federal Public Defender for the Northern District of California.

In 2022, he’ll take a break from public defense to serve as a clerk for Judge Martha Vázquez of the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico. Twenty-three Native American reservations and pueblos are located within New Mexico’s borders, and most serious felonies from those jurisdictions are adjudicated in federal district courts.

Fenton’s graduation this year won’t be the only one that’s special to him. After the year he taught at Red Cloud Indian School, he continued to work with the students there, including sponsoring a college prep club for two years. This year, his third former student will graduate from Yale.

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