Jackson County appoints first African American female Presiding Judge from Kansas City

Black History Month offers a valuable opportunity to honor the trailblazers who have paved the way for future generations. In the legal system, we are witnessing a remarkable breakthrough by a native of Kansas City.

Judge Jalilah Otto achieved a historic milestone in 2021 by becoming the first African American female to be appointed as the presiding judge in Jackson County. However, before her esteemed judicial career, Jalilah Otto started from humble origins.

“I grew up in the heart of the city, specifically at 39th and Olive. However, as I got older, my family moved to the area of 60th and Paseo,” shared Judge Otto. “Throughout my childhood, I attended public school and developed a passion for education. I always knew deep down that I wanted to become a teacher.”

As a child, Judge Otto developed a strong admiration for teachers.

Judge Otto reflected on the dynamics of his neighborhood, where teachers held the highest regard among the community members. In his locality, the absence of doctors or judges did not diminish the respect accorded to teachers. They consistently commanded a significant level of admiration and esteem.

During his time in college, Judge Otto had initially planned to participate in a program called Teach for America. However, circumstances changed and he had to alter his plans accordingly.

“I remember when a close friend of mine, who was studying pre-law, was preparing to apply to law school. She had the opportunity to take a free LSAT, which is the admissions exam for law school,” Judge Otto shared. “Knowing how anxious she was about the test, she asked me if I could accompany her. Without hesitation, I agreed to support her. Surprisingly, I ended up performing exceptionally well on the exam.”

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Jalilah’s life took a different turn when she underwent a life-altering test. She was en route to studying Pre-Law at the University of Missouri.

“I didn’t choose law school. Law school chose me,” Judge Otto remarked.

Throughout several decades, her legal career has been marked by a deep dedication to justice and a steadfast commitment to maintaining the integrity of the law.

“I couldn’t believe it when they asked me to be the presiding judge,” Judge Otto expressed. “It was quite surprising, but I am ready for the challenge and will give it my all.”

Judge Otto’s appointment is emblematic of a larger movement towards greater diversity within the judiciary nationwide.

Data from the ABA Profile of the Legal Profession reveals that the representation of Black lawyers in the profession was 4.8% in 2013 and increased to 5% in 2023. This percentage is significantly lower than the proportion of Black individuals in the overall U.S. population, which stands at 13.6%. Additionally, the Federal Judicial Center’s data indicates that a mere 5.7% of all active federal judges are Black women.

“It holds significant meaning,” Judge Otto expressed. “America has made numerous promises, demonstrating their commitment to becoming a more perfect union.”

Judge Otto, the first female African American presiding judge in Jackson County, aims to inspire the younger generation by demonstrating that one’s skin color does not determine their future.

“I strongly believe in the importance of demonstrating to young people that they can achieve great things. It’s crucial for them to see examples of success, as they may not believe they can accomplish something if they haven’t witnessed it firsthand. However, once they see someone like me, I want them to understand that their potential is limitless. I want them to dream bigger than I ever did,” expressed Judge Otto.

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