2 African American women make Montgomery County court history

Keir Bradford-Grey (left) and Judge Cheryl L. Austin embrace. Bradford-Grey is the first African American woman to head the Montco Public Defenders Office; Austin is the first to serve on the bench of the county court. ED HILLE / Staff Photographer
Keir Bradford-Grey (left) and Judge Cheryl L. Austin embrace. Bradford-Grey is the first African American woman to head the Montco Public Defenders Office; Austin is the first to serve on the bench of the county court. ED HILLE / Staff Photographer (Keir Bradford-Grey (left) and Judge Cheryl L. Austin embrace.)
Posted: March 16, 2012

When Cheryl L. Austin and Keir Bradford-Grey embarked on post-law school paths, they initially chose two different sides of the courtroom.

Austin stood before judges as a prosecutor in Montgomery County.

Bradford-Grey argued on behalf of defendants who could not afford a lawyer in Philadelphia and Delaware.

But years after separately beginning their legal careers, they achieved historic milestones together in 2012.

Austin became the first African American woman to serve as a judge in the Court of Common Pleas in Montgomery County when she took the oath of office in January.

Bradford-Grey is the first African American woman appointed to head the county's Public Defender's Office. She will begin her job April 2.

"It's an honor, and I have a huge sense of pride and responsibility," said Bradford-Grey, 37, of Philadelphia.

Austin walked into her role knowing about the historic possibilities. In 2009, she lost a bid to become the third African American and the first African American woman to serve on the court. Two years later, she won the 10-year term.

"I'm embracing it," said Austin, 56, of Abington. "I want young people to see me. I want them to see it's possible - not easy - but possible."

Austin, one of 23 judges, is serving in Family Court. Her salary is $169,500.

Bradford-Grey, whose salary will be $105,000, will oversee a staff of 45 full- and part-time lawyers.

"While it is an achievement because they are African American, what is most notable is that they are exceptionally qualified for the positions they hold," said Josh Shapiro, chairman of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners.

Austin, daughter of a janitor and a licensed practical nurse, grew up in the housing projects of Cincinnati and later moved to a house in a blue-collar neighborhood.

Her first spark of interest in the law was in the early 1970s during a visit to a courtroom when she was a 16-year-old student at a college-prep high school.

The only people of color in the room were Austin and the defendant.

"I was so fascinated," Austin said. "It was like the attorneys were doing mental gymnastics. I wanted to do that."

For Bradford-Grey, daughter of a parole officer and a utilities laborer, the first inkling was her fascination with television legal dramas and the charismatic lawyers that inhabited them.

"I wanted to be the trial lawyer," she said.

She set out to accomplish that through sports. Her uncle, former pro basketball player Dana Barros (who played for the Sixers), was an inspiration. Bradford-Grey practiced basketball with him at home in Boston and soon developed her own skills. She went on earn a basketball and volleyball scholarship to Albany State University in Georgia.

There she met a professor, Nyota Tucker, an African American lawyer and instructor who became her mentor. Bradford-Grey earned a bachelor's degree in criminal justice and then entered law school at Ohio Northwestern University. She thrived in mock-trial competitions and traveling around the country. She earned her degree in 1999.

Austin's path was lonelier.

Without the money to continue her studies at Northwestern University, Austin financed her education by joining the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps. She was among the first women in the program.

She earned her bachelor's degree in communications and was active in the NROTC until 1984.

Austin was working as a human-resources director for the Ohio secretary of state when she decided at 36 it was time for law school.

"I looked at my life and said if I go to law school I will be 40 by the time I graduate," Austin said. "I thought, God willing, I'll be 40 anyway. I might as well have a law degree."

Her program at Capital University Law School in Columbus was part time and at night. It included, in the early 1990s, a class during which an instructor and former Ohio State Supreme Court justice referred to black people as "pickaninnies."

Austin fought her way through the old boys' network and eventually became a prosecutor for former Montgomery County District Attorney Michael D. Marino and then Bruce L. Castor, now a county commissioner. In 2000, Marjorie Lawrence, a judge at the time, pulled Austin aside and told her she would make a good judge.

Around the same time, Bradford-Grey was impressing her superiors as a public defender in Philadelphia, a career path she pursued because of her uncle's experience with an unqualified public defender.

"He spent a long time in prison," Bradford-Grey said. "I feel like if he had been better represented, he would have had an intervention where his struggles wouldn't have been so hard."

In 2007, Bradford-Grey took a post as an assistant federal public defender in Delaware. She was shocked when she got a call from a search committee for the new Democratic-controlled Montgomery County Board of Commissioners.

Bradford-Grey, who is married to a lawyer and who has three children, said her goal was to secure more financial resources and beef up the juvenile department.

Austin, who is married to a former Inquirer photographer and who has a 16-year-old daughter, said she wanted to bring justice and compassion to a courtroom where she untangles family problems. Custody cases are the most difficult, Austin said.

It's because "you're dealing with a life," she said, "and the future of a life."

Contact Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211 or kholmes@phillynews.com.

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