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Wyandotte County’s first-ever Black female judge will be sworn in today: 'It is possible'

A woman wearing a read suit sits at a long desk. She is smiling at the camera.
Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3
Candice Alcaraz will become the first Black, female judge in Wyandotte County when she is sworn in Monday.

Candice Alcaraz, 32, an assistant district attorney, beat a sitting judge to make history in Wyandotte County.

Candice Alcaraz was just 26 years old and fresh out of law school when she landed a job at the Wyandotte County District Attorney’s office in 2016.

As part of her training, she got a tour of the courthouse, including a high-ceilinged hallway on the third floor with a line of framed black-and-white historical photos of the county’s judges.

“I looked up there and I said, ‘You know, this is nice, but there's never been someone like me,’” Alcaraz said. “I said, ‘Oh, well, there's an opportunity there. So I kind of just marked it in my mind.’"

It left quite a mark, because on Monday evening, Alcaraz will be sworn in as Wyandotte County’s first Black female judge. Last November, she beat 15-year incumbent Judge Wes Griffin with nearly 69 percent of the countywide vote.

Alcaraz, now 32, credits her win to a grassroots campaign that had her knocking on doors from Spring 2022 through November, meeting people who said they had never been approached by a judge running for office. She left her job as an assistant district attorney last week, was fitted for her black robe, and will begin her new role on Tuesday.

In addition to the historical precedent, Alcaraz broke another barrier: going up against a sitting judge in a county where the entrenched criminal justice system is mostly white and run by a set of unwritten rules.

“I was definitely warned and told, ‘You do not do this. This is not how this works. You wait your turn. People have a feeling about running against seated judges and that's not the way we do things here in Wyandotte County,’” Alcaraz said.

But that only encouraged a girl from Chicago, where Alcaraz was familiar with hardball politics. It also fed that spirit inside her that has always done what people told her she can’t do.

“I like being told, ‘No, you cannot, and you will not prevail, and this will not go well for you,’” she said. “Because now I have a point to prove. I'm already a very hard worker. When I want something, I'm gonna go after it with all of my might.”

When she first took the job in the prosecutor’s office, Alcaraz, whose family background is Black and Hispanic, thought she’d give it ten years before she ran for a judgeship. But by last year, she met the basic state requirements: at least 30 years old, a practicing attorney for at least five years, and living in the county.

Another thing that sped up her plan was seeing the way one particular judge – Griffin – ran his courtroom. Alcaraz decided that she could do better, offering respect to all the people who show up in her court.

“And that goes for everybody: defense, prosecution, deputies, defendant, anybody in the courtroom, they have to have the respect of the court,” she said. “That's the way it should go and that's the way it should proceed, at least in my eyes.”

Alcaraz will handle both civil and criminal cases, and although she ran as a Democrat, must now stay removed from any politics, under state rules that also ban gifts. She also plans to continue working within the community on a host of volunteer projects, mostly centered on children, as that was one of her campaign platforms.

When she’s asked if she always wanted to be a lawyer, she smiles and admits that when she was growing up, she wanted to be a doctor. Her first college course in biology convinced she wasn’t cut out for the science.

But when a professor asked her about law school, she said she’d never seen a female Black attorney, let alone a male one, other than celebrity attorney Johnnie Cochran on TV.

In the summer before her senior year at Truman State University, Alcaraz interned in Chicago and shadowed a Black male judge. Next door to his office was an African-American female judge. She finally saw someone that looked like her in a job she hadn’t thought to aspire to.

“It all just kind of started to line up,” Alcaraz said, “and I just said, ‘Oh wow, this is something I can do. It is possible.”

I’m a veteran investigative reporter who came up through newspapers and moved to public media. I want to give people a better understanding of the criminal justice system by focusing on its deeper issues, like institutional racism, the poverty-to-prison pipeline and police accountability. Today this beat is much different from how reporters worked it in the past. I’m telling stories about people who are building significant civil rights movements and redefining public safety. Email me at lowep@kcur.org.
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