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Fairfax County has elevated an African American to judge for first time in nearly a quarter-century

Dontaé L. Bugg said his background makes him different from many judges.

His mother was in high school when he was born. His family was “one paycheck away from everything being an issue.” And he had an incarcerated uncle who wrote letters from prison, urging him to stay out of trouble.

But Fairfax’s County’s recently elected circuit court judge stands out for another reason as well: He is African American. Bugg, 38, is the first black judge to be elevated to the bench in Fairfax County in nearly a quarter-century. He began presiding over cases this month.

The appointment underscores a disparity. As Fairfax County and Northern Virginia have grown into one of the nation’s most diverse areas, the local justice system has remained largely white.

Nearly half of Fairfax County’s population is nonwhite, but only three of its 15 circuit court judges are minority. Though Fairfax County’s police chief has pushed to make the force more diverse, 81 percent of officers are white. The prosecutor’s and public defender’s offices don’t mirror the county’s diversity either.

The issues are not unique to Fairfax. Many surrounding counties are trying to close the same gap.

“I think the issue of the quality of justice and the perception of justice in the community suffers when there’s not a fulsome representation of the community on the court,” said former federal and Fairfax County judge Gerald Bruce Lee, who is African American and has pushed for more diversity on the bench.

Bugg said his background will inform his work.

Bugg, who grew up in Newport News, said he was largely raised by his grandmother, while his mother worked three jobs to support the family. His first exposure to the law came through the legal drama “Matlock,” which his grandmother liked to watch on TV.

He said he also knew a number of people who were involved in the criminal justice system. They included the uncle, who became a pen pal of sorts for Bugg while serving a lengthy sentence for robbery. Bugg said the experiences gave him a rounded view of those accused of crimes.

“A lot of people hear criminal defendant and they think they are a bad person,” Bugg said. “They are people who have hopes and dreams.”

Bugg attended the University of Maryland on a track scholarship and was the team captain, he said. He dreamed of becoming an Olympic hurdler, but injuries set him back.

When he graduated, he applied for the Montgomery County police academy and law school while working a dead-end job at Enterprise Rent-a-Car. Bugg chose law school at the University of Richmond.

He graduated and spent 13 years working in criminal and family law, which included launching his own firm in 2010.

“My practice took me all over the state and D.C.,” Bugg said. “Sometimes, I had a sense that people just didn’t get their day in court. . . . I think somebody with my experience and background would be a great way to be of service.”

Virginia state Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D), who backed Bugg for judge in the General Assembly, said his performance on a number of cases “turned heads” in the legal community. Surovell said he was impressed because Bugg had a promising career in private practice but chose to be a judge instead.

“That tells me he’s doing it for the right reasons,” Surovell said.

Lee said Bugg argued before him in U.S. District Court in Alexandria on a number of occasions. Lee called Bugg “smart” and a “first-rate lawyer.”

Bugg is the first African American to take the bench in Fairfax County since juvenile court judge Gayl Branum Carr was elected in 1994. Carr is still serving. Fairfax County’s first black circuit court judge, Marcus D. Williams, was nominated in 1990 and served 22 years before retiring in 2012.

Surovell said there were a number of reasons the county bench is not as diverse as it could be. He said many talented minority attorneys choose to stay in private practice. He said the explosion in diversity has occurred in the past two decades, meaning there may be a lag between young minorities getting law degrees and then coming back to work in the county and eventually being considered for judgeships.

Finally, he said the various arms of the criminal justice system need to do better to recruit minorities for jobs.

“I think there’s been a kind of complacency,” Surovell said. “You have to make a conscious effort to diversify.”

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