Black Pioneers: Joyce Elise Williams Warren

Joyce Elise Williams Warren
Photo courtesy of James Warren

On this date in 2011, Philander Smith College presented the Living Legends Award to Joyce Elise Williams Warren, the first Black female judge in the Pulaski County system and the first in Arkansas. She has also authored A Booklet for Parents, Guardians, and Custodians in Child Abuse and Neglect Cases, which has been translated into Spanish and has been widely distributed in Arkansas and other states, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

Joyce Elise Williams was born in Pine Bluff on Oct. 25, 1949, one of two children of Albert Lewis Williams Jr. and Marian Eloise Longley Williams, both teachers. She attended Gibbs Elementary School and was one of 10 black students who integrated West Side Junior High School in 1961. She graduated from Little Rock Central High School in 1967 and attended both Rockford College in Rockford Ill., and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, where she received a Bachelor of Arts in sociology and anthropology in 1971. 

She was the first Black female graduate of what is now the University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law, completing her Juris Doctor degree in 1976. She also did graduate work at the Summer College for Juvenile and Family Court Judges at the University of Nevada at Reno and has attended Harvard University for continuing legal education courses through the American Academy of Judicial Education. In 2001, she earned a Diploma of Judicial Skills from the American Academy of Judicial Education.

She married James Medrick “Butch” Warren in 1972; they have three children.

In 1977, Warren became the first Black law clerk for the Arkansas Supreme Court. She was an assistant attorney general to Bill Clinton from October 1977 to December 1978. As an administrative assistant to Gov. Clinton from January to November 1979, she was a liaison to the Arkansas Department of Health and numerous boards and commissions. 

Warren became the first Black female judge in Arkansas when she was appointed as a juvenile court judge in January 1983. She was appointed by the Arkansas Supreme Court to the Arkansas State Board of Law Examiners in 1986, becoming the first Black female appointee and the first Black chairperson of the board. She served two three-year terms and an additional year on the board. 

In November 1990, Warren became the first African American ever elected to a state-level trial court judgeship in Arkansas. On Jan. 23, 1995, the Arkansas Supreme Court appointed Warren as a member of the Arkansas Supreme Court ad hoc Committee on Foster Care and Adoption. On June 15, 2006, the Arkansas Supreme Court appointed Warren to a six-year term as an alternate member of the Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission; she was appointed to a six-year term as a regular commission member on June 16, 2011. She is the first Black female judge to serve on the commission. 

In 2018, the W. Harold Flowers Law Society chose Judge Warren as one of their 12 “Arkansas Legal Pioneers and Living Legends,” and the Pulaski County Bar Association has chosen her as one of their 12 “Legends of the Bar.”