By Je’Don Holloway Talley
For The Birmingham Times
They are the first set of identical twins to serve simultaneously as district court judges in Jefferson County, but making history is not important to Shera Craig Grant and Shanta Craig Owens, 39.
Grant was elected to Jefferson County District Court, place 5, in November 2016. Owens was re-elected to Jefferson County Drug Court in 2014.
Owens: “For me, it just feels like we are walking in our purpose. While it’s an honor to be sitting [on the bench] at the same time, I never really thought about us making history but more so walking in the purpose God has for us.”
Grant: “It feels like I am living the life God has for me and I am doing what I am supposed to be doing—just allowing God to have His way in my life.”
If their sentiments sound the same, it’s no accident.
The Ramsay High School graduates mirror one another from their education paths to their family lives. Both graduated from Alabama State University in 1999 and the Louisiana State University School of Law in 2002. Both have been married for 13 years. And each has a 7-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son.
After law school, the twins briefly went their separate ways. Grant moved to Atlanta, where she worked as a criminal prosecutor in the DeKalb County District Attorney’s Office, while Owens returned to Birmingham to serve as a prosecutor in the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office.
In Atlanta, Grant worked under DeKalb County’s first female African-American district attorney. That experience allowed her to see children who came before the court as “someone’s child,” she said, not criminals.
“No doubt, some kids needed to go to prison because their crimes were so heinous, and in order for rehabilitation they needed to go,” Grant said. “But that DA [her boss] was also interested in finding other ways to rehabilitate children that were caught up in the system or came from unfortunate circumstances. We were really about making sure we spoke the truth in everything we did. It wasn’t just about getting conviction rates but actually making society better.
“Sometimes, with making society better, it means that not everyone is guilty of their crimes, so you can decide to dismiss a case and under certain circumstances you can reduce a case. I really saw beauty in that office and the work we did.”
Meanwhile, Owens, the older sister by four minutes, returned to Birmingham to work as a deputy district attorney with the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office. She rose to senior trial attorney before winning her judicial seat in 2008; she was re-elected in 2014 and is up for re-election in 2020.
“I was a criminal prosecutor in the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office after graduating from law school in 2002,” Owens said. “I was responsible for general felonies, which could have been anything from theft cases to capital-murder charges. I worked in the DA’s office as a general felony prosecutor for five-and-a-half years before I decided to leave and run for the Drug Court seat. After I resigned, my husband and I started the campaign for my judicial seat.”
Seats on the Bench
The sisters were united on the bench after the November 2016 election, when Grant won her seat as district court judge. She had been appointed to the seat in January 2016 by Gov. Robert Bentley, who filled a vacancy created by the retirement of Judge Jack Lowther.
Grant―one of nine African-American female judges elected to serve as judges in Jefferson County in November 2016―was sworn in by her sister during a ceremony in January.
“The bench has become more diverse,” Owens said. “That was definitely an outcome of this last election … so in Birmingham the dynamics are changing.”
Despite the growing number of black female judges, Owens and Grant continue to face discrimination, even in their own courtrooms.
“There are so many challenges being a woman of color and not being what people consider a judge,” Grant said. “Some days when I walk out on the bench, I think that [people] think I’m the assistant and not the judge. Thank God for the robes. There are still people who think we belong in the home and not on the bench, and you can feel that. I try not to think of the challenges we face because they’re always going to be there.”
“Sometimes it’s hard for people to see women, in general, in the position to make real important life decisions for life-altering things,” Owens said. “Stacked on top of that, I’m African-American. Stacked on top of that, I’m young. There are several hurdles to overcome.”
The twins attribute their work ethic and scholastic discipline to their upbringing. They were raised by a single mother, Loretta Bitten, due to their father’s sudden death. Bitten was a librarian at the Birmingham Public Library and had limited child-care resources, so Shera and Shanta spent much of their time studying and reading in what they called “their mother’s library.” That’s where they developed study habits that would carry them through law school.
Grant said, “Law school was definitely challenging. There was no blueprint for us because we didn’t have anyone in our family who could tell us what to expect or how to navigate it. It’s nothing you can’t do or handle, though. [Law school] is doable. After the first year, the second and third years get easier because you learn how to manage.”
Owens said, “It was challenging, but that’s what makes a career worthwhile.”
Their mother did not want her girls to work while in college. She wanted their sole focus to be their academics and maintaining their full-ride scholarships.
“When we were in college, we had to sneak and get part-time jobs at the mall,” Owens said. “We went to school on full academic scholarships, so everything was paid for, but our mother provided all of our additional necessities so we wouldn’t have to work. It wasn’t easy. She was a single parent, but she prioritized, and so we prioritized our academics over everything.”
Asked what made them decide to go into law, Grant said, “My mom always talked about being the best, helping our community, and giving back. For us, being from Ensley and seeing what we saw in the community, we felt the best way for us to give back would be to go to law school and become defenders of justice.
“We didn’t have any silver spoons in our mouths growing up, so we had a reason to aim high. Also, seeing my mother deal with an abusive relationship sealed the deal for me to wanting to serve in the sexual assault and domestic violence unit. That, along with other personal events that happened in my life [regarding domestic violence], let me know that I wanted to give a voice to others.”
The twins also must balance being wives and moms. How do they do it?
“Clearly, prayer” Grant said. “We each have husbands and two little kids. At the end of the day, if I put my kids [daughter Madelyn, 7, and son Grey, 4] and my husband [Daryl] aside for my work, then, ultimately, I have failed. But I do think that prayer and a tight schedule make the dream work. Some people say women can’t do it all, and if they do, they can’t do everything well because something is not going to get the proper attention it deserves. I don’t think that has to be the case—not if you’re on a schedule.”
Owens said, “We have very good lives because we’re able to support each other. We also have very supportive husbands who are always there for us. We are evenly yoked … in our beliefs and desires for life.”
Owens and her husband, Rahman, have two children: daughter Berkeley, 7, and son August, 4.
“We grew up on a schedule, and to make it work you must have priorities,” Owens said. “I’m a wife and mother first, and a judge second. We parent our own kids. That’s how we keep them grounded and focused on their schedules.”
Grant said, “There is definitely some co-parenting that goes on among the four of us, as well as our mother and our in-laws. Our support system is at the foundation of what makes it work. Some evenings, all the kids may end up at my sister’s house and even then they all keep to the same schedule. We four are a very cohesive parenting unit.”
Making a Difference
The twins want to be remembered for helping people.
Owens: “I want people to say ‘Judge Owens made a difference and she really cared about us. I want them to know that even if I have to make a decision to punish them, I did so fairly and in the best interest of the community.”
Grant: “My heart is honestly with children. I started a community leadership academy for high school students in the 9th and 10th grades, and I host skill building workshops with them. I want people to see how I cared about children and went above and beyond for them. I want people to look at me and see that you should never ever count yourself out in life.”
Judge Shera Craig Grant is one of the nine black women judges who made history Nov. 8, 2016. Read more about them here.