- In a candid conversation, the outspoken, fierce and unconventional Juli Mathew talks about her career, being a woman in the legal field, politics, and shutting up her naysayers.
The name Juli Mathew may not ring any bells right away, but once you know about her, you are sure to remember it. In 2018, Mathew became the first Asian American to be elected to the bench in Fort Bend County, Texas, and the first Indian American woman elected to the bench in the United States. And Mathew, who’s in the early 40s, has smashed the glass ceiling and defied the odds to get where she is. She serves as judge for Number 3 of the Fort Bend County Court.
A Fort Bend resident of almost two decades, and a proud immigrant from Kerala, Mathew, a Democrat, won her 2018 electoral bid for the bench against Republican Tricia Krenek by an impressive 8.24 percent margin. In the Democratic primary, Mathew had no opponent. “Democrats have not won countywide in 20 plus years,” she notes. What was further impressive was that Mathew, who had been an attorney for over 15 years, ran for judgeship in one of the most diverse counties in the nation. Despite a sizable Indian American population, it never had a judge representing that demographic.
Brown, outspoken, fierce and unconventional – Mathew did not fit the mold of a typical Fort Bend judge. But with a promise to be fair and just, she silenced her detractors both from within her community and those outside, to ascend the bench. Outlining her struggles, she says: “The negativity and judgement, even from our own folks (Indian Americans in the community) was disheartening to say the least. You also have to face, amongst other things, misogyny in this profession.”
When Mathew first started out campaigning, she was constantly told that she was on the losing side, and that she would not be able to make it far in the election. People didn’t take her seriously, and there was constant negativity surrounding her and her campaign. Apart from the fact that there were barely any other people of color as her opposition, it was most saddening for her to see her own community stand behind the campaigns of men of color, and not show the same support or resources for women of color.
Mathew discussed her campaign, her growing up years, being a woman in the legal field, politics, and shutting up her naysayers on a Zoom call with American Kahani. Mathew, who was fresh from a trip to Costa Rica, looked relaxed as she went down memory lane.
“Fort Bend County is reported as one of the top five diverse counties in the United States. Our judiciary should reflect this reality,” said the Kerala-born attorney, who immigrated to the U.S. along with her parents when she was 10 years old. “My journey wasn’t easy,” she says, and points out that she ran on a blue ticket from the largely red Fort Bend County. “No one thoughtI was going to win.”
“I am glad I ran,” she says. While practicing law, Mathew says she encountered judges “whose interest was anything but equal justice for all.” That concerned her “because each of these judges took an oath to apply the law equally to every party appearing in court, she says, adding: “This is distressing to me and a miscarriage of justice for all.” And “in light of this, I was compelled to bring integrity and justice back to the courts by doing my part. I believe in being fair while upholding our Constitution, state, and local rules.”
She adds matter-of-factly, “As a woman you have to climb many more steps sometimes or go through things to get to where you are. But I’m glad to be here and be a role model for my children (she has three daughters), other young girls and desis. In a nutshell, it wasn’t easy to stay the course and I’m not sure I have the time or the energy to go through that again.”
Content to be in her position as judge of County Court at Law 3, Mathew strongly believes that her South Asian heritage has uniquely impacted on getting her where she is now. She grew up seeing resilience in the Indian community, whether it came from her father who worked hard to start a life for his family in the U.S., or her mother, who juggled a job and the home.“The resilience that I have in regard to being able to just go and try to succeed, regardless of the obstacles comes from my heritage,” she says. “The statement that ‘even if you go to the moon you will find an Indian’ is true. We’ve been held back by the British, been conquered, but we’ve still continued to move forward.”
A natural transition from outlining her stressful ascent to the bench, is Mathew’s opinion on women and women of color in the political and legal arena. Mathew reminisces about a time when she attended a women in empowerment event held about the legal system and domestic violence (her forte) and was not recognized or introduced by the organizers. “I was very hurt by this. It’s a shame that you hold a program on women in empowerment and you won’t even recognize another elected official who is a woman of Indian descent and is at a function for Indians.”
Mathew points out that she is very mindful of this discrepancy in attitude. “I realize it’s easy to pull someone down and not recognize them or given someone an opportunity, but it’s very much needed and we should be lifting people up. What are we if we can’t help people up?” asks the judge, who is working daily to provide people with opportunities to do just that. “I am where I am because people who didn’t need to help me, who had no reason to help me did step up and believed in me and voted for me. They lifted me up and wanted to see me succeed,” says the grateful judge, who is up for re-election in 2022.
An Immigrant’s Story
Talking about her immigration to the U.S., Mathew tells American Kahani that it was her mother, a nurse in India that first moved to Pennsylvania in the 70s, due to a shortage of qualified nurses. Mathew and her father followed. But their immigrant story was not all roses. Her father, a pharmacist in India, could not afford to further his studies in the U.S. due to financial constraints. “It was about surviving here for him, so he took up a basic factory job here. He worked very hard to make a life for us here.” This resilience that she first learnt at home went a long way in taking her all the way to the bench.
In fact as her 2018 campaign video outlined, her desire to become an attorney rose from the legal troubles her father faced. “My Dad encountered various issues with his business partner, who was of Indian descent and had attended law school in the US. Although he wasn’t a licensed attorney, my parents were always fearful of him. He constantly bullied and threatened my parents with one thing or another. Once he pulled all of the funds from the business account with no notice and having done no work. He pulled the money just before the franchise fees were due and I saw my parents scramble to pay the fees and all of the bills. I saw the nightmare that it created for my parents. The desire to become a lawyer was birthed out of that experience.”
Judge Mathew received her law degree from Delaware Law School, and is an alumnus of Penn State. She also spent years as an attorney at Zwicker and Associates, and has served as an associate municipal judge for the city of Arcola, Texas.
However, even though she’s now achieved this incredible honor (she joined the bench in 2018), she continues to be judged and scrutinized for her every action – be it her Facebook posts or her legal adjudication. From the moment she got on the bench, Mathew has been attacked non-stop. “For instance, I just went to Costa Rica and I think there’s a picture that I posted in a bathing suit. Somebody commented on that picture, not in English but Malayali “was this really needed?” Now, why would I have to actually answer that?” she questions incredulously adding, “why do I need to have that person’s approval?”
Judge Mathew is no stranger to misogyny, hypocrisy and gender bias that she faces daily from her own community. She has been criticized for her attire, lifestyle choices and even how she raises her kids. She could probably recount many more instances of these “micro aggressions” she has to face in her daily life, but we may then have to write a book!
And to her detractors waiting for her to falter and miss her step, she has this message. “I am who I am. I will not apologize for that,” says the no-nonsense judge, adding with a contagious laugh, “I am a human being, who has many faults. I’m not perfect. Never claim to be.” She adds, “There’s another desi attorney that practices in my court and she told me that people have asked her how I am doing and were surprised to hear that I was succeeding.”
Breaking the glass ceiling professionally, Mathew has challenged the status quo in her personal life too, a little known fact given the “stigmas attached.” A divorcee and single-mother to a daughter, who has since remarried, had two other daughters with her current husband and is step- mother to daughter no.4, “who is half-white and lives in England.” Mathew’s family definitely “does not represent a typical Indian molecular family.” She adds: “Most people want to see elected officials as a put together, cohesive family unit. I have made mistakes in life. And being a single mom in a very traditional Christian atmosphere was not easy. I have never failed at anything in life and for me going through a divorce at 25 was a big failure and a stain on my family, in some sense.”
However, with the support of her mother, who believed that “I was answerable to no one and should not hold my head down in shame,” Mathew got the courage to break barriers and rise above the stigma.
Outspoken by nature, another stigma that she is tearing down is her decision to speak about her 7-year-old daughter who is on the Autistic spectrum. “Even my parents, in this instance, would tell me ‘why are you telling people that’. We have become too unaccepting. Life is not about what we see in Bollywood movies. The Indian community in the U.S. needs to get past these stigmas. All of us in our lives have problems and issues and sometimes we just need to know there’s someone else going through the same thing.”
As to the future, Mathew is content being Judge of County Court at Law No. 3. “I have also been elected as administrative judge of the County Courts, which is quite a bit of responsibility. You’re dealing with judges who have their own opinions and you are always trying to be a moderator and come to a decision that is beneficial to all.” She has also started a specialty juvenile intervention and mental health court, “helping a group of young individuals who have got into trouble but have mental health issues.”
With daughters to raise, dockets to be overseen and changing perceptions of how the world views women, and those of color one small step at a time – Judge Juli Mathew has her plate and hands full.
Anu Ghosh immigrated to the U.S. from India in 1999. Back in India she was a journalist for the Times of India in Pune for 8years and a graduate from the Symbiosis Institute of Journalism and Communication. In the U.S., she obtained her Masters andPhD. in Communications from The Ohio State University. Go Buckeyes! She has been involved in education for the last 15years, as a professor at Oglethorpe University and then Georgia State University. She currently teaches Special Education at OakGrove Elementary. She is also a mom to two precocious girls ages 11 and 6.