Women in the Law

A profile on Arenda Allen, of Norfolk. Part of a special editorial series celebrating the achievements of Virginia’s women legal professionals.

The Honorable Arenda L. Wright Allen

U.S. District Judge, Eastern District of Virginia

“We have arrived upon another moment in history when We the People becomes more inclusive, and our freedom more perfect,” wrote federal district judge Arenda L. Wright Allen in a ruling that, on the eve of Valentine’s Day in 2014, declared Virginia’s prohibition on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. Beginning with a quote from Mildred Loving on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Loving v. Virginia, Allen’s Opinion brought together a careful and thorough reading of the law with language moving in its recognition of “this country’s cherished protections that ensure the exercise of the private choices of the individual citizen regarding love and family.”

Allen, who earned her law degree from North Carolina Central University’s school of law, began her legal career as a Judge Advocate officer for the Navy, retiring at the rank of commander before serving first as an assistant United States attorney and then as a federal public defender based in Norfolk in Virginia’s Eastern District. Nominated by former-President Obama for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District, Allen then became the first African-American woman to serve on the federal bench in Virginia, after she was confirmed by a unanimous vote of the U.S. Senate in 2011. 

But does she see herself as a groundbreaker?

“No,” she says. “I’m just Arenda, trying to treat everyone the way I would want to be treated in their shoes.”

With a deep faith, Allen believes that every individual—even the career offenders she has encountered during her years in the law—has the power to choose to make a meaningful difference in the world.

“We are all groundbreakers,” she says, “if we want to be.”

Editors’ note: Women were first admitted to the state bar in 1920, thus making it possible for them to practice law in the Commonwealth. Nearly a century later, women in the law throughout Virginia have risen into positions of leadership and responsibility in public and private practice, nonprofits, education, the judicial system and legal organizations. The editors of Virginia Living sought out some of these outstanding women for their perspectives on their work and the law, and insights from their careers. For more information, including a complete list of Virginia’s top-rated women lawyers, look for our August 2017 issue.

Read the rest of the profiles in our Women in the Law special series:

Jessica Childress, Northern Virginia
Sarah Francisco, Charlottesville
Patricia Roberts, Williamsburg
Lori Thompson, Roanoke
Pia Trigiani, Alexandria
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