LSU Law alumna and retired Orleans Parish Juvenile Court Judge Ernestine S. Gray has become the first Louisianan to receive the prestigious American Bar Association Mark Hardin Award for Child Welfare Legal Scholarship and Systems Change, in recognition of her work to improve the welfare of children through legal representation and advocacy.
The Louisiana Supreme Court recently presented the award to Gray, who was first elected to the Orleans Parish Juvenile Court in 1984 and served on the bench until her retirement in 2020.
“Judge Gray’s career, which includes 36 years on the Orleans Juvenile Court bench, has been dedicated to the improvement and welfare of the lives of children in Louisiana and this honor is fitting,” said Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice John L. Weimer, who earned his law degree from LSU Law in 1980. “Though retired, she serves as the Louisiana Court Improvement Program Judicial Fellow, where she provides technical assistance to state judges in matters concerning child welfare litigation. She additionally assists the Louisiana Supreme Court with its Court Improvement Strategic Plan and continues to be committed to bettering children’s lives throughout the state.”
Gray has served as Chair of the ABA Commission on Youth at Risk for the past three years and has been an active member of it and the ABA for decades. She has worked to develop legal strategies to uphold the integrity of families in Louisiana and nationally through her involvement with several legal and judicial organizations. She has also assisted in drafting child welfare policies for the Department of Children and Family Services, in addition to serving as a mentor and trainer to Louisiana judges and lawyers on understanding aspects of laws pertaining to juvenile justice.
“In many instances, the issues that plague children’s welfare are based on poverty and not borne of neglect. Poverty and neglect are not the same thing. Our challenge is to implement laws, policies, procedures and services and supports that take these issues into consideration and lead to the best outcomes for children and families—where families are supported and children are nurtured,” Gray said. “As a state, we are better when both families and children thrive. I am honored to receive this award in recognition of the attributes of Mark Hardin that I tried to emulate: a willingness to serve and a deep driving compassion for children and families.”
Born in Denmark, South Carolina in 1946, Gray received her early education in the public schools of Orangeburg, South Carolina. She received her bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Spelman College in 1970 and her juris doctor degree from LSU Law in 1976. Prior to her work on the bench, she was employed by the Baton Rouge Legal Aid Society, the Attorney General of the State of Louisiana, and by the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as a trial attorney.
“Through her intellectual courage, Judge Gray has pushed all members of our children’s law community to think deeper and harder about the legal work we do in Louisiana and the citizens we serve,” said Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Piper D. Griffin, a 1987 LSU Law graduate.
Gray was honored by LSU Law in 2020 as a Distinguished Alumni of the Year. She is a 2019 inductee of the Louisiana Justice Hall of Fame and a 2018 inductee of the National Bar Association’s Fred D. Gray Hall of Fame. She was also awarded the 2019 Casey Excellence for Children Leadership Award, the 2018 Outstanding Service Award, and she was a 2018 Recipient of the LSU NBLSA Alumnus of the Year.
She and her husband, attorney James Austin Gray II, are the proud parents of two children, former State Senator and attorney Cheryl Gray Evans, and James Austin Gray III, a chemical engineer and attorney, and grandparents to four grandchildren.