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Judge Conyers to be honored with Prentis Award

  • An inspiration
    An inspiration  Judge Cressondra Conyers J.D. '92, presiding judge for the Gloucester, Mathews and Middlesex Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, is the 2015 recipient of William & Mary's Prentis Award.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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A risk that Judge Cressondra “Sandy” Conyers, J.D. ’92 took more than 25 years ago will be rewarded May 20 when she is honored with the Prentis Award recognizing her strong civic engagement and support of William & Mary.

“Judge Conyers is a wonderful example of what happens when great natural ability is joined with hard work and compassion,” W&M President Taylor Reveley said. “Sandy has devoted her life to strengthening the Commonwealth’s families and helping their children. She has also attended to her alma mater, teaching and inspiring our law students. Judge Conyers is a marvelous recipient of the Prentis Award.”

William & Mary Law School Dean Davison M. Douglas said that anyone “looking for a living example of a citizen lawyer need look no further than the life and work of Judge Conyers.

“She works tirelessly to make a difference in the courtroom, in the classroom and in the community. I take special pride in the news that William & Mary will honor this outstanding alumna.”

Since 2012, Conyers has been the presiding judge for the Gloucester, Mathews and Middlesex Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court, and the first African-American judge in the 9th Judicial District. She is also an adjunct instructor at the William & Mary Law School.

But in the late 1980s, she was a 33-year-old single mother and a schoolteacher who moved back into her parents’ home in Hampton to attend William & Mary Law School.

“I was going to a faculty meeting at the Law School this week, and I was getting out of the car, walking in, and I remembered the first time I walked that sidewalk, going into the Law School to pick up an application,” Conyers recalled. “I had my son with me, who at that time was 6 years old. I thought about that this past Monday, and how far I’ve come since then.

“I am extremely honored and humbled to be selected for the Prentis Award. It’s such a notable group of men and women who have received it; I feel really honored to be part of that group.”

A Hampton native, Conyers graduated cum laude from Virginia State College (now University) with a bachelor’s degree in English. After graduation, she taught English at James Blair Junior High School (now a middle school) in Williamsburg for 11 years.

A turning point came when she attended Law Day, an event sponsored by W&M’s Black Law Student Association.

“I loved working with children and families,” she said. “I just felt like I had something else to give, and could do that in a different way. I remember talking to my dad, and saying, ‘You know, I was thinking about going to law school, but I’m too old. And I don’t have any money.’

“He said, ‘Well, with that kind of thinking, you’ll never do anything.’” And then he offered his support, even buying her an electric typewriter so she could complete her application without using the typewriter at work. “He took away all my excuses,” she said.

Still, she said she was “terrified,” riddled with doubt when she first began attending the Law School with students a decade younger than she was.

“I treated law school like a job,” she said. “I had to get through this; I had a child I had to care for. I took it really seriously. I didn’t do the ‘bar review’ at night; I had to get home and take over for my mom and dad who had been helping with my son all day.”

Her fears proved unfounded. Her son was welcomed to the Law School on weekends while she studied, and she found camaraderie in the Black Law Students Association, where she chaired the committee that organized the Law Day that so inspired her.

‘If we can save them here, they’ll never get to adult court’

“When I started law school, I had no idea what I wanted to do, except I was absolutely, positively sure I didn’t want anything to do with criminal law,” she said, “which is the big joke, because for the next 20 years after I finished, I was a prosecutor.”

While at William & Mary, Conyers completed an internship with a juvenile court judge and saw a Commonwealth’s attorney in action for the first time.

“I was hooked,” she said. So she did an externship with the Commonwealth’s attorney in Hampton. “I knew this is what I wanted to do, and I wanted to focus in on juvenile court law.”

With her fresh law degree, Conyers became an assistant Commonwealth’s attorney (later promoted to deputy Commonwealth’s attorney) in Newport News, where for 11 years she prosecuted myriad cases but specialized in child physical and sexual abuse cases. She then served as chief deputy Commonwealth’s attorney for Williamsburg and James City County. In 2012, the Virginia General Assembly elected her to the 9th Circuit.

“Coming up as a prosecutor, they would put all the new prosecutors in juvenile court, because it was ‘kiddie court,’ as if it wasn’t important,” she said. “I think it’s the most important court we have. If we can save them there, they’ll never get to the other two [adult courts].”

Because of her experience, Conyers said she can empathize with the families and children who show up in her courtroom, and while she tries to be fair, she prides herself on holding people accountable.

“Somebody’s got to do it,” she said. “Somebody has to be the voice for these children. I want to help these families become whole. I tell parents all the time, ‘I want the same thing for your children that I want for my children and grandchildren: I want them to be successful, I want them to be productive members of society.’

“I’ve seen parents change immediately when they understand we’re in this together, that we’re a team.”

It is not uncommon to see Conyers come off the bench to hug families and children or shake their hands to strike a deal. But she demands they “do the right thing.” And she’s been told that it works: The compliance rate for child support has improved since she’s been on the bench.

Outside the courtroom, Conyers teaches as an adjunct in the Law School. “I think I’ve been able to have the best of both worlds through the Law School,” she said. “They’ve allowed me to use my teaching skills as well as my law degree to do what I love.”

‘I always try to say yes’

Conyers is past president of both the Peninsula Bar Association and the Williamsburg Bar Association (where she was the first African-American president). She is a member of the Old Dominion Bar Association, the Virginia Association of Women Judges, the Virginia Council of Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court Judges and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.

She has served on the faculty of the National District Attorneys Association’s National Advocacy Center and is a frequent lecturer for the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services. Prior to taking the bench, she was an instructor and frequent lecturer for Child First, teaching interviewing skills to prosecutors, social workers and law enforcement officers across the state.

She also speaks to potential and current law students when asked.

“I go back often, when students ask me to speak or participate in programs,” she said. “I always try to say yes, because I feel like I got so much out of the Law School, I want to give back as much as I can, and hopefully be an inspiration. So many people inspired me and helped me when I was there.”

Conyers was honored in 2010 as one of Virginia Lawyers Media’s “Influential Women of Virginia” who have made notable contributions to their fields. She was also awarded the Jane Matilda Bolin Award for Outstanding Lawyering by the W&M Black Students Association in 2012.

Recently, her undergraduate alma mater, Virginia State University, asked her to deliver the 2015 commencement address.

She is a former trustee of the Williamsburg Community Health Foundation, a charter member of the Williamsburg Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, a member of the Virginia State University Alumni Association and an active member of New Zion Baptist Church in Williamsburg, where she co-teaches young adult Sunday school and is a deaconess.

Conyers is married to Anthony Conyers Jr. (himself a 2006 Prentis Award winner). Together they have three adult children and two grandchildren.