The Colgate Scene
January 2003

A judicial temperament

[Photos by Timothy D. Sofranko]

Spend some time with Covette Rooney '74 and you'll find it is easy to conclude that she views anger as a waste of time.

It's not that Rooney, a federal administrative law judge since 1994, is unfamiliar with the emotion. Quite the contrary, but during a career in which she has often been the first African American and first woman in a particular post, Rooney has chosen to strategically employ her intellect, education and experience to counter any slight to her race and gender. It's a worldview that she shared with a group of Colgate students of color during a campus visit last fall.

"I talked about my experiences, and how you really have to keep your eye on the prize," Rooney said. "I told them that I was glad to see that student activism is still alive here on campus, and I think that is part of the Colgate education, that if there's something going on that offends you, that you should do something about it."

"For all that Colgate offers, students of color sometimes feel marginalized here," said Rajesh Bellani, assistant dean and director of multicultural affairs. "We invited Judge Rooney to campus because as an accomplished alumna with a distinguished career she represents both the significance of being undeterred in pursuing a degree from Colgate and the range of possibilities that degree gives each graduate."

Noting that there were more students of color since her time at Colgate, Rooney shared advice with the students that she had given to her niece, a third-year student at Harvard Law School, in the aftermath of a controversy last spring sparked by the use of a racial slur in an e-mail message. As her niece told her about the incident, Rooney became increasingly frustrated. The e-mail came to light just before final exams, and instead of focusing on their exams, students were wasting time, distracted by the e-mail.

"Meanwhile, the person behind the e-mail was probably in the library studying for finals," said Rooney. "I told the [Colgate] students that while they are going to be offended by some folks here, don't let that deter them from what they're really here for. Their mission is to earn their degree so that they can become responsible, influential leaders in positions to respond effectively. If you get bent out of shape because someone doesn't like you, then they've won. And the battle isn't won until you've gotten out of here with your degree."

Rooney, a graduate of Temple University School of Law, became an administrative law judge after 14 years as a trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Labor. There are more than 1,400 federal administrative law judges, but only a small percentage that are women or people of color. After hearing a representative of the federal Office of Personnel Management say that only a few women and minorities took the

examination to become an administrative law judge (a lifetime appointment) because they weren't willing to move, Rooney decided to take the plunge and took the exam. After completing the yearlong process to become a judge, Rooney received her first assignment, to hear Social Security cases in Hattiesburg, Miss.

Rooney moved to the Magnolia State with, she freely admits, some second thoughts. "Someone told me, `Covette, look at it this way,'" said Rooney. "`When you're a judge in Atlanta, Philadelphia or Los Angeles, if you're on the bench and you sneeze, you have to call a recess, take off your robe, put on your jacket, and go downstairs to CVS to buy some tissues. If you're in Hatties-burg, Mississippi, the minute you sneeze on the bench, there will be six people who will ask you if you need a tissue.'"

When she arrived in Hattiesburg, Rooney became the first African American and woman in Mississippi history to sit as a federal administrative law judge. "The black community [in Hattiesburg] really embraced me. I lived in a downtown area where blacks normally didn't live, unbeknownst to me, but it was a great time," said Rooney. "But I felt like I was in a fish bowl for part of the time. I'd go to a grocery store and everyone knew, well, there goes Judge Rooney."

Rooney believes that spending four years in a community as racially homogeneous as Hamilton, N.Y. prepared her well for life and work in Hattiesburg and several other locales where there were few blacks, much less a black woman representing the federal government. "When I was here, people would see me downtown and say, `Well, there goes one of the women who are at Colgate,'" she said. "I look back at my experience here and I know that that prepared me for what I was about to embark upon."

Rooney and her twin sister, Cozette '74 (an administrator in the special education department of the Philadelphia school system), were among the 15 African American women in the first coed first-year class that arrived in 1970, four of whom (including the Rooney twins) were graduates of Philadelphia's Overbrook High School. "My introduction to Colgate was quite by accident," said Rooney. "I was trying to figure out a way to get out of gym class and I happened upon the bulletin board outside of the guidance counselor's office and I saw a sign-up sheet for Colgate. Well, at that point, I thought it was Colgate-Palmolive, the toothpaste company, coming up to interview. I knew I was going to college, but I needed a way out of gym, and that was the same period that gym class was. I was just going to see what they had to say and I walked into the room, and there were these two guys (Stephen Bradsher '74 and Ricky Gillian) with huge Afros, talking about college. And I thought, `This is really interesting.'"

Bradsher and Gillian convinced Rooney that she should take a closer look at Colgate, so she decided to pay a visit. "I thought it was great that the students were sent out to actually do the recruitment," she said. "When I told my parents that these guys were going to come and drive me to Colgate this weekend so that I could be interviewed by the admissions people, my mother and father said, `You're not taking a ride with two men unless your sister goes.'"

Accompanied by her sister and future classmates Denise Rae Scott-Jones '74, Angela Nolan-Cooper '74 and Deborah Booker Matthews '74, Rooney made the six-hour journey to Colgate and soon decided to attend. "We didn't come with the intention of being pioneers," she said. "We were just coming to college."

After nearly a year and a half in Hattiesburg, Rooney transferred to the Washington, D.C. area and now hears cases for the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission. "When I decided to be a lawyer, I always leaned toward public service. I wanted to do something to benefit society as a whole," said Rooney. "Hearing health and safety cases accomplishes that and gives me a great deal of satisfaction."

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