Allen Broussard broke a number of barriers in his judicial career. He was among the first African-Americans accepted at Boalt Hall School of Law, became the first African-American to serve as President of the California Judges Association, and was just the second African-American to serve on the California Supreme Court. This piece looks back at his life achievements, and contributions.
If there is one storyline in life that is easily identifiable as American, it is the narrative that sees an individual come from early misfortune and rise to the pinnacles in life. American history is full of individuals who were born with little, achieved greatness through hard work and determination, and dedicated their life to helping others follow in that same path.
Judge Allen Broussard is a classic example of this American storyline. Born into a family that was far from wealthy, his hard work and dedication helped him to become a respected judge in the state of California. As you’ll discover, he was never satisfied with simply improving his own life. Allen Broussard worked tirelessly to help others realise their dreams as well.
Born on the Bayou
Allen Broussard was born on 13th April 1929 in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Lake Charles is well known in Louisiana and within Creole cultures around the world as the centre of Cajun culture in Louisiana. The city and surrounding parishes served as the home of Acadians fleeing British rule in Canada during the 18th century, establishing a Cajun stronghold in this region.
Broussard grew up in Lake Charles with his mother and father, Eugenia and Clemire, as well as his brother and sister. In 1945, at the age of 16, his family moved to California and settled in the San Francisco Bay area. The family never had the wealth that one would expect of a man who would go on to become a judge. When he was young, Allen’s father worked as a longshoreman and his mother worked as a seamstress.
As a youth, Allen held down a number of part-time jobs to help support his family and eventually contributed to payments for his own education. His part-time jobs included selling shoes and canning foods to raise whatever funds he could. Allen first attended San Francisco City College, before earning a degree from Berkeley. Following his graduation, he pursued his legal education at the Boalt Hall School of Law at Berkeley.
A Brilliant Career
During the latter stages of his education at Boalt Hall, he was vice-president of the student association. Upon graduation in 1953, he served in the United States Army for two years. When he concluded his military service, he became the research attorney for Presiding Justice Raymond Peters. This would be the start of a 40-year career in the judiciary.
He was elevated to the bench in 1964 for the first time. California Governor Pat Brown appointed him to the Oakland-Piedmont Municipal Court that year. He would serve in that position for 11 years before elevation to the Alameda County Superior Court in 1975 by Governor Jerry Brown, and then eventually to the California Supreme Court in 1981, again by Jerry Brown. Given his multiple appoints to the court by governors Pat Brown and Jerry Brown, he often referred to himself as a “triple Brownie”.
In 1972, he became the first African-American to be elected as the President of the California Judges Association. His appointment to the California Supreme Court made him just the second African-American to serve as a judge in the state’s highest court. After a nearly 40-year career, he retired from the bench in 1991.
Retired, but Not Out of Work
When he left the California Supreme Court in 1991, Allen’s work and dedication to the judiciary was far from complete. Throughout his career, he had given his free time to both his family and the judiciary system in California. He served as a member of the board in so many civic and judicial groups that it is impossible to name them all. However, to ignore his more notable contributions would be folly.
Shortly after graduating from law school, he served as the chairman of a civic organisation called Men of Tomorrow. Seeking publicity for the new group, he charmed the programme director at radio station KSAN into giving him free air time for the group. Allen, described as a talented flirt, won a date with that programme director. He married that young woman, Odessa, in 1959, and the pair remained happily married until his death in 1996.
Throughout his career, he was active in a number of civic organisations, but he will be remembered best by those who saw him as a judicial therapist. Whether they sought his advice or not, Allen was never shy about keeping an eye on young attorneys, research assistants and judges in need of guidance. His door was always open, and his Creole hospitality was vividly on display.
Those fortunate enough to cross his path during his judicial career fondly recall conversations with him about the judiciary, coupled with a bowl of his famous Cajun gumbo. He was never bashful about sharing his opinions and knowledge with others, and was always willing to listen to people when they felt lost. He strongly believed in boosting individual self-esteem to ensure that people succeeded in their judiciary careers.
Following his retirement, he remained an active participant in the San Francisco Bay area. His most notable contribution in retirement came as a member of the Oakland Port Commission. He also maintained an active practice with Coblentz, Cahen, McCabe and Breyer, participated in the American Arbitration Association, and was Chairman of the Community Policy Advisory Board of Union Bank of California. He always told friends he believed his role as chairman in the latter group could help him reshape the banking and financial world, with the hope of better assisting the underprivileged.
Gumbo Master Chef
Friends and family will tell you that no memory of Allen is complete without a gumbo story. His Cajun gumbo was the stuff of legend. A fellow judge once recalled how a court bailiff brought in gumbo, and upon tasting it, Allen’s response was, “It’s good, but wait till you taste mine”. That same judge later shared Allen’s gumbo following the Loma Prieta earthquake that struck the Bay Area in October 1989. His gumbo was known as Louisiana Broussard gumbo, and its spice would send the unprepared running for water.
It wasn’t hot for the sake of being hot, but rather it possessed the layers of heat and flavour that made it equal parts good and spicy. His mastery as a gumbo chef was indicative of who he was as a man. As an adult, he rose to become a respected judge on the California Supreme Court. He was educated and sophisticated, yet at the same time, he never forgot his roots in Lake Charles. He would always take the time to pass on knowledge and lend a hand to those in need of support, even if it just meant sharing a bowl of Cajun gumbo.