Making a Difference

Cheryl Henderson made history in 2015 when she became Huntington’s first African-American judge. Today she is making a difference.

By Jean Hardiman

When someone appears before Judge Cheryl Henderson in Huntington Municipal Court, she listens.

“This is my 39th year of practicing the law, and I feel confident in my ability to read people,” she said. “I can tell when people are sincere or when they are bulling me. They come with all kinds of stories, and I try to listen, be patient and judge each case individually. We’re all individual human beings and our circumstances are different from others’ circumstances.”

Everyone deserves full attention and fair treatment, and in Henderson’s courtroom, they get it.

That’s one of the things that Henderson, wrapping up her fourth year as municipal judge in the city of Huntington, brings to the role. She also brings a fresh perspective, both as a female and as the first African-American in that position in the city’s history.

“I believe my presence as a black municipal court judge and as a woman judge shows diversity within our system and that all judges are not alike,” said Henderson, who has long been working as an attorney with Henderson, Henderson & Staples, which was founded by her father, the late Herbert Henderson.

“As a black judge and as a female judge, I bring different perspectives when I see individuals who come before me. But I also know that I’m blessed. I’ve had privileges. I understand that, and I understand how the system works.”

Mayor Steve Williams is thankful to have her in the position.

“Her nearly 40 years practicing law have brought equality, inclusion and fairness to our city’s municipal court,” Williams said. “Her experience and her wisdom also have gone a long way in setting a foundation for holding those who appear before her accountable.”

As a municipal judge in the city of Huntington, people come before Henderson for property code violations, traffic violations, prostitution, pandering, trespassing, shoplifting and drug charges related to paraphernalia and small amounts of drugs. She’s seen as many as 60 people in one Tuesday, which is the day of the week she serves. Sometimes the rolls are so full she’ll schedule Thursdays as well. Those usually involve addressing the overabundance of property code infractions that tend to stack up. With a team of three city workers dedicated to identifying code-breaking properties, that’s an issue that the city is fighting to address.

“We have to get people to clean up their property and make it look the way it’s supposed to look,” she said.

Henderson is well aware that many of the people who appear before her cannot simply be fined and be expected to return to society without help in changing their circumstances, and she has been the first municipal judge to have a social worker present in court as well.

“If I suspect that someone is dealing with drug use, homelessness or mental health issues, then the social worker assists me,” Henderson said. “We want to make sure that we give them assistance, that they know their options — because some don’t, and some simply don’t trust the system.”

Henderson has tried different methods to make it easier for people to pay their fines, such as payment plans, and for a time she allowed them to choose community service instead. She also has offered amnesty programs in some situations.

“Because of being a municipal judge, I understand my job is to make sure ordinances are being followed for our city and if not, there are consequences,” Henderson said. “How do we get people to pay and know that this is a serious situation? This is what I’m trying to work out.”

In many cases, Henderson tries to give people the benefit of the doubt — particularly teens who make a mistake that could ruin their future.

As a mother of a son studying public administration and law, Henderson has a heart for the next generation. She always has, said former City Councilwoman Sandra Clements, a longtime friend of Henderson’s.

Clements met Henderson through their service with the local graduate chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. They’ve provided holiday gifts to daycare children and holiday meals to local families. They’ve celebrated Dr. Seuss with kids and made bubbles with kids, and Henderson has talked with them about her legal career and encouraged them to chase their dreams, among many other projects.

“She kept moving us outside our comfort zone to give more to the community,” Clements said. “I think Cheryl is a fantastic person who has a heart for giving and caring about people.”

Henderson’s community volunteerism includes serving on the boards of the A.D. Lewis Community Center, the Huntington Museum of Art, Ebenezer Medical Outreach and the Huntington Symphony Orchestra. She’s also active with the Mountain State Bar Association. In the past she has served on the board of the Junior League of Huntington, the Huntington Tri-State Airport board, the St. Mary’s Advisory Board for Women’s Health and the West Virginia Board of Medicine.

Today, she continues to handle civil cases with her practice, which she now operates with her sister Gail Henderson-Staples and brother-in-law Dwight Staples. Her sister Sherri Henderson retired from the practice in 2017.

Cheryl Henderson is a 1980 graduate of the West Virginia University College of Law, a 1976 graduate of Fisk University and a graduate of Huntington High. Her parents, Herbert and Maxine Henderson, instilled in her the ideas to work hard and study hard.

“My parents were my mentors,” Henderson explained. “My mother taught me that I could be anything I wanted. My legal mentor was my father. He taught me to be ethical and honest and do the best for my clients. There is no way I can fill his shoes, but every day I go to my office and do the best I can.”

And as a municipal judge, she will do her best to continue to uphold the laws of the city while helping citizens out of bad situations whenever she can. She knows she can be stern, but she will be just. Some of her favorite compliments are from people who have been last in line and listened to the way she’s handled the cases of the day.

“I’ve had a couple people come up to me and say, ‘You’re doing a good job. You’re fair and you listen,’” she said. “For a lot of people, municipal court is their first experience with court. They have no idea what it will be like. They expect Judge Judy. I’m not Judge Judy.”

As for the future, Henderson wants to keep practicing law in West Virginia and keep doing what she can to help the state move forward.

“I want Marshall University graduates to stay in this area and I want those who go away to college to come home, as I did,” Henderson said. “Our children are our future.”

JEAN HARDIMAN is a freelance writer living in Huntington, West Virginia. She is a university relations specialist at Marshall University.

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