From Advocate to the Federal Bench

August 1, 2023

From her early days as a public defender in Richmond, Kelley Hodge's unwavering commitment to juvenile justice, education, and advocacy has propelled her to the federal bench.

“Is that my name? And is that White House letterhead?,” said Kelley Hodge, L’96, recalling her initial moment of being awestruck at the sight of her presidential nomination to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. 

“I was very honored, grateful, and ecstatic to know that my name had been recommended and presented to the President by my home state senators as a nominee for U.S. District Court Judge, and then that the President and the White House said ‘we agree.’”

Judge Hodge was sworn in as a federal judge in December. But this was just the latest accomplishment in a remarkable criminal justice career that took her from her role as public defender in the City of Richmond to District Attorney of Philadelphia, making history as the first and only Black woman to hold that position in the city and the state of Pennsylvania.

"There was no better opportunity for me to learn than baptism by fire,” Judge Hodge said of her early days as a public defender. Handling a wide range of cases from petty theft to homicides allowed Judge Hodge to hone her skills and develop a deep understanding of the complexities within the justice system.

The desire to broaden her legal experience led Judge Hodge to become a prosecutor with the District Attorney's office in Philadelphia, and this gave her a deeper understanding of the challenges faced in a major urban environment.

Later stints as a safe schools advocate at the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency focusing on violence in schools, and as the Title IX coordinator at the University of Virginia further refined her legal prowess and strengthened her passion for advocacy.

But, according to Judge Hodge, it all started at Richmond Law. She credits her professors with introducing her to the possibilities—and rewards—of a career in the law.

“Through clinical programs and exceptional professors like Robert Shepherd and Kelley Bartges, I developed my passion for advocating for children, juvenile justice, and equitable education,” she said.

“His instruction and guidance, in particular, gave me really good foundational tools for what ended up being a major interest of mine, which was children and juvenile justice, education, and advocacy,” she said of Shepherd. “Professor Bartges was a wonderful instructor and shining example of how compassion and advocacy go hand-in-hand.”

A member of the Richmond Law Advisory Board, Judge Hodge’s connection to the school has remained with her throughout her career, even into her latest role.

“My advanced trial practice professor was my first supervisor at the public defender's office and she was there to celebrate with me at my ceremonial investiture,” she said of the event which took place in June. Several other Richmond connections, including classmates and lifelong friends, a recent Richmond Law graduate whom she mentors, Richmond Law Professor Julie McConnell and Dean Wendy Perdue were also present.

As she begins this new chapter in her career, Judge Hodge aspires to demonstrate empathy and compassion, and to make a lasting impact on the lives of those who encounter her in the courtroom.

“Quite simply, I want to be remembered as a judge who listened, who understood, and who cared about the litigants and all those who appear before her. It is important to know that you were seen and you were heard.”