Joyce Elise Williams Warren (1949–)

Joyce Elise Williams Warren was the first Black female judge in the Pulaski County system and the first in Arkansas. She has also authored A Booklet for Parents, Guardians, and Custodians in Child Abuse and Neglect Cases (2000), which has been translated into Spanish and has been widely distributed in Arkansas and other states. She has appeared in several training videos and other videos concerning juvenile and domestic relations law and related issues.

Joyce Elise Williams was born in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County) on October 25, 1949, one of two children of Albert Lewis Williams Jr. and Marian Eloise Longley Williams, both teachers. She attended Gibbs Elementary School and was one of ten Black students who integrated West Side Junior High School in 1961. She graduated from Little Rock Central High School in 1967 and attended both Rockford College in Rockford Illinois, and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (UALR), where she received a BA in sociology and anthropology in 1971. She was the first Black female graduate of what is now the University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law, completing her Juris Doctor degree in 1976. She also did graduate work at the Summer College for Juvenile and Family Court Judges at the University of Nevada at Reno and has attended Harvard University for continuing legal education courses through the American Academy of Judicial Education. In 2001, she earned a Diploma of Judicial Skills from the American Academy of Judicial Education.

She married James Medrick “Butch” Warren in 1972; they have three children.

In 1977, Warren became the first Black law clerk for the Arkansas Supreme Court, serving Associate Justice Darrell Hickman. She was an assistant attorney general to Bill Clinton, then the state’s attorney general, from October 1977 to December 1978. As an administrative assistant to Governor Clinton from January to November 1979, she was a liaison to the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) and numerous boards and commissions. From November 1979 to February 1981, she was legal advisor to the ADH. She then engaged in the private practice of law from March to December 1981. From January to December 1982, she was a staff attorney at Central Arkansas Legal Services.

Warren became the first Black female judge in Arkansas when she was appointed as a juvenile court judge in January 1983 by county judge Don Venhaus. She was appointed by the Arkansas Supreme Court to the Arkansas State Board of Law Examiners in 1986, becoming the first Black female appointee and the first Black chairperson of the board. She served two three-year terms and an additional year on the board. Warren became a state judge on August 1, 1989, when Governor Bill Clinton appointed her as Sixth Judicial District Circuit/Chancery judge, Juvenile Division. She served in that capacity until December 30, 1990. In November 1990, Warren became the first African American ever elected to a state-level trial court judgeship in Arkansas. She was unopposed for that election, as well as the elections in November 1994, November 1998, May 2002, and May 2008, and May 2014. From 2012 until her retirement on December 31, 2020, she served as Tenth Division circuit judge in the Sixth Judicial District, which encompasses Pulaski and Perry counties, where she presides over juvenile and domestic relations cases.

Warren served on the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges Permanency Planning for Children Department Advisory Committee and was on the Publications Committee when Adoption and Permanency Guidelines: Improving Court Practice in Child Abuse and Neglect Cases was published in the fall of 2000. In 2000, at the request of the American Bar Association’s Center on Children and the Law, Warren served on the advisory board that played an integral role in creating the Adolescent Permanency Book. She was a member of the American Bar Association’s Advisory Committee to update the standards of practice for attorneys representing parents in abuse and neglect cases.

On January 23, 1995, the Arkansas Supreme Court appointed Warren as a member of the Arkansas Supreme Court ad hoc Committee on Foster Care and Adoption; she has served as chairperson of that committee since January 2007. On June 15, 2006, the Arkansas Supreme Court appointed Warren to a six-year term as an alternate member of the Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission; she was appointed to a six-year term as a regular commission member on June 16, 2011. She is the first Black female judge to serve on the commission. In November 2008, she became a member of the Arkansas Home Team for the National Governors Association Policy Academy on Safely Reducing the Number of Children in Foster Care.

In October 2000, the Arkansas Coalition for Juvenile Justice named Warren “Juvenile Judge of the Year.” In 1995, 1996, 1997, and 1998, Arkansas Business selected Warren as one of the Top 100 Women in Arkansas. She is listed in three editions of Outstanding Young Women in America and has received numerous other special honors, citations, keys to cities (including Pine Bluff), and plaques. Warren and her family were featured in the 2008 CNN television special “Black in America—The Black Man,” which has been viewed by over 20 million people, and in the October 2008 German magazine Stern, which is read by 2 million people weekly. In October 2010, Warren became the first Black president of the Arkansas Judicial Council, which consists of all the judges of the circuit court and Court of Appeals, justices of the Arkansas Supreme Court, retired judges and justices, and the director of the Administrative Office of the Courts. On February 17, 2011, Philander Smith College in Little Rock (Pulaski County) presented the Living Legends Award to Judge Warren. She is a member of the Theta Sigma chapter of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc., and has served as the legal advisor to the national board.

In February 2012, Warren was selected as one of the ten most influential Black Arkansans by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette website. In June 2012, Warren was given the National Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) Judge of the Year award. The following year, she became the first woman to serve as the chairperson of the Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission. In August 2015, she was named to the Youth Justice Reform Board by Governor Asa Hutchinson. Two years later, the Pearls Foundation and the Chi Eta Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. presented her with the 2017 Brown Girls Rock “Nellie Award in Law.” In 2018, the W. Harold Flowers Law Society chose Judge Warren as one of their twelve “Arkansas Legal Pioneers and Living Legends,” and the Pulaski County Bar Association has chosen her as one of their twelve “Legends of the Bar.” She served as the chairperson of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) in Pulaski County. Warren retired at the end of 2020. The following year, she became the first Black person to receive the Outstanding Jurist Award from the Arkansas Bar Association and Arkansas Bar Foundation. On October 22, 2021, she received the Distinguished Alumna Award from the Bowen School of Law.

In 2023, she was inducted into both the Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame and the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame. The following year, she was inducted into the Arkansas Bar Association Legal Hall of Fame.

For additional information:
Bell-Toliver, LaVerne, ed. The First Twenty-Five: An Oral History of the Desegregation of Little Rock’s Public Junior High Schools. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2018.

Casteel, Angela M. “Judge Joyce Warren—Justice for Arkansas’s Juveniles.” Arkansas Democrat, October 15, 1989. Arkansas Woman Section, pp. 1, 10–11, 18.

Cunningham, Jimmy Jr., and Donna Cunningham. African Americans of Pine Bluff and Jefferson County. Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2013.

Earley, Neal. “Pioneer Arkansas Jurist Set for Exit.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, December 29, 2020, pp. 1B, 6B.

Hodges, Phyllis. 8 Years Of Unforgettable History. Little Rock: Butterfly Typeface Publishing, 2018.

Kearney, Janis. Conversations: William Jefferson Clinton, from Hope to Harlem. Little Rock: Writing Our World Press, 2006, 144–146, 212.

Mahan, Leslie. “Joyce Elise Williams Warren.” Arkansas Democrat, April 7, 1991, High-Profile Section, pp. 1, 2, 8.

“Perspectives on the Practice of Law in Arkansas: The Experience of the African-American Lawyer.” Arkansas Lawyer 56 (Winter 2021): 14–25.

Smith, Jessie Carney. Black Firsts: 4,000 Ground-Breaking and Pioneering Historical Events. 2nd ed. Canton, MI: Visible Ink Press, 228–229.

“UALR Grads@Work—Judge Joyce Williams Warren.” Daily Record, December 14, 2012, p. 1.

James Medrick “Butch” Warren
Historic Arkansas Museum Commission


No comments on this entry yet.