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Judge Tabit, Senator Feinstein: We Have Lost Two Remarkable Women in Public Life.
One you know about. The other deserves much wider renown.
Judge Joanna Tabit of West Virginia, who presided over the juvenile drug court in Charleston, in a scene from our HBO movie Our Towns. She changed her community and her state, and died this week at age 62. (Steven Ascher / HBO.)
Two highly influential women—one known to the world, one who deserved recognition far beyond her home state—have died in the past two days. I want to join in appreciations of the first, and say something more about the second.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, of California.
The passing the world has noticed is of course that of Dianne Feinstein, senior US Senator from California, at age 90. She had a distinguished and notably brave career in public life.
She was elected to the Board of Supervisors in her native San Francisco in her mid-30s. She became acting mayor of San Francisco after the shocking assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978. She won election on her own and served nearly ten years as mayor. Then in 1992, in the same election that brought Bill Clinton to the White House, she became a senator from the country’s most populous state. In that office she was a pioneer in gun-control legislation, campaign-finance reform, and scrutiny and transparency for the CIA.
She deserves to be remembered and honored for the tremendous amount that was best in her long public life. (Before the inevitable practical questions arise about how her seat is filled and who will next represent the 40 million people of her state.1) My sincere condolences and respects to her family and friends.
Now, the person you do not know.
Judge Joanna Tabit, of West Virginia.
Nearly ten years ago, Deb Fallows and I began visiting Charleston, West Virginia, for reports on how communities buffeted by economic, environmental, political and other changes were finding a way forward. For instance, here is a dispatch we did back in 2014, about the nationwide NPR music program Mountain Stage that originates in Charleston.
When we returned in 2018, with filmmakers Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan, to begin filming what became the HBO documentary Our Towns, one of the most riveting figures we met was a Kanawha County Circuit Judge named Joanna Tabit. She had many local duties, including presiding over “juvenile drug court,” which was the community’s way of diverting youthful drug offenders before they headed toward a life in prison.
Judge Tabit, who grew up in West Virginia and had spent the early part of her career as a corporate lawyer, was an all-in, all-the-time jurist. We saw her at a local minor-league baseball game with young people who had come through her program. We saw her convene a meeting of her whole team to consider, person-by-person and family-by-family, the stories of the young people who would appear before her. (The photo at the top of this post is of her during that session.) In one memorable scene captured in the HBO film, from the bench she told one on-the-edge young person: “We are not giving up on you. You can’t give up on yourself.”
Deb and I were heartbroken to learn today, from our friend Bob Coffield in Charleston, that Joanna Tabit has died of cancer, at age 62. Local news reports, expressing the state’s loss, are here and here.
If you would like to see Judge Tabit in her prime, explaining why her work mattered, I hope you will spend a few minutes with the video below. It is from two years ago, when Deb Fallows and Ben Speggen emceed a conversation with three women who had inspired their communities. One was Lora Whelan, of the Quoddy Tides, in Eastport, Maine. Another was Tracy Taft, of Ajo, Arizona. And the third is Joanna Tabit.
If you skip ahead to time 7:00, you can hear Deb Fallows introduce Judge Tabit, who then describes her passion and work. (She is in the top row, in the middle.) I think the whole session is worthwhile.
Our sympathies and gratitude to Joanna Tabit’s family and her many friends.
California’s governor Gavin Newsom now has the power, and predicament, of choosing someone to serve the remaining year-plus in Dianne Feinstein’s current term. Can he avoid direct involvement in the race to be her successor, already underway? Does he honor his prior commitment to name a Black woman to the next open Senate seat? Can he find someone who will agree to serve only this remaining year-plus, and not try to hold onto the office?
My preference for this role has long been former four-term Governor Jerry Brown—85 years old but physically and mentally sharp, not looking for a longer-term job, unquestioned symbol of his state. But that’s easy for me to say. Good luck to Newsom in making this call.