A school field trip to the Wyandotte County Courthouse was a life-changing experience for 13-year-old Rhonda Mason.
It set her on a career path that now, some 30 years later, has been realized with her appointment as a judge.
And when Mason is sworn in in January, she will make history as the first African-American judge in Johnson County.
She can’t remember who the judge was who so impressed her during that long-ago courthouse visit, but ever since then, being a judge is all she has ever wanted to be.
“For me, becoming a judge has always been something I aspired to,” she said. “I was amazed at that judge, how knowledgeable he was.”
Mason grew up in Kansas City, Kan., and graduated from Washington High School.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Oakwood College in Huntsville, Ala., before enrolling in law school at Washburn University in Topeka.
After graduating from law school in 1996, Mason worked as a law clerk for Jackson County Circuit Judge Thomas Newton.
Newton, now a judge on the Missouri Court of Appeals, taught her what it means to be a judge.
“I learned so much about the duties of a judge, how to be humble,” Mason said. “You’re not just sitting on the bench, you’re serving the community.”
After her clerkship, Mason was hired as an assistant prosecuting attorney in Jackson County. During her five-year stint as a prosecutor, she became a trial team leader and handled general crimes, drug cases and domestic violence cases.
But with a judgeship in mind, Mason wanted to broaden her legal experience by handling civil cases. She left the prosecutor’s office and took a job with Allstate.
Later, she spent several years with a Kansas City law firm. In 2011, she became a managing attorney for Geico.
By her count, she has handled cases in 57 counties in Kansas and Missouri. That has given her a chance to see how various courts handle cases, she said.
Mason previously applied for an open judge’s position in Johnson County and was chosen as one of three finalists submitted to the governor, but she was not picked.
This time, she once again made the final panel to replace District Court Gerald Elliott, who is retiring.
And this time, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback selected Mason for the position.
“I was elated,” she said about her reaction when she heard the news. “I’m grateful and humbled by all the messages of support I’ve received. It’s been a little overwhelming.”
Mason said she knows that as the county’s first black judge, she understands she may be looked at by some as a role model.
“I’m happy to be that person,” she said. “I want people to know if a little girl from Wyandotte County can do it, they can too.”
After she is sworn in, Mason will likely take over the civil court docket handled by Elliott.
She said she is eager to take on her new duties and looks forward to serving the community.
“I am just really honored and humbled,” she said. “I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and get to work.”