Why would a physician’s wife and mother of three from Goa, India, whose father was one of Bollywood’s most famous musicians, want to be the judge in New Orleans’ first Family Court?
Bernadette D’Souza says it’s because it is the job of her dreams, one that came after a long personal journey from the west coast of India to the University of Bombay to New Orleans where, in 1978, her husband, Dr. Tony D’Souza, had accepted a residency in neurology.
A stay-at-home mother, she volunteered in the community for more than a decade, until the youngest of her children started kindergarten. Then she applied to and was accepted into Tulane Law School. Upon graduation, Bernadette went to work for the New Orleans Legal Assistance Corporation (NOLAC), a group helping indigent and underserved members of the community with their legal needs. Then, adding one more level of responsibility to her life, she took on the presidency of the local YWCA.
“The YWCA had a premier program for counseling battered women,” she says. But while the counseling services were there, the legal assistance wasn’t. “There was such a deep need for victims to get legal services, but there was no relief afforded them through the legal system.”
When Bernadette heard about a possibility of financial assistance from the Justice Department, she wrote and was awarded a grant to set up NOLAC’s first domestic violence department. A few years later, when the Louisiana legislature decided to create a dedicated domestic seat, she ran unopposed and, in 2012, was elected the first judge in New Orleans’ new family district court.
Bernadette says it was her father’s influence that taught her the joy of giving back to her community. The oldest of eight children, Bernadette still remembers her father, guitarist Tony Gomes, as her primary influence and a powerful role model growing up in a small community in Goa, India’s smallest state.
A Portuguese colony for 450 years until it was annexed into India in 1961, the resort state of Goa is famous as the location of the tomb and remains of St. Francis Xavier, the Apostle of the Indies. It’s where Bernadette D’Souza lived until the family moved to Mumbai.
“That’s where the Bollywood industry is,” she says. “And my father played for the entire Bollywood industry. He was a very busy man but he inculcated in me the need to give back to the community. It was like if you had so much, you’ve got to share it. He was the apple of my eye.”
Bernadette says she often thinks about her journey from India to New Orleans.
“Sometimes I look back and think would I have been elected in India as a judge,” she says. “Would I have been given the opportunity there to go to law school as a mother of three children? This country, this city, with the wonderful people here provided that for me.”
When Bernadette D’Souza returned to Goa for a visit after her election, she was greeted warmly with articles written about her in the local press. “The people of Goa were so proud that I came to this country, got educated, served my community and now continue to serve in public as a judge.”