Ojetta R. Thompson

Inducted: 2023
Born: 1951

Ojetta R. Thompson was born in Anderson, South Carolina on August 8, 1951. Her mother was a teacher, and her father was a school principal. Her hometown was Greenville, a municipality named for Rhode Island Revolutionary War General Nathanael Greene who is regarded as a liberator of the South from British rule.

From kindergarten through eighth grade, she attended a segregated Catholic school despite her Baptist roots. Her grandmother assisted with her basic education. After attending a summer program for gifted Black teens over the Smoky Mountains in Knoxville, Tennessee, the program director told her about the Student Transfer Education Program (“STEP”) in Scarsdale, New York that identifies promising students of color and enables them to live with a host family for the last two years of high school and offers them a rigorous education. At age sixteen she boarded a train alone and headed for Scarsdale. As one of only four Black students in a class of 400 she excelled. Her performance was good enough to gain admission to Pembroke College at Brown University and thus began her stellar Rhode Island Hall of Fame career.

Thompson began her career working as a cashier at the Providence Civic Center in 1973. In 1975 she worked as a law clerk for the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. In 1974 Thompson started out as a legal intern for Rhode Island Legal Services and then returned in 1976 as Senior Staff Attorney and Family Law Manager until 1979. From 1979 to 1980 she was an Associate for the law firm of McKinnon and Fortunato. In 1980, Thompson became the Assistant City Solicitor for Providence, Rhode Island, and held this position until 1982. Also in 1980, Thompson was a solo practitioner until 1984 when she opened a law firm in South Providence while raising a family with her husband, Rhode Island District Court judge William Clifton. In 1988, Thompson was appointed to the Rhode Island District Court by Governor Edward D. DiPrete. In 1997, she was elevated to the Rhode Island Superior Court by Governor Lincoln Almond.

On April 13, 2009, United States Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse announced that they were recommending that President Obama nominate Thompson to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, to fill the seat left vacant by First Circuit Judge Bruce M. Selya. On October 6, 2009, Obama formally nominated Thompson to the seat on the First Circuit. She was confirmed by the Senate on March 17, 2010, by a 98–0 vote. She received her commission on March 30, 2010.

The culmination of her career came in April 2010 when Judge Thompson joined the First Circuit Court of Appeals. She was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2009 and unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate with a vote of 98 to 0. Judge Thompson thus became the first African American and the second woman to serve on the First Circuit Court of Appeals. Thompson’s rise to the top was both rapid and steady. She was an Associate Justice of the Rhode Island Superior Court, from 1997 to April 2010. Before that, she was an Associate Judge with the Rhode Island District Court for nine years. Both posts gave her great trial experience.

During her 47-year law career, Judge Thompson has been a senior partner with her sister in the firm of Thompson & Thompson, Assistant City Solicitor for the City of Providence, an associate with the law firm of McKinnon and Fortunato, and a senior staff attorney for Rhode Island Legal Services, Inc. and manager of the family law unit.

Given her ancestry — from a German immigrant slaveholder and a woman of Black and Native American descent — she developed an expertise in Native American law after being retained as counsel by the Narragansett Tribe.

Judge Thompson earned her undergraduate degree at Brown in 1973 and her J.D. from Boston University School of Law in 1976. She holds honorary degrees from the University of Rhode Island, Bryant University, Roger Williams University School of Law, Johnson and Wales University, Providence College, and her alma mater Brown University, where she now serves as a trustee.

Judge Thompson is the recipient of numerous awards and honors. Most recently she was inducted into the Rhode Island Criminal Justice Hall of Fame and named Roger Williams University School of Law’s 2022 Champion for Justice. In September 2022 she assumed senior status on the Court of Appeals. She was married to the late Rhode Island District Court Judge William C. Clifton and resides in Cranston, Rhode Island. She is the proud mother of Reza, William, Jr., and Sarah Clifton.

Judge Thompson was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2023.

For additional reading:
“Thompson selected to federal judgeship,” Katie Mulvaney, Providence Journal, April 14, 2009.

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