How Cornelia Brandfield-Harvey became a champion for survivors
Published in 2022 Texas Rising Stars magazine on March 22, 2022
The sisters of the Brandfield-Harvey family might have appeared as a 10-legged blonde blur if they crossed your path between the late ’90s and the early 2010s in the Houston suburbs where they lived and played, or on campus at the Awty International School, where each sister attended.
All wild hair, laughter and adventure—and with more than a few elbows to the ribs—the members of the Fab Five, as they called themselves, are: Cornelia, Camilla, Agatha, and twins Winifred and Beatrix.
“Every day at our house was nuts,” says Cornelia Brandfield-Harvey, laughing. The sisters’ days were filled with playing outside until the Texas sun hung low, writing and staging their own theatrical productions, and watching 1993’s The Three Musketeers on what felt like an endless loop. Later, Brandfield-Harvey’s childhood obsession with Aramis, Athos and Porthos would send her to France and beyond as a national champion fencer.
“It was just about the most perfect upbringing,” Brandfield-Harvey says. “Dinner conversation was everything from TV and movies, to politics, to the nitty-gritty of everyone’s day, down to whatever most related to our family’s core values—which are loyalty, love and respect.”
It’s no coincidence that the eldest of the five sisters has chosen fighting for women as her life’s work. “It’s absolutely all related,” she says. “I was the oldest, the mama bear, the protector. I’ve always felt a sense of advocacy and a deep need to protect my younger sisters. I still do. And now I feel the same exact way for my clients.”
At the Buzbee Law Firm, Brandfield-Harvey represents survivors of sexual assault. “These cases are so emotional, and these survivors have no voice,” she says. “I get to make an actual difference in their world. I get to be someone’s real-life gladiator, which is incredible.”
Not 30 minutes away from Brandfield-Harvey’s idyllic suburban upbringing exists an entirely different world. The Bissonnet Track—Southwest Houston’s unofficial red-light district, which runs between Beltway 8 and the Southwest Freeway—has earned an international reputation as a hot spot for prostitution and trafficking. The latest effort to curb activity in the area culminated with September 2021’s House Bill 2795, which made the solicitation of prostitution a felony in Texas, the first state to codify the offense as such.
“The Bissonnet Track and Houston’s reputation for trafficking is abhorrent,” Brandfield-Harvey says. “Sadly, despite admirable actions by the mayor’s office, the Harris County Attorney’s Office and various advocacy groups, Houston remains a major hub.”
That’s why cleaning up the Track was one of Brandfield-Harvey’s first missions when she landed at the Harris County Attorney’s Office as an assistant county attorney in 2017.
While it was an intense first job in the law, she had an invaluable support system in three women mentors: former Deputy Managing Attorney for Harris County Celena Vinson, now-Justice Julie Countiss, and Harris County Attorney Rosemarie Donnelly.
“I am a woman’s woman,” Brandfield-Harvey says. “I believe women empowering women is so important. There is already so much sexism in the world and so when women band together, we can break down those barriers and glass ceilings. My great women mentors taught me to be confident, and that I was just as deserving to be in that courtroom as any male attorney. They made me feel empowered.”
For a year, alongside Vinson, Brandfield-Harvey worked on shutting down illegal massage parlors and strip clubs that were trafficking young women as sex workers, thereby disrupting the underground victim pipeline.
“The Track is somewhere where, quite literally, you can go anytime of the day or night and pick a girl,” says Vinson, who now practices school law at Thompson & Horton. “It’s the kind of place where a couple of 16-year-old girls wearing backpacks and standing at the bus stop in the morning waiting to go to school are considered prostitutes and solicited for sex at 8 a.m. on a Monday.”
She was also instrumental in helping create the nation’s first human trafficking injunction, which rolled out in 2018. Vinson, a leader on the injunction, tapped Brandfield-Harvey as her right hand.
“We worked with the mayor’s office and Houston Police Department’s chief of police to carve out an area of the Track where crimes were the worst, and Cornelia was instrumental in helping us identify the major players: Who are the habitual offenders committing prostitution, compelling prostitution and pimping girls?” Vinson says. “This involved going door to door to businesses and asking questions, talking to community members, and going through hundreds upon hundreds of arrests to pinpoint the people we were after. Not only was Cornelia critical to the work—which involved such massive amounts of data—but what most stood out was how much she truly believed in cleaning up the Track and helping victims of human trafficking and the community.”
It could be enough to jade you, Vinson admits.
“As soon as you walk in, it’s clear,” she continues. “What still gets me today is that the mattresses we’d find all over the floors were often made up with the type of bedding my 16-year-old daughter might have: pink, childlike. You can’t imagine a landlord didn’t notice it. They just didn’t say anything.”
While the shutdowns were heady and exciting work, what most struck Brandfield-Harvey was the aftershocks the stings had on the women.
“Some of them were so grateful that someone has stepped in and is helping to free them, in a sense,” she says. “And others were also a little lost: This is the life they’ve been sold into, and everything that’s ever been told to them is a lie. But it’s still the only life they’d known for a while. It’s so traumatic.”
Though she loved the Harris County work, Brandfield-Harvey took a “natural stepping-stone” in 2018 to Buzbee, where she exclusively represents sexual abuse survivors. “You really connect with these women, and sometimes men,” she says. “You also have to realize, at the end of the day, you’re doing as much as you can. It’s a balancing act, and there are limits to what you can do as a lawyer, but not to how you can advocate: If I need a trauma advocate or a therapist to get involved, I can refer my clients to those people.”
The toughest case she’s handled was the sexual assault of a high school student by her teacher.
“He repeatedly raped her on campus and the school district turned a blind eye,” Brandfield-Harvey says. “My client was so traumatized by the events and it broke my heart to see her in that state. And what was even more heartbreaking was the trust she had in the school to protect her, only to realize that they failed. We received a favorable result, and I’m really proud of that.”
She’s has a similar case pending against a university.
And then there’s the ongoing Deshaun Watson case, which Brandfield-Harvey says she can’t comment on—other than to say that being involved is a highlight for someone who wants to harness the law to fight for survivors.
Twenty-two women have filed lawsuits accusing the Houston Texans quarterback of sexual assault. When the first Jane Doe, a massage therapist, went public in April 2021, Brandfield-Harvey was seated next to her at the press conference as she tearfully looked at the camera and said, “My name is Ashley Solis, and I am a survivor.”
Brandfield-Harvey is working the case with firm founder Tony Buzbee. “Our team on this is really strong and diverse, and Cornelia is an integral part of that,” he says. “She really has a passion for helping the underdog. … She is very caring and sincere, and her clients really appreciate that about her.
“She truly is always wanting to improve,” Buzbee adds. “I am constantly pushing her.”
She’ll likely soon be pushed into the limelight, as the Watson lawsuits continue to make national headlines. Vinson thinks she’s ready for it. “I just saw her on TV recently, and was so proud of her,” Vinson says. “She is extremely down-to-earth, very empathetic and a great listener. I think she’ll handle this the way she does all of her work, which is with a lot of grace. She’s someone who does not rush to judgment, and who is in this for nothing other than to get justice.”
In those moments when Brandfield-Harvey finds herself getting “too personal and invested,” she pulls back and picks up the sword.
A fencing prodigy, she started in the fourth grade and quickly found out two things: One, fencing was freaking cool and, two, it was an individual sport.
“Being the oldest of the Fab Five, it was a nice relief to settle into something so individual and mine,” Brandfield-Harvey says. “A few of my sisters fenced, but it didn’t stick. I tried every sport you could think of, but here, you live and die by the sword. It’s been a crazy 15-year journey, possible because I had a really great support system within the sport. I also had a lot of determination, motivation and grittiness.”
At Columbia, she was captain of the varsity women’s epee fencing team; she also led the New York Athletic Club to national championships in 2009 and 2010. She’s traveled the world to compete.
Now, the national gold medalist is more likely to fence as a decompression tool. Although, she says, you can’t beat what fencing does for a legal mind. “Fencing is a game of chess. You have to be mentally tough, always outthinking your opponent,” she says. “It has uniquely sharpened my legal mind and shaped how I approach adversarial situations.”
She also likes to hike and meditate. And, in 2016, she added ‘voice actor’ to her resume as the voice of Keiko Endo, a barrister in the English dub of the anime series Wizard Barristers.
The story takes place in a Tokyo where everyday humans and those with magic live together. In this world, laws against using magic are in place, and a courtroom exists solely to mete out justice in lawsuits regarding its misuse.
“I played a very small role as a barrister,” says Brandfield-Harvey, whose University of Houston Law Center classmate Krystle La Porte—a renowned voice actor in the anime world—asked her to be part of the show. “It was such a neat experience. It was the first time I had seen the inside of a recording studio.”
But for Brandfield-Harvey, the real magic lies in the law.
“Law appeals to me because of the creativity of it—the spontaneity. You have to be quick on your feet,” she says. “You are the sword, you are the champion for someone. You make change as a lawyer, and hopefully that change goes out into the world. I hope to make real change in the legislature and the judicial system, so that victims gain even more rights in Texas, which is still behind the eight ball when it comes to victims’ rights. Every case counts toward achieving that goal; every case brings awareness. I am encouraged every day by the brave men and women who speak out against injustice.”