New supreme court justice wants to make a difference
Written by JAN LARSON McLAUGHLIN Sentinel County Editor
Monday, 25 March 2013 09:05
Ohio's newest State Supreme Court justice is sometimes mistaken for the other "Judge Judy."
|Ohio Supreme Court Justice Judith French speaks during an interview at the Sentinel-Tribune office. (Photo: Enoch Wu/Sentinel-Tribune)
"I have had people ask me for an autograph," believing her to be the TV judge with the same first name.
But Judge Judith French hopes to leave a different legacy than the television judge ruling on outlandish cases.
"I hope to be known as someone who writes clear, consistent opinions," French said during a recent visit to Bowling Green.
And as a public official, she hopes to be someone who makes a difference, who encourages civic education for children.
French, a Republican serving on a court of appeals prior to taking over the justice seat on Jan. 1, was appointed to the position by Gov. John Kasich.
"I am so grateful to the governor that he's given me this opportunity," she said.
French said she had long dreamed of serving on the State Supreme Court.
"It's something I wanted for a long time," she said. "These seats on the Supreme Court are not easy to come by."
She considered her years in the court of appeals as good experience on the "farm team" for the higher court.
She knew, "at some point, that's where I want to go next."
So when Justice Eve Stratton announced she was retiring mid-term, "I was poised for the opportunity," French said.
As an aspiring justice, French had her idols. Top on the list was Chief Justice Thomas Moyer, who she admired for his calm demeanor and quiet strength. "He was the picture of professionalism and kindness."
French also plans to emulate Stratton, who exhibited a dedication to being a community leader. French's passion is civic education, which she hopes to promote among middle and high school students.
That passion for civic education was first sparked by her sixth grade teacher, Miss Martinelli, who quizzed students each morning about current events and spurred French's interest in politics.
French made her mark early in her career working as an assistant in the Ohio Attorney General's Office under Betty Montgomery. French defended the state in a Cleveland school voucher case and won.
"It was a blast," she said.
She also represented Ohio, Michigan and West Virginia in an environmental case challenging the U.S. EPA air quality standards. In that case, she won the portion of the case she was arguing, but the overall case was lost.
French recalled how Montgomery took a lot of criticism for giving these cases to a "rookie" in her office. But Montgomery stood by her choice, and told French she had confidence in her.
As an attorney, French was accustomed to being a zealous advocate for one side or the other.
Now, as a justice, she has a completely different role.
"That doesn't matter anymore. You have to be independent and unbiased," she said. "As a judge, you can't be an advocate. You do have to stay in the middle."
The Ohio Supreme Court issues between 100 and 120 decisions a year.
Though French could not give specific details about cases before the Ohio Supreme Court, she mentioned a couple interesting cases involving a school teacher who felt his termination violated his right to freedom of religion and speech, and another involving the right for an organization to file a lawsuit against JOBS Ohio.
Still looming in Ohio is a previous decision by the State Supreme Court that the current school funding system is improper. French said the court really has no teeth to push further for that change.
Unlike some other states, Ohio's justice seats are political and are elected positions. Though French understands that judge elections are far from perfect, she believes they are better than political appointments.
"I think elections can be helpful in keeping judges accountable," she said.
She is open to looking at options used in other states, but only if the citizens have a chance to vote. "I'm not so open to getting rid of elections."
One downfall to elections is the fact that job performance means nothing if there is no name recognition for voters on election day.
"Really, none of that matter unless they remember my name," she said.
French will face her first election to retain her seat in November 2014.
French was in Bowling Green to speak to students at Bowling Green State University. Her message was not to just reach for the stars.
"I just always thought that was too simplistic."
She wanted to suggest to students that they know themselves first, and keep an open mind to every opportunity.
Looking back on her career, French said she wishes she had been less afraid of what other people thought.
She also believes in the power of out-stretched hands. As she reflects on her life, French said many people helped her along her career path.
"Now you have to look back and see how you got there, and use your hands to help someone else."