On a rainy Wednesday in late March, one of Ohio’s most salient decision makers marched through the halls and around the campus of Ohio Northern University. Hailing from the highest level of state law, she traveled from Columbus to the treacherously weathered village of Ada to talk to students about their futures.
Ohio Supreme Court justice Judith L. French visited ONU on March 28, posing as a guest speaker in communications courses and a judge in a Moot Court competition.
She came to Ohio Northern through Dr. Kathie Fleck, an assistant professor of public relations who has known French for several years. Fleck believed that French provided valuable career advice for both undergrad and law students that day.
“Justice French has a unique message and a compelling way to tell it that resonates with students and faculty. She is very open, honest and interested in engaging about not only what she does, but also how she got there,” Fleck said. “Her message to the students was ‘not be afraid to set big goals and take on challenging opportunities.’ I believe it was very well received by our students.”
After all, it is French’s journey that links her to Ohio Northern’s student body. She grew up in a small town — Sebring, OH — of just over four thousand residents. She worked at a McDonald’s restaurant in high school. Her mother was a school teacher and her father was a small-business man.
Despite her lack of inherited connections to legal royalty, however, she worked her way through the ranks and became one of Ohio’s most prominent decision makers. She serves as one of seven Ohio Supreme Court justices, having served on the bench since 2013.
Over the past two decades, French has served the state of Ohio as a lawyer for the EPA, an assistant attorney general and counsel to the governor before her time as a judge. She has argued two cases before the United States Supreme Court and has also put a heavy emphasis on public service during her career.
To read more about French’s career, click here.
Before she spoke with classes and judged the Moot Court competition at Ohio Northern on March 28, the Northern Review’s Grant Pepper had the opportunity to sit down and talk with French about her career, her journey, and what it all means…
GP: So, you’re from Sebring, OH, which is a town smaller than Ada?
JF: “It is, just a couple thousand more people. Very small high school, there were 80 students in my high school class.”
GP: Have you been to Ohio Northern before?
JF: “I have. I visited the law school a few years ago and I’ve been through Ada, actually a number of times. You know, it’s like a lot of places I see around Ohio. It’s a nice, small town. But the big difference here obviously is Ohio Northern. It’s a beautiful, small campus, kind of easy to navigate. So that, I think, elevates the town of Ada quite a bit.”
GP: Why are you here today, what will you be doing on campus?
JF: “I’m here to talk to students today. This evening, I’ll be at the law school, helping with the Moot Court competition, just meaning that I’ll be pretending to be part of the United States Supreme Court, and hearing a case in their competition. But up until then, I’m meeting with a number of students and professor Fleck’s class, especially. So really, my goal for today is to answer as many questions as I can answer.”
GP: What kind of perspective do you hope to provide here?
JF: “Well, you know, you started off asking me about the small town. I suspect there are a lot of students here who can relate to that. Maybe going to a public high school, maybe not having parents who are lawyers, necessarily. My mom was a school teacher, my dad was a small-business man, and I worked at McDonald’s in high school. So, I think the perspective I bring is somebody who started out in those circumstances and became an Ohio Supreme Court justice. So, I’m not here necessarily to direct everybody to law and being a judge, but maybe there are some students here who feel limited by their own circumstances, and I’m here to break them out of that.”
GP: What do you tell people when they ask how you got here? How’d you get to this point?
JF: “Well, you know, it wasn’t a direct route. And I think that’s one message too, is just that I went into jobs that I thought I would enjoy. I became a lawyer because I thought I’d like it, and I thought I’d be good at it. And I chose environmental law as a beginning point because I thought I’d like that, and I’d work with really good people in the law firm where I worked. So, I’ve been in a law firm, in a corporation, I worked for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), I worked for the attorney general’s office, I worked for the governor’s office; and every time I went into one of those positions I thought, ‘I think I’m going to like this and I think I’m going to be good at it.’ And as long as you stick with those sorts of decisions, you really can’t go wrong.
But the other thing is that I always stayed open to other opportunities, and that’s something that I always try to tell students is, ‘Know who you are, know what you think you’re good at and what you’re interested in, and then be open to every kind of opportunity that comes your way. Don’t, at the beginning, say, ‘I’m not going to be interested in that, I wouldn’t even consider it.’ I mean, what a better opportunity than to be in college and to be exposed to so many things. So, I do think that I was able to make good decisions because I opened myself up to making those kinds of moves.”
GP: From your perspective, what were some moments that you think were turning points in your career? Are there moments that stand out to you?
JF: “Definitely. And I think one of the beginning points was when I decided to be an environmental lawyer. I was at a young law firm that made all the young associates — I was an associate — made all of us go through different departments of the firm. And I kind of looked at the schedule and thought, OK, I need to work a few weeks in each of these departments over the summer, because I was a summer law clerk, and I looked at the environmental law group and I thought, ‘Well that is just going to be a waste of my time. I’m not a science person, I’m a liberal arts person, that’s going to be a waste of my time.’ And when I got into it, I found that a lot of the things that I’m interested in match up with environmental law.
You know, being part of the legislative world and the government world, it’s a regulatory kind of area. And I found wonderful people there. So, I think it was a turning point. And that was a real lesson for me, to say, I would have initially rejected this and now I see it as something that I can really be good at and really excel at. But in terms of opportunities, I think that arguing in front of the United States Supreme Court was definitely an opportunity. Especially that second case, the Cleveland School vouchers case that involved an education issue, a constitutional question. Those kinds of cases don’t come along very often for a lawyer, and to be standing before the United States Supreme Court, as a single mother, at that time, you know, I went all the way through public schools. My mom was a public school teacher, my daughter was in public schools. I could really relate to those parents who had decided, ‘I don’t want my child in my public school. I want them to be somewhere safer and where they can get a better education.’
And there was a moment, and there is, I think, for every lawyer, as you stand before the court, there was literally a moment where I wasn’t allowed to speak yet. And you have to wait for the chief justice to acknowledge you. You know, if you’re the first speaker, you look up at the justices and they’re kind of moving papers around and doing the kinds of things that I do now, although I’m usually opening my computer. But you have to wait for the chief justice to acknowledge you. So I knew that would be the moment when I would get really, really nervous. And I practiced it — I practiced it over and over and over again. I had my daughter play the role of the chief justice and say, ‘Ms. French, we’ll hear from you now,’ so then I would stand up, and I would stand there and not say anything for a few seconds until I could get into my argument. So when I think of literal moments, that’s one of them. And it was a great one. I just did not want to ruin it by being so nervous that I wouldn’t be able to speak.”
GP: You’re probably at a point in your career now where you can look back and think about, ‘What’s my mission in all of this? Why am I doing all of this?’ And even though you’ve been in different environments, there’s probably been a common thread. What’s your perspective on that?
JF: “What a great question. As I said, when I thought about those positions before I got into them, my thoughts were, ‘Am I going to like this? Am I going to enjoy working every day, doing this job? And, am I going to be good at it? Does it match my skills, and if it doesn’t, is it something that I can turn into a challenge? And can I become better, and how can I develop?’ Those were the kinds of things that I thought about before I took the positions, but especially when I became a judge. I went to the Court of Appeals first and now to the Supreme Court, so I’ve been a judge now for 13 years. And for me, when I think about, ‘Why am I doing this?’ I don’t just think about the work. I mean, obviously, that’s really important. I want to make good decisions; I want them to be clear, I want them to be efficient. But I also think there’s another part of it that’s, ‘OK, now what else can I do? What can I do with whatever authority, whatever power I have?’ And I have two kind of broad areas that I tend to focus on.
One of them is education, civic education. I speak to a lot of high school students, today I’m going to be speaking to a lot of college students. And it’s really an opportunity to teach people, OK, here’s what it’s like to be a Supreme Court justice. Here’s what we do, here’s how we do it, and here’s why it’s important to you. The other broad area that I focus on is access to justice. So, for people who can’t afford a lawyer, how do they get to be a part of the justice system? If their landlord is doing something improper, if they can’t afford a lawyer, who advocates for them? How do they get the justice system? So those are kind of my two broad areas when I think of, ‘What am I doing with this opportunity besides the work?’ It’s those two areas that I think of first.”
GP: From a career perspective, are you content with where you are now? Or where do you want to go?
JF: “Well, I’m serving a six-year term. So, I’m content for the next few years, and I intend to seek reelection in 2020. That feels a little bit limiting to me, just because I’ve had so many opportunities. But I intend to do other things with those positions, too. This is likely my last job, but maybe not. I’m still young enough that I can have another job. But there is an age limit for judges in Ohio, for justices, and that’s age 70. I have a while before I get there, so I don’t think a lot necessarily about the job that’s next, but other opportunities. What else am I going to do for access to justice, what else am I going to do for civic education? And in those ways, I feel unlimited. There’s so many other things that I could do.”
GP: Obviously, you were appointed by Governor Kasich in 2013. And publicly, everyone knows you’re a Republican. In today’s political climate, how do you view the balance between what you do and politics, and how does that all play together?
JF: “That’s a good question, and it’s a pretty easy one to answer from the perspective of being on the bench and deciding cases. My party label doesn’t matter. The endorsement by the Republican Party, the appointment by the Republican governor… it just doesn’t come into play. What’s more important, and what I always tell potential voters, is [that] what really matters is my philosophy. How do I view my role on the court, is it conservative or is it liberal? And usually, when those terms are used, they are connected in some way to social issues. You know, when you think of a conservative, you think about maybe being conservative on social issues, and then the opposite with liberals. But with judges, they have a specific meaning. And if I’m a conservative on the bench, that, to me, means I conserve my power. I keep my power limited, as opposed to using it liberally to serve certain ends.
So, politics just doesn’t enter in at all. But my reality is that I have to be elected. If I want to stay in this job then I have to be elected, and I will have to be reelected in 2020. So, there is a reality to that. If I want the endorsement of a political party, then I have to keep up those contacts. I need to go to the dinners, I have to go to the barbecues. I have to keep up with that arm of how you get elected in Ohio. If I were independently wealthy and could do all my own campaigning and provide all the funds necessary, maybe I wouldn’t have to do that. But I don’t know anybody like that. And especially for judges and justices around Ohio, people just don’t know us. They don’t know who we are, typically. So, when I’m out talking to people, it’s not so much about whether I’m a Republican. I try to tell them, ‘Here are my qualifications. I care deeply about this job. I work hard at it. I really try to get to the right legal answer.’ But if it’s a campaign year, I will also tell them to vote for Judge Judy. You know, that’s just my reality. I try to do both of those things. But no matter how much I tell my voters about my qualifications, if they don’t remember my name when they go to vote, then it doesn’t do me any good. So, I’m constantly walking that tightrope.”