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Following her calling: Retired Ohio Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton ’79 prepares for next chapter in advocacy

May 23, 2013 | Alumni

As a trial judge in Franklin County, Ohio, Evelyn Lundberg Stratton ’79 often stared down from her bench at defendants buckling under the weight of more than just lengthy criminal records. They were dealing with mental health issues that contributed to the troubles they faced in her courtroom.

“I didn’t know what to do with them and foolishly thought if I put them in jail they would get treatment,” she recalled. “That didn’t happen.”

When she examined the issue further, Stratton found the mental health system was not working with the drug and alcohol abuse system, which was not working with the employment system and so on. “The person might never make the first appointment, to get housing for example, much less the following ones to get help with their addiction or other social services they might need,” Stratton said. “I always wanted to do something about it.”

She got her chance after joining the Ohio Supreme Court. In 2001, she founded the Advisory Committee on Mental Illness and the Courts to develop solutions for the revolving door issue of people with mental illness trapped in the criminal justice system. Ohio only had two mental health courts at the time. More than a decade later, the state leads the nation with 38 mental health courts and 144 specialized dockets, which support local courts in developing programs to help specific populations within the court system. Ohio leads the country in training police with Crisis Intervention Teams, with more than 5,600 trained as of June.

As Stratton prepared to leave the Ohio Supreme Court at the end of 2012, her work with mental illness courts and her advocacy for other groups will be part of her lasting legacy, said colleagues and friends.

“I’ve been so honored to have this job. I have just absolutely marvelous colleagues who I will miss dearly. But my heart calls me to go further and work on a lot of the issues in criminal justice reform that are near to my heart,” she said in a farewell statement before the court on Sept. 13.

During a conversation in her chambers on Front Street, she elaborated further. Being an Ohio Supreme Court justice is a demanding job. Justices read, on average, 5 feet of legal briefs every two weeks. Plus, there are ethical restraints on advocacy with which to contend. “The work that I do in mental health and with veterans has become far more important to me,” Stratton said. “I was pretty much doing two full-time jobs, and one had to go. So this one went.”

Former Justice Yvette McGee Brown ’85 has known Stratton since their days serving in the Franklin County Common Pleas Court. She described Stratton as a thoughtful jurist who listened with an open mind to opinions that were different than hers. Stratton was collaborative in her approach and quick in getting out her decisions. But it will be Stratton’s significant contributions to mental health and veterans’ courts and improvements in juvenile justice for which she will be lauded long after leaving the bench, McGee Brown said.

“She has really been the voice around the country on what courts can do to better serve veterans returning with traumatic brain injury or other issues and working with police and judges around Ohio on response to defendants with mental illness,” McGee Brown said. “Justice Stratton works hard and is always willing to help others. She cares very much about the judiciary and how we can make the judicial branch better for judges, lawyers, and the people who access them.”

As Stratton gains a reputation for advocating for the mentally ill and veterans, people sometimes gently tease her for being a conservative Republican working on behalf of traditionally liberal causes. With a glint in her eye, she enjoys retorting: “Well, Republicans can be mentally ill, too!”

Then, with a reflective pause, she adds, “It’s the fault of my missionary parents. They inspired me to do all of this.”

Growing up abroad

In February 1953, Mrs. Corrine Sahlberg took the train from the remote Thai village of Nong Khai to Bangkok. At roughly 385 miles, it was a long, treacherous journey for a woman to make alone – much less pregnant. She needed to get to Bangkok three weeks prior to the arrival of her and her husband’s second child.

The Sahlbergs were working in Thailand with The Christian and Missionary Alliance, spreading the Gospel to people living in remote mountain villages. Stratton has a black-and-white photo of what she likes to call her “Indiana Jones dad,” Elmer, in her chambers. He’s floating down the Mekong River, on a dugout canoe, appearing very much at ease just a few inches above the water, with a chicken next to him. The fowl was his supper for later, as the people he visited would be too poor to provide him a meal. As he shared the Christian faith, his wife taught Bible classes for women and served as a practical nurse.

In Nong Khai, they were the only foreigners except for one Catholic priest. The family lived in a house considered fancy by Thai standards but primitive to Americans. There was no running water, and electricity was available only by day.

Stratton lived there until she was 6 – the age when all missionary children bid their parents farewell and went off to boarding school for four and five months at a time. Without telephones, the Sahlbergs communicated with their children through letters. Stratton recalled being fortunate enough to have parents who wrote faithfully. She said, “Some kids did real well in that environment; some did not. The separation from parents at such a young age was really tough on a lot of kids. I somehow thrived in it.”

Stratton was in boarding school in South Vietnam during the height of the Vietnam War. The walks she and her classmates used to be able to take into the mountains as young children became unsafe. Eventually, they could not leave campus at all.

Meanwhile, the school received copies of Newsweek and TIME. Coverage of the war was two and three months out of date. Still, the children gleaned that the war was unpopular in the United States, a place they didn’t quite identify as home. It was infuriating to Stratton.

“The media painted this very negative picture. It’s like they talked about all the bad things America does and American soldiers do and they never talked about the atrocities committed by the Viet Kong daily,” she said. “We had pastors who were hung upside-down and gutted in front of their children, and that would never make the papers. We spent a lot of time being angry at America and the American government for being critical of our forces.”

With the Tet Offensive in 1968, there became concerns that the missionary school would become a target for terrorism. Stratton’s parents pulled her out a few months before the entire school was evacuated, and the 180 students and teachers were taken to Bangkok, where she rejoined them. Emergency accommodations meant learning in lean-to structures hastily constructed on sidewalks and sleeping in rooms with two triple-bunked beds. “I always was a skinny kid, so I usually got the top bunk,” Stratton said, chuckling.

Finding her calling

At 18, Stratton returned to the United States by herself to attend college. She had $500 and needed to work her way through colleges in Florida and Texas, where she met her first husband, an Ohioan. After getting married, she finished earning her degree in international relations at the University of Akron in 1976.

“Someone said to me, ‘You like to write. You like to act. Why don’t you become a lawyer?’ ” Stratton recalled. She jokes that she had never met a lawyer or seen an episode of Perry Mason, yet she knew she wanted to be a judge from the start of her law school career at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law. “I happen to have a fairly religious streak still, and I always thought of it as my calling.”

Working her way through school again, Stratton would study her law books behind the cosmetics counter at Lazarus. She had little time for any carefree moments in law school, saying, “I didn’t get as involved as law students do in the total immersion thing, which I think was good. It kept me grounded.”

Upon graduating in 1979, Stratton worked for a Columbus firm. While her work was valued, it was clear that a woman partner was not welcomed. Friends invited her to join them in creating their own firm – coming in at the partner level. Her practice focused on insurance defense and business law mostly. She started a side practice in adoption that mushroomed.

Yet, Stratton had not given up on her long-term goal of becoming a judge, and the opportunity presented itself nine years out of law school, when she was 34 years old.

The Franklin County Court of Common Pleas had six seats open, and there were five men in the Republican Party prepared to run. They needed a woman, and Stratton received the nod to run. She went up against the only incumbent on the bench. After winning, she immediately ran up against male chauvinism and bureaucracy. She found ways to work around it, though. She and Judge Michael Close conspired to work together so he would present her projects at the judges’ meetings. Issues that would have met a brick wall, had she raised them, sailed through.

Meanwhile, she worked with the state bar association on other issues to keep her energies focused. Stratton was earning a reputation for being very active in working on reforms when Republican Party insiders called her one day to say that Ohio Supreme Court Justice J. Craig Wright was resigning a year early. Could they float her name to then-Gov. George Voinovich ’61?

“I had no political connections or family or money,” Stratton said. The call caught her off guard, but she eventually agreed to the idea. She met with Voinovich prior to her appointment on March 7, 1996. Fellow justices say she is respectful, open-minded, and able to recall specifics of cases heard a decade before when deliberating.

“Eve is a hardworking colleague who is well-prepared and fair. She is an independent thinker and provides valuable insight into case decision-making,” said Justice Terrence O’Donnell. “Her opinions are well-written and well-reasoned. These are the reasons she is so highly valued by her colleagues on the bench and in the bar.”

In addition to finding personal satisfaction with serving in the state’s highest court, Stratton also appreciates the ability she has to work on issues important to her. “This job has so much flexibility with the kinds of projects you can work on that I would never have been able to do at the federal level.”

Advocating for others

Stratton’s passion for certain projects is palpable, including her reform work with mental health courts, juvenile justice, and veterans’ treatment courts.

She helped change the ways juveniles are evaluated for competency and represented in criminal cases. Stratton continues to work on how juveniles are treated once bound over to adult prisons, as well. “There’s a lot of changes we can make there. For example, there’s no child psychologist. The kids in the prison system have the same access to the psychiatrist that the other 50,000 prisoners have,” she said, “but they may not have training in youth issues.”

In establishing mental health courts for adults, Stratton helped spur development of Crisis Intervention Teams for law enforcement officers responding to calls involving mental illness issues. That alone has saved “countless lives at the community level,” said Terry Russell, executive director of Ohio’s National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“This training gives law enforcement officers the tools they need to de-escalate mental health crises in the field.  This has an impact on the safety of both the individuals suffering from mental illness as well as the officers responding to calls,” Russell said. “I have been in the mental health business for 40 years, and no one has had a greater impact on implementing much needed services for the severely mentally disabled than Justice Stratton. She makes it known that as an Ohio Supreme Court justice, she has a ‘bully pulpit.’  When I need to communicate to policymakers, I often ask Justice Stratton to open the door.”

Stratton’s efforts to expand mental health broadened outside of the Buckeye State’s borders when she helped create and co-chair the national Judges’ Criminal Justice/Mental Health Leadership Initiative. In 2008, the initiative received $600,000 in seed money to establish seven, and eventually with more funding, 11 state-level committees to focus on collaboration between parties with an interest in defendants with mental illness – all modeled after the Ohio advisory committee. Officials in Bexar County, Texas reported jail stays were reduced or completely avoided for 1,700 people during their program’s first year. A study of the Maricopa County Comprehensive Mental Health Court in Arizona found the recidivism rate of participants dropped to nearly half the rate of general population offenders.

While at a national conference on housing four years ago, Stratton sat next to a man from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. He wanted to create veterans courts, and Stratton recognized her decade of experience in establishing specialty dockets could benefit those who sacrifice greatly for their country. Plus, she had a personal affinity for veterans, with five uncles and a father who served in World War II, a grandfather killed in World War II, two brothers who served in the Vietnam War, and a nephew in the Air Force just back from South Korea.

In addition to creating veterans’ courts in Ohio, she helped start a pro bono project to assist with meeting legal needs of active military and veterans. Stratton also has collaborated with the Veterans Administration on a national liaison program for veterans involved in the court system, and she continues to work on educating judges about the need to ask defendants if they have military experience so they are able to access available services.

“Just as we have learned from our mental health court programs, incarcerating our veterans and throwing away the key is neither the smartest nor the most cost-effective solution,” she co-wrote in a 2010 report on The Ohio Veterans WrapAround Project. “Since they have given so much for our country and our safety, we need to wrap our arms around our veterans and help them in their time of need.”

As Stratton prepared to leave one full-time job to dedicate herself fully to the other – that of an advocate – she was clearly optimistic about the changes she can affect: “These criminal justice issues occupy a place of growing importance in my life, and I have decided to dedicate myself to them even more so not only here in Ohio but also on a national level.”

Evelyn Stratton on…

The death penalty: “It’s not a deterrent one wit. Nobody thinks, ‘I’m not going to kill this person because I might get the death penalty.’ They’re in the throes of something, and they’re not thinking about that. I would much favor going to life without parole, if I were a legislator.”

Lifetime appointments: “Not a good idea. I think they should be accountable to people. I think when you get lifetime appointments, there’s a danger to lose contact with reality, with the public, with being practical. There’s the god complex that sometimes comes in.”

Judges having to run for election vs. being appointed“The appointive system is secretive. It’s not open. Nobody knows about the person being appointed. Nobody has input about the person being appointed. When I ran for office, I gave more than 50 interviews, including media interviews. I filled out hundreds of questionnaires. The public had input and the ability to influence the election. If you can elect your governor, you can elect your judge. Politics is every bit as much in the appointive system; it’s just secret instead of open.”

Mayor’s courts: “I’m mixed on that. I think some of them are abused, and some of them are misused as cash cows. But I think there’s some value to getting rid of the little cases at the local level with a human touch rather than bringing them to the big city.”

Ohio Constitution Rewriting: “I think it’s a good thing to take a look at it and see if there’s some tweaking that is needed. The Constitutional Convention, I think, is a very good idea. What I do fear is the referendum process that hijacks an issue that’s paid for by an outside party that has a lot of money to fund it and get it on the ballot. California is constantly passing a mandate of some sort that has no funding, and that’s part of the reason they’re in crisis. The casino is the perfect example of a business hijacking the constitution for its own selfish gain.”

Her nickname “The Velvet Hammer”: “When I was a trial judge, I was known for being very respectful and polite. Some of these defendants had no dignity left and no family in the courtroom. I tried to treat them as human beings should be treated. I also was known for being a very tough sentencer, especially when it came to white collar crime. You stole for greed, and this person stole because they were desperate and poor. A prosecutor gave me that name fairly early on, and it stuck. It ended up being wonderful for advertising. When I ran for the Supreme Court, my story was easy to tell in 15 seconds: Missionary kid. Velvet Hammer. That’s it.”