Thankfully, Judith French ’88 had found the hand crank on the side of the lectern the last time she argued before the Supreme Court of the United States. She knew just how many turns were required to lower the lectern to fit her 5-foot frame so she could argue her case confidently. The only thing she needed to do was to keep her nerves from overwhelming her as she stood there that February morning, waiting for Chief Justice William Rehnquist to acknowledge her. At stake was the future of not only the school voucher program in Cleveland but questions about the separation of church and state.
“In law school, when I gave moot court arguments, my leg would shake when I got nervous,” the alumna of The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law recalled. “You can’t let that happen there. So I had practiced at home with my daughter, who was 11 at the time. She would call the case and make me wait and wait.”
The newest justice to the Ohio Supreme Court said those kinds of experiences have encouraged her to be nice from the bench to lawyers before her. There are moments when any lawyer can find herself struggling or overcoming a case of nerves with an important task at hand. “I don’t ever want to be that justice who belittles an attorney, who makes them feel like they don’t know the answer,” French said. “In those moments where I know the lawyer really needs a drink of water or doesn’t know how to answer a certain question, I try to show kindness or even throw a lifeline, referencing a point made in a brief perhaps.”
French was appointed Dec. 20 by Ohio Gov. John R. Kasich to fill the vacancy left by Ohio Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton ’79, who retired at the end of 2012. French will serve the remainder of Stratton’s term and run for the office in 2014.
“It was important that we picked somebody who in many ways would kind of be in the same mold as Judge Stratton, who’s done a fantastic job over there,” Kasich told Court News Ohio. “She’s going to be a great judge and a great addition, and I also think she’ll be a strong candidate when the time comes for her to run. She’s got a lot of fire in her, and I’m just very excited to do this.”
French most recently served on the 10th District Court of Appeals, an eight-member court with jurisdiction over civil, criminal, and administrative appeals. She was appointed to that post by then-Ohio Gov. Bob Taft in 2004 and won election to six-year terms in 2004 and 2010. Prior to that, French was the chief counsel to both Taft and former Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery. It was Montgomery who picked French as the attorney to defend the state in the Cleveland school voucher case, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, in 2002.
“I am so grateful to Betty Montgomery for that experience because she had the confidence in me that I was the right person for the job,” French said. “I learned standing there, at the lectern, that I was the right person. I was a single mom. My daughter was in public school. I had been in public schools my whole life. I really felt like I was the right person, no matter the pressure – and there was a lot of pressure from the outside. That’s a really important lesson for a young lawyer to learn.”
That day, French said, it seemed as if everything was going their way. Even the weather in Washington, D.C. that February morning was beautiful, she said. In the end, the court ruled in a 5-4 decision that the program was not unconstitutional.
French’s career did not start in the public sector, though. After graduating cum laude from Ohio State with a J.D. and a master’s degree in history in 1988, she went to work for Porter, Wright, Morris & Arthur LLP. For four years, she focused on environmental permitting, compliance, and enforcement issues before moving on to become corporate counsel of Steelcase Inc.
In 1993, French made the move to the public sector, becoming deputy director for legal affairs at the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. She advised the director and senior management on issues of state and federal environmental law and managed 25 attorneys.
“I always had an interest in government. The Constitution is something that I always have loved to study. So for me, there was sort of a natural progression from being an environmental lawyer to working for a state agency involved in environmental law,” French said. “I am a huge cheerleader for working in the public sector. It’s a wonderful training ground. You get a broad base of experience from talented professionals who could work anywhere they want but choose to work in public service. There also is that layer of public policy that you don’t always get in the private sector.”
French spent her holidays becoming familiar with the cases to be heard the first week of arguments in the new year. She is one of three new justices whose first day on the Ohio Supreme Court bench arrived in January. “Clearly there’s going to be a transition period,” she said, “not only for the three new justices to learn the process but to form collegiality among the group. Then, we’ll have the challenges of producing clear, consistent decisions.”
Soon after the appointment was made, French received a lovely note from one of her most influential professors at Moritz, Lawrence Herman.Because she was earning two degrees, French spent four years at the College, and Herman was her moot court advisor for two of those years.
“To this day, he is one of the toughest questioners I’ve been in front of in a court panel,” she said. “He was a great advisor because he could make you feel confident but guide you with a soft hand toward a different way of thinking about a case. That is really a gift.”
French has maintained ties to the College as a member its National Council. She also serves on the Ohio Constitutional Modernization Commission and the board of Amethyst Inc., a center for long-term addiction treatment with safe housing for women and their children.
She lives in Central Ohio with her husband, Ed Skeens, a magistrate for the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas, and their children Julia, a senior majoring in criminology at Ohio State, and Joseph, a student at Grandview Heights High School.Tags: Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, Judith French, Lawrence Herman