Honoring Three Judicial Trailblazers: Judge Olive Holmes, Judge William McClain and Justice Florence Ellinwood Allen

In 2019 the Law Library underwent a massive renovation that included the construction of three new conference rooms. When the construction dust settled and subscribers started asking to reserve the new rooms, we realized we had no idea what to call them. Other conference rooms in the library were named after judges and attorneys who were important to the history of the Hamilton County Law Library, like Rufus King, who single-handedly funded the rebuilding of the library after our collection was destroyed in the Courthouse Riots of 1884.

We began brainstorming options for our new rooms that included legal terms, geographic names and philosophical concepts, but none of them felt right. We had a desire to use these new rooms to pay homage to the women and men of Hamilton County and Ohio who had paved the way for future generations to be active participants in the legal discussion.

The term “trailblazer” gets thrown around a lot, but the three judges for whom our new conference rooms are named deserve the title in every sense of the word. Their combined list of “firsts” is impressive by any standard, but especially when considering the climate in which they achieved them.

The Honorable William McClain became the first African American member of the Cincinnati Bar Association in 1951 after being denied membership twice. He went on to become the first African American judge in Hamilton County in 1975.

Justice Florence Ellinwood Allen became the first woman in the nation elected to a court of last resort – the Supreme Court of Ohio – in 1923, just 3 short years after the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

The Honorable Olive Holmes was the first woman judge for both Hamilton County Municipal (1967) and Common Pleas (Juvenile 1968-1979) Courts at a time when “women’s lib” was still a fledgling movement in many parts of the country.

We are proud and honored to memorialize the legacies of these legal titans and to solidify their place in the history of the Law Library for generations to come.

Read more about each judge below.

Judge Olive Holmes
Hamilton County Municipal Court 1967-1968
Hamilton County Common Pleas (Juvenile) 1968-1979

Excerpt from There Goes the Judge Cincinnati Magazine, 1972:

[S]he made up her mind to be a lawyer when her eighth-grade counselor told her that girls as well as boys could be one…After graduating from high school, she started to work toward her goal. That decision led her to a number of “firsts” for the girl from Easton, Pa., who came to Cincinnati to work under Judge Charles Hoffman, a pioneer in the juvenile field. She eventually became the first woman instructor in the 74 years of Salmon P. Chase College of Law, the first woman judge in Hamilton County [Municipal and Common Pleas], the first woman on the juvenile bench in Hamilton County, and the only woman on the Supreme Court Committee on the new rules of Juvenile Court Procedure.

She is known for her firmness, but she also has empathy for those appearing before her. “Not ‘sympathy’ or ‘identity’” she said with snapping eyes as she leaned forward to emphasize her point. “When you can hear grief, feel it, and put yourself in the place of the other individual, that’s empathy…It’s the duty of the Court to protect the public and in order to do that, we must know why the defendant has violated the law before we can decide what to do about the offense he has committed.”

Judge William McClain
Jan. 11, 1913 – Feb 4, 2014
Hamilton County Common Pleas 1975-1976

Excerpt from Services Set for Former Judge McClain

McClain had many firsts in his legal career: First black in the United States to hold the post of city solicitor; first black Hamilton County Common Pleas Court judge in 1975; first black member of any major Cincinnati law firm; and the first black member of the Cincinnati Bar Association, years after it initially rejected his membership.

McClain graduated from Wittenberg University in 1934 and earned his law degree from the University of Michigan in 1937. In 1934, while unable to stay in the same hotel as the white participants, McClain won a national collegiate oratory competition. The lone black participant, McClain’s speech espoused racial harmony and social justice.

Florence Ellinwood Allen
March 23, 1884 - Sept. 12, 1966

Senior Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
October 5, 1959 – September 12, 1966
Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
September 18, 1958 – October 5, 1959
Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
March 21, 1934 – October 5, 1959
90th Justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio
Jan. 1, 1923 to March 23, 1934

Excerpt from her bio from the Supreme Court of Ohio:

She was the first woman assistant county prosecutor in the United States and the first woman elected to a judicial office in Ohio. Later, she became the first woman in the nation to be elected to a court of the last resort – the Supreme Court of Ohio – and the first woman appointed to a federal appeals court judgeship.

In 1923, Justice Allen wrote the majority opinion of Ohio Automatic Sprinkler Co. v. Fender , an important decision regarding the right of an employee to sue his employer for injuries sustained by dangerous machinery. Citing many similar cases from other states’ supreme courts and federal courts, she wrote, “It is in fact the general rule in jurisdictions of authority in the United States that statutes of this kind, prescribing a general course of conduct for employers…are and have been for a considerable period of time, enforced; in other words they are enforceable and do constitute lawful requirements in the ordinary meaning of the words.” In a 4-3 opinion, the Supreme Court overruled its three previous decisions and ruled that statutes requiring employers to guard dangerous machinery were specific injunctions and enforceable. They also held that when employees are injured by a machine, they can sue their employer.

On Nov. 6, 1928, Justice Allen was re-elected to another six-year term. She contemplated seeking a third term on the Supreme Court, but events intervened. President Franklin D. Roosevelt nominated Allen for the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. The U.S. Senate unanimously approved her nomination on March 23, 1934. She resigned from the Supreme Court on that day and began her duties on April 9, 1934. She was the first woman appointed and confirmed to a federal appeals court judgeship.

Shepherd, E. (1972, December). There Goes the Judge. Cincinnati Magazine, 6(3), 11-15. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=CusCAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA11&lpg=PA11&dq=Judge+Olive+Holmes+CIncinnati&source=bl&ots=wtMnBKU2NL&sig=ACfU3U0KHsrAklE4bW1PfKpKdls8IP_DwQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwirtomYlvvkAhWJct8KHbfzCpoQ6AEwDHoECAgQAQ#v=onepage&q=Judge%20Olive%20Holmes%20CIncinnati&f=false

Services set for former Judge McClain. (2014, February 10). Retrieved March 10, 2021, from http://www.courtnewsohio.gov/bench/2014/mcclainObit_021014.asp#.YEkVrGhKiUk

Florence Ellinwood Allen. (n.d.). Retrieved March 09, 2021, from https://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/SCO/formerjustices/bios/allen.asp