To celebrate Black History Month, each week we will profile a different Cincinnatian whose leadership in the legal community as well as the African American community is exemplary of all that makes this city great and good.
This week I sat down with the Honorable Melba Marsh, the Presiding Judge of the Hamilton County Common Pleas Court, General Division for 2017. While I have enjoyed each of the interviews I have conducted throughout this month, I have to say that Judge Marsh was by far my favorite.
When you pass Judge Marsh in the halls of the Courthouse, she always has a smile, a wave, a “hello!” for every single person she meets and you can’t help but wonder: is there really a person on this earth who is genuinely this nice? The answer is yes. Judge Marsh genuinely is just that amazing of a person. She is passionate about the law, about Hamilton County and about the people she serves, both attorneys and litigants. She spent her entire life in the Hamilton County complex, playing here as a little girl, working summers in high school sorting mail, working for the prosecutor’s office after law school all the way to being the Presiding Judge of the General Division.
It was a pure joy to sit down with Judge Marsh for this interview and I am excited to share it with you.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Tell me a little about yourself. Where are you from, how long have you been in the profession, where did you go to school, that sort of thing.
A: I went to school right here in Cincinnati. I’m a west end girl. My grade school was St. Joseph Catholic School, right down the street on Ezzard Charles & Linn Streets. I’m a graduate of Seton High School and the College of Mt. St. Joe for undergraduate. I went to the University of Cincinnati for my law degree. I started working here in the Hamilton County Courthouse right out of high school and all through college and law school. During high school, I worked during the summers in the Treasurer’s Office for then Hamilton County Treasurer Wayne Wilke, where I opened letters and sorted tax bills and checks. During the summers of my law school years, I worked in the Hamilton County Court Administrator’s Office. My whole life has been spent in the Hamilton County complex. After I graduated from law school, I started working in the Hamilton County Prosecutor’s Office and working there for 11 years. I had the opportunity as an Assistant Hamilton County Prosecutor to work all three different divisions: Juvenile Court, Municipal Court and the Common Pleas General Division. I ran for Hamilton County Municipal Court in 1989 and lucky me, I was elected to the Bench that November.
I have always loved the Hamilton County Courthouse. I admire it for the ‘grand old lady’ that it is – filled with history and secrets. As a kid, I played in this building. St. Joe’s was right down the street. I always wanted to be an attorney. I watched all the shows – I watched Perry Mason - so I knew what to expect. Long before we had security detectors on the doors, you could come freely in and out of this building. As a kid, I played in 2 well known buildings. Both were located either downtown Cincinnati or in the West End – The Hamilton County Courthouse and the Union Terminal. I had an old suitcase and depending on the day and where I was, it doubled either as a “valise” for traveling far-away places or an “attaché case” as I walked in the Courthouse pretending that I had to go to a certain court room. At that time you could walk in and out of any room and I took full advantage of that. I would sit in the back of the courtroom and watch the attorneys and judges. I got to see some of the great lawyers – like Foss Hopkins. It was exciting watching great lawyers and comparing them.
I got to know the people and the workings of the Courthouse and was known as “the kid”. I believe that I know nearly every nook and cranny in this building. Its history has always fascinated me. Walking into these court rooms and being welcomed into these court rooms – that’s all they had to give me. I loved it! I ate it up. When you’re 9 to 11 years old no one sees you really. I was able to slip into the back of any courtroom and just observe. My mother worked in politics. As a result, I met Judges, lawyers and Courthouse officials. My fate was sealed. I wanted to work at the Courthouse. I never thought that one day I would hold the position of Presiding Judge of the Courthouse. I could not have ever dreamt that! I can’t even imagine the 9 year old me even being able to grasp that situation. The privilege of serving as one of the Presiding Judges of the Hamilton County Courthouse has been one of the greatest honors of my life!
Q: Do you let kids come in and watch your trials?
A: I love, love kids! I have an undergraduate degree in education. If I see a child in the audience, I’ll pluck them up and have them sit next to me because I know how important it was for me as a kid to have that recognition. Or I’ll encourage schools to visit the courtroom for mock trials. One of my favorite mock trials was a 3rd Grade class from The Guardian Angels Elementary School in Mt. Washington. I encouraged the class to put the Big Bad Wolf on trial for the charge of burglary and other dastardly crimes against the State. So began the trial of the century - State of Ohio v. Big Bad Wolf. I picked that story because all kids know the story of the Big Bad Wolf.
What was so exceptional about this class was they came to my courtroom in full costumes! The piggies had pig noses - they were wonderful! Little Red Riding Hood and Goldilocks and the Forest Police – all gave testimony. The Big Bad Wolf even took the stand. I had this little red-haired boy in a 3 piece suit with a bow tie playing the role of the prosecutor. The boy began his questioning of the Big Bad Wolf. The Big Bad Wolf is swearing he had a bad cold and he was very nasally. I loved the Big Bad Wolf’s testimony. Very funny. But the surprise was the prosecutor. He questioned Big Bad Wolf like a real professional. He pointed out inconsistencies and was really grilling Big Bad Wolf – all without any notes. And, just when I thought the prosecutor’s performance could not get any better, he finished his cross examination with these words, “I’m through with this…animal” and then he struts back to his seat. I loved it! I cheered “yay!!!!!”. Over time, I forgot about my favorite mock trial of all time when one day I got a letter from the mother of the prosecutor that he is pursuing a career in law and he owed all to his performance in the mock trial of the Big Bad Wolf. He never forgot about that case. Wow, you don’t get those kind of wins often.
Another example of a child surprising me occurred one day as I was presiding in the Hamilton County Municipal Court. If I saw that someone had brought a kid to court, I would invite the child to sit with me saying, “let’s decide some cases together.” One police officer had brought his daughter to Court. I invited her to sit with me. Frankly, she was so quiet I had forgotten about her. A trial defendant was explaining why he was not guilty of a possession case. He said, “I had marijuana in my pants pocket but it wasn’t mine. I had taken my pants to the cleaners and I think they must have put it there.” Before I could respond to this dubious story, suddenly this voice filled the room and my co-Judge yelled “You’re a liar!” The entire courtroom, startled, looked at the little girl. She proclaimed “Look, cleaners do not put marijuana in your clothes. Cleaners clean your clothes. He’s a liar!” And I said “Ok, ok, I hear you. So you’re not buying his story?” She says “No, what are you going to do with this liar?” I said “he’s going to be punished. I’m going to put him on probation and make him work hard” and she says “and find a job” I said “all right, find a job, anything else?” and she says “yeah – dress better”. I love her. One day, I’m sure, I’ll see her serving on a supreme court bench!
Q: When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A: I always wanted to be an attorney. I just always wanted to be an attorney.
Q: What made you decide to pursue a career in the law?
A: When I was a kid I stuttered. I still stutter to this day a bit. I thought it was just the worst thing that God could have given me. Oddly enough, I now can see the blessing in it. So instead of speaking a great deal, I would go to the library and just read and read. Regularly, I would read 3 or 4 books a week. I loved people’s stories. I loved people watching and making up stories about their lives and their situations. I still love hearing people’s stories. As a judge, I have one of the best jobs in the world because I constantly get to ask all people the question, “What happened next?” I think that’s why I like what I do so much.
A turning point in my life occurred when I was junior in high school. I clearly remember the day, the year and place and the time of day. The class had been discussing the Civil War and was given individual group assignments. Our group was unprepared and had not developed the assignment. The teacher asked me about the group’s progress and I made up an assignment – Putting the South on trial for the Civil War. I totally made it up! She liked the idea and the members of the group threw the development of the assignment on my shoulders. In the course of a week, I had talked three of the groups to join in the trial. Before long, the entire class was involved. I took on the role of prosecutor (imagine that). Before long, the class was doing trial prep. I crossed examined a variety of witnesses from General Grant to a freed slave. Finally it came time for the closing arguments. Well I knew Abraham Lincoln’s speech up one end and down the other. I stood up and gave Abraham Lincoln’s speech – “A house divided cannot stand” and expanded on the speech using the class material. When I finished, I was surprised that I hadn’t stuttered! I made it through the whole speech and then just sat down. At which time, 30 of my classmates stood up and clapped. And then….I knew, I knew. I wanted to be a lawyer. I resolved right there and then to work hard and reach for that dream. No turning back. The fact that I accomplished it makes me one of the most blessed and luckiest people ever. I’m living my dreams. How great is that?
Q: Who was (or is) your hero? Who do you look up to, either in the legal profession or in life, as your inspiration?
A: My mom will always be one of my heroes. But my true heroes are lawyers! I’ve always admired persons who have the ability to stand and in a court room weaving and using the facts to make their cases. I’ve always admired really good lawyers.
Q: How do you handle the tough days - the losses, the set-backs, the cases that get under your skin? What keeps you grounded?
A: I try to involve myself in different projects. If I don’t have anything, hopefully someone will call me up to do something. I am the best paper stuffer that there is! Most people don’t call me to stuff paper. I don’t know why. I’m constantly offering my services. I really like helping. I also love swimming.
Q: Can you tell me a little about what it’s like to be a person of color in the legal profession here in Cincinnati? What hurdles have you faced in your career either because of your race or because of some of the history of racial tension in the Cincinnati area?
A: It has certainly changed. I’m glad to see that there are more women and more lawyers of color who are walking into our courtrooms and representing clients and trying cases. What is extraordinary, when I first started practicing at the Courthouse there were only a half dozen black women visually practicing in courtrooms. And, slowly and gratefully, you see more women occupying the courtrooms. But the numbers around diversity still greatly lag.
I’m glad to see the law firm and corporate doors are opening wider to lawyers of color. Those doors were closed to so many of us. But there is still a lot of work to do when it comes to the issue of diversity in the legal world. We need more lawyers of color. We need them as judges, as judicial law clerks, law professors, general counsels, partners in large law firms. Any profession that does business in our society, should reflect the diversity of our community and world. Every legal office should be mindful of minority representation as well.
This past year, the court had 2 judges of color leave our bench. Presently, I’m the only African American period in the General Division. That fact concerns me greatly. If it occurs that there is not a single person of color serving as a judge in the Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas, that would be a major setback to this community. There need to be women and minority representation on every Bench in this county. That’s my fear - in certain areas taking a step back.
Q: Do you feel that there are certain responsibilities or opportunities that come with being a person of color in the legal profession?
A: I am and will always be cheerleader –encouraging people coming into the profession. If I see a new lawyer, I always introduce myself and ask if there’s anything I can do to be of help to them. I like to serve as the role of mentor to people. There might be a situation or facts that they’ve never encountered before, but I’ve seen it. If I’m asked my opinion, I’ll give advice.
I am always especially encouraged when I see someone new walking into our profession. I want them to stay here at the Courthouse. But with more opportunities, people come and go. Whenever someone leaves the trial division, there’s a little bit of sorrow, because they seem to be leaving right when they’re getting the hang of things, when their talent is really showing. That’s good for them, bad for us. If you show yourself to be talented here in the Courthouse, someone out there is going to be looking to say “come and work for us”. The recruitment process is very real. But that leaves a vacuum.
Q: It never occurred to me that recruiting could be a barrier to having more African American judges. That these lawyers are being snatched up by other industries.
A; It’s not unusual for someone to call and ask me for recommendations for African American lawyers for their company. I’m always hopeful that the person gets the position. You wish they could stay here in our system but on the other hand you understand that a door of opportunity is open to them. And all those doors need to be flung open so we can have more and more people coming in. That’s what diversity is all about.
Q: What advice do you have for young people of color who are thinking of going into the law as a profession? What do you wish you had known when you first started out?
A: Come in! Come in to the profession! We must recruit early, when persons are in high school. Come in! There are all these opportunities. That’s why I love and join program like SWEL. SWEL (Summer Work in the Law) is a summer eight week diversity pipeline program leading to the legal profession. SWEL began in 1986 as a pilot program sponsored by the Black Lawyers Association of Cincinnati-Cincinnati Bar Association Round Table. SWEL works primarily with area African American high school and college students who have a serious interest in law. I have had the opportunity to work with many SWEL students over the years. It is such a thrill to introduce someone to this profession. To see it anew with all the extraordinary possibilities of careers through a young person’s eyes
It’s such a great thing when a new lawyer comes into the profession especially lawyers of color. We need more diversity, more thoughts, more perceptions coming into the field of law. There’s nothing better than to see a young person come in and show their talents and their ability to stand in a court room and argue a case. Win or lose, it’s the reputation, your ability to do things, how steadfast are you to your work, how prepared you are. Your peers have the opportunity to see you perform, how well you do. Those are major developments in anybody’s career. And for me to be able to say “I had a front row seat and saw it happen,” that’s a neat thing.
When I see new lawyers come in, I enthusiastically recommend that they try something different, something new: I’m a big cheerleader, even if they lose. If asked, I’ll give advice: This line of examination isn’t working, try another tact. You’re on the losing side of the facts, try something different! The facts may not be on your side but it would be nice to know you didn’t just follow the old tried formula of “A, B, C” - threw an M in there. Trial attorneys try cases to understand their ability. That’s why I liked being a prosecutor. I got to polish my skills and try cases and get experience on the State’s nickel!
Q: As a librarian, I’m an introvert in extrovert’s clothing. When I meet new people, I wish I had a big sign that said “Secretly Shy” so they would know the internal struggle I was experiencing. If you had a similar sign, what would it say?
A: “I’m interested in listening to your story”. One of the best things about my job is I get to say “what happened next?” If you’re interested in people, they’re interested in telling you their story.
Q: Can you tell me a favorite memory or story from your career?
A: Yeah I can! And it belongs to the Law Library!
[editor’s note: in the Law Library we have some beautiful stained glass windows set in marble walls about 20 feet off the floor. Underneath one of the windows toward the north-west end of the main room (next to the State Room and restrooms), there are some black smudges and handprints on the ledge. It is to these marks and prints that Judge Marsh is referring in this tale.
Also of note, the Hamilton County Jail used to be located in the Courthouse, on the 6th floor behind the Law Library and on the 7th floor above.]
The jail was right behind this section of the Law Library and there was a space where you could go from the jail right into the library. Well one day there was a breakout. It was in the late 1960’s. Hamilton County Municipal Court Judge Luebbers – not Jody Luebbers but her dad, Joe Luebbers – was in his office. In those days, Municipal Court was on the 5th floor of the Courthouse, one floor beneath the Law Library. It was April 15th, tax filing deadline, nearly 8 P.M. and Judge Luebbers was finishing his tax return. A story above his office, somehow that stained-glass window was broken. 2 escaping prisoners climbed through the window, onto the ledge, leaving those handprints and smudges, and then they jumped down onto this big card catalog underneath the window. Then out of the library and down the steps to the 5th floor toward freedom.
Judge Luebbers had heard noise upstairs, got suspicious and packed up deciding to leave the building. As he heads toward the elevator, he encounters both men coming down from the library steps. One of the prisoner jumped down the steps, hit Judge Luebbers and the judge goes down. The other prisoner yells “Hey, don’t hit loveable Judge Luebbers! That’s my judge! Now, if it was that miserable judge (Name intentionally left blank) you could have beat his ass all night long.” So they bound Judge Luebbers, hands behind his back and tied his legs together and then connected the ropes together. The friendly prisoner told Judge Luebbers not to take it personally, they just needed to get out. He also told the Judge he was making the bonds loose enough for him to get out when they were gone. They took the Judge’s car keys and his wallet and made good their escape. So Judge Luebbers, all tied up, had to scoot like a caterpillar all the way from the 5th floor, figure out how to hit the elevator button and then scoot his way all the way from the back of the Courthouse to the front. On arrival at the front guard post, he had to bang his head on the guard’s door. The guard kept looking out the window and not seeing anybody and sitting back down. Finally Judge Luebbers was freed.
The next morning the papers read “Daring escape at the Hamilton County Courthouse!” “Criminals take Judge’s car, bind Judge.” They never found the one prisoner who took the car! They did find the other prisoner, the one who had struck the Judge. He stood trial and was convicted. High atop on a ceiling ledge appears several hand and fingerprints standing testament to my story. So by judicial decree, I ordered that those handprints can never be painted over. That’s my favorite story! A few years ago, while standing in the library, pointing to the fingerprints above and for the millionth time recounting this story, an attorney challenged my story. Unbelievable! Suddenly, a voice from behind said, “Judge Marsh is correct about every fact of that story. I was the attorney for the prisoner who was caught and went to trial.” I turn around and there stood, the legendary attorney, Stuart Richards. Wow, my story just got better and longer!