Growing up in Cleveland’s Hough neighborhood and later in East Cleveland, newly elected Ohio Supreme Court Justice Melody Stewart ’88 had big dreams of being a musician. A career in government, or even the law, never crossed her mind during those days and with good reason – it seemed unrealistic to her for an African-American woman to hold a high-ranking office. For an African-American young woman growing up in Cleveland today, that is no longer the case – thanks in large part to role models such as Justice Stewart.
Stewart won election to the Ohio Supreme Court in November, becoming the first African-American woman elected to the Ohio Supreme Court. With this distinction, Justice Stewart’s election has received significant media coverage, as well as recognition from Akron-native LeBron James. Stewart recognizes the significance of her election to future generations.
“Being the sole African American on the court, it is probably important for a lot of students to see, 'that is a job I too can have one day'," Justice Stewart told WOSU Radio.
Justice Stewart also recognizes the importance her election can have in a more immediate manner – on bringing a diverse perspective to the decision of the Court.
“I think the immediate impact is the diversity of background and perspective that I bring to the court and instilling a broader range of confidence in the judiciary from the public’s standpoint,” said Justice Stewart. “I guess time will tell whether my serving on the court will impact the makeup of the court in the future, the way our judicial system operates, and Ohio jurisprudence in general.”
Justice Stewart, who will serve on the seven-justice Court alongside two other C|M|LAW graduates, newly elected Justice Michael Donnelly ’92 and Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor ’80, intends to diminish politics’ role in the court, pushing for transparency and accountability while making the criminal justice process more effective and efficient. She has spent the past 12 years as a judge on the Ohio Eighth District Court of Appeals, where she received high praise as a tough, but insightful and fair jurist who rules based on the law.
“Always judge the case – the facts and the law – before (the court) without being judgmental of the people involved,” said Justice Stewart, speaking about her judicial philosophy. “Not being judgmental is one of many lessons I learned from my mother.”
As a lifelong legal scholar who spent significant time in legal education, it is not surprising that Justice Stewart has this belief. She earned a Bachelor of Music degree in music theory from the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati, but turned to the law after deciding her love of music did not mesh with the business side of the music industry. She attended her hometown law school at Cleveland-Marshall and following graduation, served as an assistant law director for the cities of Cleveland and East Cleveland. Justice Stewart would then return to C|M|LAW, working in a number of capacities as a lecturer, adjunct instructor, assistant dean and full-time faculty member. She also taught at the University of Toledo College of Law and Ursuline College and was director of student services at Case Western Reserve University School of Law. Justice Stewart taught ethics and professional responsibility, criminal law, criminal procedure, and legal research, writing, and advocacy.
Justice Stewart is still heavily involved at Cleveland-Marshall, where she was honored as an inaugural member of the school’s Hall of Fame in 2017 and received an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws from Cleveland State University in 2018. She spoke with several admitted students interested in Cleveland-Marshall during the past year and was a featured speaker during the school’s Orientation week. Justice Stewart is active with the Cleveland-Marshall Law Alumni Association, the school’s Black Law Students Association, is a frequent guest judge during Moot Court nights and has mentored several externs who were Cleveland-Marshall students. Having been a student, professor and administrator at the school, Justice Stewart has a unique understanding of all that C|M|LAW offers.
“I owe my entire law career to Cleveland-Marshall,” said Justice Stewart. “C|M|LAW graduates, myself included, not only learn how to think like a lawyer and how to practice law, but feel connected to fellow alumni, the professors and staff, and indeed the institution itself.”