CMLAA Alumni of the Year recipient Judge Benita Y. Pearson ’95 knew she would seek a judgeship even before attending law school. A graduate of Georgetown University, she worked at BP in accounting for seven years before enrolling in law school in her hometown. Her career as an accountant provided a means to allow her to attend law school, and with significant career experience in tow, she came to Cleveland-Marshall clear minded about her ultimate judiciary goal.
During law school, Pearson was an active participant in moot court, in addition to her involvement with the Black Law Students Association. She credits her time with moot court for building her confidence in analyzing and articulating opinions about the law. Pearson took a law clerk position with U.S. District Court Judge and 1950 C|M|LAW alumnus John Michael Manos during her third year in law school at the recommendation of one of her constitutional law professors, and continued to clerk for Manos following graduation. She credits Judge Manos for teaching her skills that would later become staples of her time on the bench ─ discipline, discernment, fairness and humility.
Following her clerkship, Pearson spent time as an associate at Jones Day and McDonald Hopkins before being appointed as an Assistant United States Attorney in 2000, where she prosecuted several high-profile cases including United States v. Emmanuel Onunwo, regarding the prosecution of a mayor accepting bribes, kickbacks, and secret payoffs and United States v. Nate Gray, regarding the prosecution of several city officials for their roles in a contract steering scheme.
She would go on to serve as a U.S. Magistrate Judge in the U.S. District Court, Northern District of Ohio before being nominated for a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio by United States Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and George Voinovich (R-OH). She was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2010 and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, becoming the first African-American woman to hold a seat on a federal court in Ohio, something she considers to be her greatest accomplishment.
Throughout her career, Judge Pearson, a 2017 C|M|LAW Hall of Fame honoree, has stayed active with her law school. She has served as an adjunct professor, teaching a subject of great passion to the longtime vegan – animal law. She has also returned to the law school to give back to the organization that helped shape her legal career – serving as a guest judge at several moot court nights. In 2017, Judge Pearson was invited to speak to incoming C|M|LAW students as the orientation keynote speaker. During that talk, she emphasized the importance of always acting in a professional manner.
“What it means to be a lawyer, it means to be a professional. Always do the right thing, whether it is in public or in private.” she explained to the incoming students.
What does being named CMLAA Alumni of the Year mean to you?
I have long been proud of the esteemed position that Cleveland-Marshall and its alumni hold in the legal community. I am deeply humbled and inspired to be added to the roster of recipients of the Alumni of the Year Award.