Appeals Court Makes History With All-Women Membership
In honor of National Women’s History Month, it’s interesting to note that five Ohio appellate courts have female majorities including the Ohio Supreme Court. But only one has an all-female court: the Ninth District Court of Appeals, which serves Lorain, Medina, Summit and Wayne counties.
Judge Jennifer L. Hensal began her term on the Ninth District on February 9 after defeating two-term Judge Clair E. Dickinson, the only male on the court, in the November election. She joined fellow female colleagues Eve V. Belfance, Donna J. Carr, Carla D. Moore, and Beth Whitmore.
It appears this is the first fully-staffed Ohio appeals court to be ruled only by women.
Presiding Judge Moore talked about the significance of the makeup of the bench.
“While it has been said that justice is blind, it is important in fostering public confidence that those who sit on the bench represent the population we serve,” she said. “Not long ago, it was an anomaly to have a woman judge on the Ninth District Court of Appeals. It is now the order of the day. I hope it serves as inspiration to every young woman law student and lawyer.”
About fifteen years ago Judge Carr was the only woman serving on the court. Even though that has changed dramatically, she said the judges have always worked well together to decide cases and function as a court through the years.
Administrative Judge Belfance also pointed to the historic moment.
“Who would have thought even a generation ago that an entire Ohio court of appeals would consist of all female judges?” she asked. “It was only one generation ago that women were beginning to enter the legal field, opening the doors for women to become jurists.”
That generation included Judge Belfance’s mother, Kathryn A. Belfance, who was the only woman practicing bankruptcy law in Akron at the time and who became the first bankruptcy trustee in the Northern District of Ohio. Law firms wouldn’t hire her, so she shared an office with another woman attorney. Between them they had eight children. Breaking the glass ceiling in the then male-dominated legal arena posed many challenges. Ultimately, Mrs. Belfance convinced her office mate to run for domestic relations judge. That’s how retired Judge Judy Nicely became the first female domestic relations judge in Summit County.
Statistics maintained by the Supreme Court’s Office of Attorney Services show that only around a quarter of Ohio’s nearly 700 judges and about 30 percent of the state’s roughly 44,000 active attorneys are women. As a reference point, Ohio’s population is 51.2 percent female, according to the U.S. Census.
In the 210-year history of the Ohio Supreme Court, only 10 of the 156 justices who have served on the court were women, and 4 of those are on the current bench.