Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Justice’s Harmony Highlights Black History Month Celebration

A year after Ohio Supreme Court Justice Melody Stewart was sworn in as the first African-American woman elected to the state’s high court, she added another historic milestone.

Justice Stewart became the third justice to be the featured speaker for the Court’s annual Black History Month event.

“I was a little surprised that I was asked to do it so soon. It was certainly an honor to do it, and follow all the speakers who have been the keynote for this in the past,” Justice Stewart said.

Joining former Justices Yvette McGee Brown and the late Robert Duncan, Justice Stewart addressed nearly 200 people at the Thomas J. Moyer Ohio Judicial Center, half the crowd was comprised of students from local high schools. On top of educating attendees about her work, she enlightened the crowd about how her professional passion pairs with her personal one. 

“When I author or write an opinion, it can’t just read right, it has to sound right, and that’s very similar to me composing music,” Justice Stewart said.

The program titled, “The Harmony of Music and the Law,” illustrated how certain components in one realm parallel the other. 

“They’re not something you really think they have a lot in common, but she was able to connect them, which was interesting,” said Lilian Ducy, a student at Columbus Metro Early College High School.

As Justice Stewart explained during her presentation, both disciplines allow for creativity, but neither “can be completely willy-nilly,” as each is rooted in structure. When looking at statutes – her example was jaywalking in the Ohio Revised Code – each provision begins the same way with qualifiers that progress and build off each other to list all of the scenarios of a violation.

That composition of law, she described, mirrors how music is produced. Most songs use a motif, which is a simple set of notes that permeate through the song. It’s a method that was utilized in classical works, like Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, and in pop songs, such as Usher’s “Yeah.”

Along with technical similarities in the two practices, there are sociological factors in both.

“Every single person in this room has some set of implicit biases. It’s just who we are,” said Justice Stewart.

Whether it’s conscious or subconscious, everyone has certain influences in their lives that form stereotypes or expectations based upon personal experience and environment, she said. In music it can lead to misnomers by associating genres or styles to certain groups, be it age, race, or gender.

In the law, consequences of implicit bias can be much more detrimental. A judge or juror could allow any number of things – such as appearance or an allegation – influence them into an unjust verdict based upon the facts of a case.

“You need to recognize when it gets to that, so you can stop yourself from making a biased decision,” said Jared Waldman, another Metro Early College High School student.

With a name like Melody, perhaps Justice Stewart was destined to be a lifelong student of the performing arts. Through her experiences, she’s seen music’s developmental and therapeutic impact, not only for practicing the craft, but anyone who simply enjoys it.

“If it instilled in them that they can learn more about music, or play a musical instrument, and still do whatever they want to do in life, then all of this will have been worthwhile,” Justice Stewart said.