After taking the bench earlier this month, Justice Melody Stewart will be ceremonially sworn in to the Ohio Supreme Court on Thursday.
Stewart previously served as a judge on Ohio’s Eighth District Court of Appeals. Other hats she's worn include a professor of law at Cleveland Marshall, a music major at the University of Cincinnati, and a Ph.D. in Case Western Reserve University's Social Sciences school. She says the variety of her background influences her actions behind the bench.
"I consider myself a lifelong learner, so the more you learn about different things, I think the better informed your decisions are," Stewart says.
Stewart takes that circumspect, professorial approach to thinking about the influence she possesses as a judge.
"Every case that's in front of me is the most important case that's in front of me," Stewart says. "Because the decisions we make are going to affect people's lives: impact them directly from that decision, but then impact globally going forward on people in similarly situated situations."
Statistics from the American Bar Association show that as of 2018, only 36 percent of lawyers are women, and only 5 percent are African American. That means those making decisions in the judicial system often don't reflect the demographics of the communities they exist in.
Stewart says that can create a gap.
"There currently is the appearance of impropriety at times, or a lack of confidence, in the judicial system, if it appears that the system doesn't treat certain groups fairly," she says.
Stewart says better representation in the judicial system on every level can be one step towards building that trust.
"It's not necessarily always tied to ethnic background, it's applied to socioeconomic status, it's appled to educational background,it can be applied to a lot of different things," she says. "So I believe in a great deal of diversity in every aspect of our life."
And she recognizes her own role in that. In November, she became the first African-American woman to be elected to the state’s highest court.
"For me, being the sole African American on the court," Stewart says, "it is probably important for a lot of students to see that, 'That is a job I too can have one day.'"