Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Justice DeGenaro Departs from the Court

For children, there are things that shape the rest of their lives. For Ohio Supreme Court Justice Mary DeGenaro, it was a book and a film.

“When I read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ and saw Gregory Peck in that iconic role, that’s what locked it up for me,” said Justice DeGenaro, who’s departing from the Court when her term ends on Jan. 1.

Her path to the pinnacle of Ohio’s judiciary also was forged by her love of history, and the deep respect for those in the American Revolution who established the doctrines on which the United States was built – specifically, that everyone is created equal. It’s a principle she fervently follows, especially for anyone accused in a criminal case.

“I felt a connectivity to the founding generation, because they knew what it was like to live in an era where the crown was the judge, jury, and executioner, and they appreciated the importance of those constitutional protections,” said Justice DeGenaro.

The northeast Ohio native – born in Cleveland, raised in Youngstown – began as a law clerk in the U.S. District Court before spending 14 years in private practice. In 2001, she was elected to the Seventh District Court of Appeals in Youngstown. After 17 years of service, she was appointed by Ohio Governor John Kasich as the 159th justice of the state Supreme Court on Jan. 28, 2018.

“How many people can say that they met with the governor of Ohio in the room that Abraham Lincoln learned that he was going to serve our nation? And she was asked, ‘Would you serve on the Ohio Supreme Court?’ That’s like a movie,” said Justice DeGenaro.

She already had a feel for the Court as a fill-in for other justices 10 times during her appellate tenure. But her appreciation for that coveted bench only grew when she handled its duties every day.

“I was able to channel and use all my judging skills [from both the trial and appellate levels],” Justice DeGenaro said. “It’s not until you’re in the job that you understand how much you love it, how much intellectual satisfaction it gives, the sense of public service.”

Mindful that she’s part of the state’s last line of appeals, she recognizes the consequences of the Court’s decisions in all cases, which for her ranged from the death penalty to whether the Cincinnati Reds should be taxed for promotional bobblehead giveaways.

Having worked since 1986 in all three tiers of Ohio’s courts, she’s seen the evolution of the state’s legal system. While progress has been made on numerous fronts, her one concern is the most basic and fundamental for the judiciary, attorneys, and clients – civility.

“It’s okay to have passionate policy debates, but we cannot lose that connection with each other because at the end of the day, I still believe everybody cares about the same things: the state being great, this country being great, their individual world being great,” Justice DeGenaro said.

The sense of a larger purpose – not only as part of her profession but also as an everyday citizen – is why the justice has made it a point throughout her judicial career to connect with people through community organizations.

“We need to serve off the bench as well as on, and getting out in the public shows that we’re real people. We have a role and a job just like everyone else does, but that humanizes us,” she said.

While there have been numerous memories serving the state’s high court, the most significant ones are the relationships she’s forged with the staff at the Thomas J. Moyer Ohio Judicial Center.

“Just that personal connectivity that when everybody’s working toward a common goal, that makes it special,” Justice DeGenaro said.

It’s a connection that she’ll maintain, even when she transitions to her new position as chief legal counsel for state auditor-elect Keith Faber next month. Even though she’s leaving the Court, she’s still open to a return in the future.

“I’m very excited about continuing my public service to the state of Ohio in a different role, and maybe I’ll be back.”