Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Supreme Court Guiding Next Wave of Women Leaders

Leaders come from all backgrounds, and the Supreme Court of Ohio is sharing that inspirational message with female college students as part of a women’s leadership program.

Four of the Supreme Court’s highest-ranking officials – Justices Melody Stewart and Jennifer Brunner, interim administrative director Stephanie Hess, and Clerk of Court Sandra Grosko – spoke with participants of the Leadership Summer Institute. The five-day program through Ohio State University’s John Glenn College of Public Affairs gives students an up-close look at how government impacts communities and creates a clearer picture what it takes to be a public official. Throughout the week, participants meet with women in various branches of government and receive guidance on how to reach educational and career goals.

“Leadership really entails individuals going outside of their comfort zone, to stand in the gaps [for those who may be overlooked] and build bridges for individuals who need resources to be able to achieve the American dream,” said Tina Pierce, the program’s manager.

Of the 25 students taking part, several expressed an interest in becoming a lawyer. Baffoa Essilfie is one of them. The Columbus resident is originally from Ghana in west Africa where her aunt was a judge, her great-grandfather was part of the first government of neighboring Togo, and other relatives helped build schools and political parties.

“My family has always imprinted on me what it means for true equity and helping others around you,” Essilfie said.

The political science major has a passion for the law and strong ties to both her current and native home. She wants to study law with the idea of using that knowledge to serve locally and internationally the same way Justice Brunner has done. On top of handling cases of great public interest in Ohio for the Supreme Court, Justice Brunner has worked with U.S. Department of State to help governments in Serbia, Egypt, and Sri Lanka.

“When you go around the world and see how people don’t have the rights we’re used to in this country, you quickly realize the value in the rule of law,” Justice Brunner said.

The opportunity to speak with the justices and Court decisionmakers gives Essilfie and her peers aspirational examples of women who worked their way into leadership positions despite the percentages being against them. Even though women make up 51% of the state’s population, females account for only 35% of judges and just 30% of state legislators. To date, only five women have either been secretary of state, lieutenant governor, or governor. Justice Brunner remains the only female secretary of state, and Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor was one of only four lieutenant governors.

Together, the two justices show that trends can change to be more inclusive for women. Both are part of a female majority for the Supreme Court, which has been the case for most of the past two decades.

The leadership event highlighted the varied paths to the Supreme Court, with some justices moving from an appellate court and others coming directly from a trial court. Of the Court’s current bench, three members – Justices Brunner, Sharon Kennedy, and Melody Stewart – pivoted to the legal profession after starting other careers.

"Right now, as ahead of the game as you are, you still don't even know what you don't know. And there are doors that will open to you that aren't even there yet,” said Justice Stewart, who earned an undergraduate degree in music and started her career in health care management.

For Essilfie, the wisdom and advice she received from women with lived experience makes her pursuits more attainable. The differences in who those women are, what they do, and how they reached their pinnacles shows how anyone from anywhere can rise to leadership positions.

“[The four women] opened my eyes to the variety of work you can do as a lawyer,” Essilfie said. “That greater understanding of what is possible gives us a clearer picture of how to chase our dreams and help others to do the same.”