Before she became a pioneering children's advocate and Ohio Supreme Court justice, Yvette McGee Brown was Franklin County's lead juvenile judge, running her courtroom with passion and presence.
Editor's note: In 1999, Columbus Monthly senior editor Ray Paprocki (now publisher) profiled Franklin County judge and rising political star Yvette McGee Brown, who later became president of the Center for Child and Family Advocacy at Nationwide Children's Hospital and the first African-American woman to serve on the Ohio Supreme Court.
At first, Yvette McGee Brown comes across as a soft touch. She’s in her late 30s and could pass for younger. There’s a quick, buoyant smile, and a quicker laugh—a high-pitched explosion of delight. She also likes to tell a story or three. “I’m a great party guest,” she says, followed by that wonderful laugh.
No grave, gray-haired soul here.
Then enter the judge’s courtroom. It feels like theater—the inherent drama of the cases coupled with McGee Brown’s command of center stage. She brims with presence and passion and doesn’t hesitate to embarrass those before the court (pity the unprepared attorney) or make a flippant remark. To a juvenile at the tipping point of being jailed: "The bus is revving up." McGee Brown also gives a great lecture. She has a preacher's cadence, a hard look, a way to turn a phrase that turns a room dead quiet. Word is, her own mother thinks she sounds mean.
McGee Brown's beat is Franklin County domestic court, or, as some attorneys call it, "the nut house." This is the home of divorces, neglect and abuse cases and juvenile crimes. Juvy crimes have become a hot-button political issue, though the shockingly violent acts have leveled off of late and represent only a small portion of the county's juvenile actions (about 50 bindovers to adult court out of 30,000 cases in 1998). But nothing grabs headlines and a politician's interest faster than teen-agers, guns and innocent victims.
Almost all domestic court cases, even the uncontested divorces, are filled with high emotion and dramatic choices. But that's especially true of juvenile cases, which represent about 75 percent of domestic court's 40,000 filings last year. A judge's decision about a teen can forever change a life. "I can take kids away from their parents; I can send kids to the adult system, order them to a foster home," McGee Brown says.
The juvenile cases can be heartbreaking and perplexing, frustrating and impossible. Some kids' lives are entangled in a sticky web of learning disorders, addictions, mental problems, broken homes, poverty, whacked-out parents and a revolving door of caseworkers. "It takes a very special person to do juvenile," says Columbus City Attorney Janet Jackson, McGee Brown's friend and a former Franklin County Municipal Court judge. "I don't know if I could sit there and handle that caseload."
And, although the cases are assigned by random, it seems as if McGee Brown lands many of the highest-profile juvy cases that occur in Franklin County, such as the single mother of seven children whose 13-day-old child suffocated in a crowded bed and the 8-year-old girl who poisoned her grandmother. Most recently, there was the controversy over Justin Goen, the 17-year-old Worthington boy embroiled in a battle between Franklin County Children Services and his parents about his being sent to a Jamaican youth camp to modify his behavior.
While there are criticisms of McGee Brown—cases take too long, she gets too close to the subjects, she's weaker on the domestic side—her reviews are strongly favorable. She's said to be hard-working, compassionate, smart, committed, fair. "She has the first and foremost characteristic of a juvenile judge: She really cares about those kids," says attorney Ron Solove, a former Franklin County Domestic Relations judge. "That may sound trite, but I've known a lot of juvenile judges, and not all of them feel that way."
Brenda Smith, a supervisor with Franklin County Protective Services, the investigative arm of the court, tells a story: A teen-age girl, whose case had been before McGee Brown, was missing; one morning, the judge strode into Smith's office and told her to grab her coat. "We went looking for her, tooling around the West Side in the judge's car," Smith says. "And we found her. The girl's eyes were as big as pancakes, seeing the judge." About a judge doing fieldwork, Smith says, "It is the first time in my 23 years that's ever happened."
No doubt, Yvette McGee Brown cares; she knows about hard times—lived them as a kid. Her sternness is rooted in compassion.
It's 9 a.m., a Monday morning in December in Courtroom 65 on the sixth floor of the Franklin County Courthouse. A door hinge gives off a low moan as lawyers hustle in and out, checking with the bailiff, who's scrambling to keep schedules flexible, fielding last-second requests and excuses.
From the front of the courtroom, McGee Brown enters with a laugh, responding to a parting comment from a staffer in the doorway. "Good morning," she says as the parties in the room snap to attention. She puts on her game face. The morning docket includes five divorces and eight juvenile or custody cases. Four of the divorces are uncontested, quickies at the bench. The other is nasty, involving custody problems, an allegation about a slap in the face and the husband seeking a protective order.
In a juvenile case, one mom says she can't get her 13-year-old, with 28 unexcused absences, to go to class; "If you can't control a 13-year-old, then God help you when she's 16," McGee Brown says. A bevy of workers from the courts and social service agencies are either present or talked about during the morning session: protective services, the Franklin County prosecutor, CASA, FCCS, Crittenton Family Services, Maryhaven, Children's Hospital, many others. It's a veritable army of professionals constantly battling brush fires, trying to keep messed-up families in some kind of working order.
This morning, McGee Brown's ire is directed at a 15-year-old boy with an attitude and a record. He's here because he screwed up—smoking dope while on probation. She gives him and his divorced parents copies of a Dispatch article about a young man serving 27 years to life in prison. "Read that article," she snaps; "That's your future." She glares at the boy.
McGee Brown could send him to a Department of Youth Services (DYS) institution, a combination jail/school/treatment center. She's upset about his lack of supervision, his school conduct, his grades. His dad works the late shift, leaving him unsupervised, and his mom, who's remarried, is unavailable. Dad says he can't control him at all times, that he can't know everybody he's hanging with. "I tell you what," the judge says. "I know everybody my child is hanging out with."
The probation officer, Eddie Stanley, thinks the teen, whose treatment at Maryhaven has gone well, should get another chance. McGee Brown turns to Stanley. "I don't believe he's very sincere." She's making Stanley work hard on his pitch.
Then to the boy: "You think you bad enough to do 27 years? You think that's cool? Then go out and quit wasting my time."
After a brief recess, she returns, ready to send him to DYS. But Stanley, whom she trusts, persuades her to reconsider. "Mr. Stanley is begging me," she says.
She gives the teen one more chance, but issues a warning: If you slip up, you're locked up in DYS until you're 21. She then issues another warning, to his parents: If you can't control him, "You will be spending your Sundays visiting him in prison."
Yvette McGee Brown was born to a teen-age mom with few prospects and a dad who went AWOL. However, her mother, Sylvia Kendrick, had a strong work ethic, holding down two jobs and piecing together enough classes over 10 years to earn a college degree. "My mother is my mentor; I'm so driven because of her," McGee Brown says. "No matter what I do, it's easy compared to what she went through."
It was early spring, 1973, when 12-year-old Yvette and her two brothers visited a hospital to see their mom, who was suffering from a rare form of polio. She was paralyzed from the neck down, with a trachea tube in her throat and a halo brace squeezing her head. The doctor said her life was in God's hands.
Somehow, someway, Yvette's mom survived, but would need the next two years to recover fully. So Yvette's grandmother closed down her house, quit her job and moved in, taking care of the family. "My grandmother was our lifeline," she says. Grandma, who was born on a sharecropper's farm in Macon, Georgia, dished out life lessons to Yvette. " 'Nobody expects anything out of you, and you have to be twice as good as anybody else.' She pounded that into me. I have never forgotten that."
Yvette had one reunion with her father, which went badly—a bitter memory now 20 years old. "My husband tells me I'm supposed to have forgiveness," she says, "but I think it's [my father's] job to make peace with me. He's the one who left us." On her marriage certificate, where it asks for a father's name, she listed "none."
Classwork came easy for Yvette; at Mifflin High School, she marched in the band, served as a student council representative and delivered her class's commencement speech. And like many teens growing up in the tolerant 1970s, she enjoyed her fun. "Stay out late, drink when we shouldn't have, do things that are not politically popular now," she says with a laugh. She chose Ohio University because, "It was a party school."
She thought about broadcast journalism until a professor told the robustly built McGee Brown she "didn't have the look, meaning I wasn't a size. 5." She earned her degree in public relations, but entered Ohio State's law school to fulfill her interest in politics. She felt alone; of the 225 or so students, only 14 were black. And she was frightened. "A lot of kids were from Ivy League schools, with prominent parents," she says. "It was the first time in my life I felt I couldn't compete." But fear motivated her. "I was so scared of flunking out."
A part-time job with the city attorney, Greg Lashutka, found her in a politically ambitious Republican office: Her boss was Deb Pryce, now a member of the U.S. House, and a fellow part-timer was Bruce Johnson, now an Ohio senator. Out of law school, McGee Brown, a Democrat, landed a position in the state attorney general's office in the Celeste administration. There her mentor was Janet Jackson, who would later become the county's first female African-American judge. McGee Brown got a taste for politics by working on a campaign for Cindy Lazarus, a longtime City Council member who's now a Franklin County Appeals judge.
McGee Brown's career path veered toward prisons and juveniles, as she represented the state's Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, then worked for the Ohio Department of Youth Services. She got very familiar with the back end of the justice system. "It was one thing to see adults in cells," she says, "but it was something else seeing kids in shackles."
In 1992, McGee Brown combined two interests, troubled teens and politics, by running for election to a Domestic Relations and Juvenile Branch judgeship. She was a political rookie and a black Democrat in a county that likes its justice dispensed by Republicans. And she faced an incumbent, Kip Cloud, who'd been appointed to the seat by Gov. George Voinovich; it looked like a slamdunk for Cloud. But McGee Brown called on Janet Jackson for advice and scraped together $67,000, mostly in small contributions, enough to air a few effective TV commercials. She scored a stunning victory.
The 32-year-old Yvette McGee became the youngest judge in Ohio at that time, and the first African-American to sit in the domestic and juvenile division. Not bad for somebody whose first home was a walk-up apartment on the Near East Side. "I have a real strong belief in God, that he has a plan for us. There is no earthly reason for me to be in the place I am," she says. "It's almost eerie; every time I had a chance to go off the path, there was a hand, a hand guiding me."
McGee Brown's courtroom is not always somber. During one case, she is concerned about an attorney making an upcoming court date; the pregnant lawyer looks as if the baby's nearly full term. When the attorney says (truthfully) she isn't due for another six months, the courtroom bursts into laughter. The loudest voice belongs to McGee Brown. "You poor thing," she says, "you are not going to be able to move."
Then it's back to business. There's a complicated family case involving a father with two children who used to live in Mexico with their grandparents and two others with an out-of-state mother who's moved eight times in three years. And then a pouty-faced girl with dark lipstick who has "an anger-management problem," inconsistent school attendance and a mom with a taste for alcohol.
Four days later, the Monday of Christmas week brings a probable cause hearing for two 16-year-old boys charged with committing home invasions. A gun was involved. Under House Bill 1, which went into effect in 1996, juveniles aged 16 or 17 are to be tried as adults if a firearm is used during a violent crime.
Automatic bindovers are controversial. Politicians say the law deters violent crime. Many juvenile judges, including McGee Brown, feel their discretion has been taken away in determining whether a teen is capable of being rehabilitated. All that may change within a year; a state-sponsored commission is expected to make drastic recommendations about juvenile justice this fall.
But it's not likely anyone packed into the courtroom cares much about that particular political debate at the moment. Many family members are here hoping McGee Brown will allow Deeorman L. Saunders Jr. to spend the holidays at home.
Saunders and Ernest Tukes were charged with those home invasions in Blendon Township and Columbus' north side. Both now sit at the defendants' table, wearing handcuffs and tan detention-center jumpsuits.
McGee Brown must decide if the two boys fall under House Bill 1 requirements for being tried as adults. The testimony, coming from two homeowners, is compelling. One man describes the night four people, two teen-age boys and two young women, knocked on his door. A gun was pointed at his head, then aimed at his 19-month-old son. Valuables were stolen, threats made. The other witness, an ex-Marine, describes the same four people approaching his house, but he grabbed the gun, causing the attackers to flee.
The first witness identifies Tukes and Saunders, saying both held a weapon on him. With gun possession established, McGee Brown has no choice under House' Bill 1. Both 16-year-olds are bound over to be tried as adults; if found guilty in Franklin County Common Pleas Court, they could face at least 10 years in prison.
The attorney for Saunders asks McGee Brown to set a bail that would let Saunders visit his family during the holidays. The lawyer talks about his good deeds and clean record—that his football coach and his cousin (a police officer in Cincinnati) are here as character witnesses.
McGee Brown doesn't waver. She sets bond for Saunders and Tukes at $200,000 each, calling the allegations against them "heinous." She adds, "I can't imagine the horrible feeling of having a gun in your face—even worse, a gun pointed at your child."
Saunders and Tukes are transferred immediately to a Franklin County jail; Saunders's family members leave the courtroom grim, some in tears.
McGee Brown sits in her office, squeezing in an interview. It's a busy life. There's her caseload, her community commitments (including heavy lifting as a United Way board member) and her husband and three children. In 1993, she married Tony Brown, a Gahanna High School teacher whose first wife died, and then adopted his two children; two years ago, a son was born to the. couple. "Please write what a wonderful husband I have," she says with a laugh. "Stephanie Hightower [a former City official] once called her husband 'wonderful' in an article, and [my husband] has been pointing that out to me ever since."
McGee Brown's career has been in ascendancy. Fresh off an uncontested election in November for another six-year term, the court's lead juvenile judge is a rising political star. Her name has been mentioned for a federal judgeship, maybe a statewide office. She's interested in both. But not now, she says. There's too much work to do.
lt's a long way from the days when she joined a court of feuding judges—Kay Lias and Ron Solove allied against George Twyford in a lingering battle over control of court employees and administrative matters. Nerves were frayed even more when Twyford pulled off a shrewd political move by nominating McGee Brown in 1993 to replace Lias as administrative judge; Lias and Solove knew a 2-2 deadlock would result in Twyford, the senior jurist, filling the position, so they reluctantly backed McGee Brown to oversee the $14 million budget and office personnel.
Lias recalls McGee Brown "felt strange, having been empowered by one judge and not familiar with the other two. So she made decisions with the court director and that increased tension [because] this court is a small court and everybody likes to know what's going on." Lias adds, "Once everybody was informed of what was going on, the tension decreased." Today, McGee Brown says, "We now talk to each other. We have good relationships."
Consensus is McGee Brown has grown more confident since 1992, stronger in both family law (an early weakness) and juvenile cases. She's criticized for devoting too much attention to juvy matters, though. "A universal complaint is that it takes a long time for things to happen in her courtroom," says Solove, who lost a reelection bid to Susan Brown in 1994. "She spends a lot of time with those kids, more than some of them deserve."
Others question if McGee Brown occasionally loses her objectivity. Recently, for instance, she offered to buy a Christmas tree for a poor, single mother in court on custody issues. The incident raised eyebrows. "Lawyers get uneasy about how involved I get," she says. "I don't worry about my impartiality. I spent $3.91 on that tree, because the guardian [of the woman's children] got the public defender's office to pitch in for a tree, bulbs, lights and a smoke detector, too."
"I'm just not willing to give up," she adds, about the question of spending time on cases. "If there's a possibility of change, I'm going to give it a chance." She cites examples of "last-chance kids" who are staying out of trouble. However, "Sometimes I get disappointed," she says. "I expect more than they do themselves."
McGee Brown talks frankly about the influences on her decision-making, the balancing of personal beliefs, respect for the law and public opinion. "When a TV camera is trained on you in the courtroom, it's intimidating," she says. “I’m not immune to living in the community, reading the paper, watching TV news. You read what's in the paper. Any judge that tells you they don't is lying; the first thing they do is turn to that editorial."
She cringes over bypass hearings for teens seeking abortions. "I hate those hearings," she says. According to Ohio law, a judge must determine if a child who has approached the court is mature enough to get an abortion without parental approval. "This is serious; there ought to be "a parent involved. Some of these kids come in acting as if they are getting a haircut," McGee Brown says. "I don't think the clinics do a good job in preparing them, not from a moral perspective, but about the possible long-term effects: might not be able to have children again, psychological scars. I know women who still cry 20 years later." She adds, "But I say a prayer and put my thoughts aside. But I have not consented to some. They can appeal, and all but one of my appeals has been upheld."
There are so many kinds of cases to worry about, however—ones that keep her up at night, making notes at 5 am. Cases that make her wonder, she says, if life wouldn't be easier as a secretary. Cases forcing her to make irrevocable decisions. Is this teen salvageable? Or a threat? If she's wrong, the damage could be devastating—to the teen or to his next victim. She talks about three such cases:
• Jabakki Granderson, who, at age 15, murdered another teen in 1994. Last December, McGee Brown, with the blessing of the victim's mother, released Granderson from a juvenile facility a year early; she thought he had made a remarkable metamorphosis, from a punk to a remorseful and rehabilitated young man. She thinks Granderson, now on probation, sets an example to other DYS youths—there is a benefit to doing the right things. "I am at risk," she says. "If he commits a crime, I know it will be on the front page."
• Randy Williams, on whether he should be bound over as an adult for a 1997 killing: "A wisp of a kid. Barely 5 feet tall. So stupid. He was out late, acting tough for 14 years old. He fired a gun in the air, killed a kid. Victim's mom came to the hearings holding a photo of her son .... " Her decision, she says, was "the difference between life or death. He'd never survive in adult prison, but there had to be retribution for her son's murder. If he spends seven years in DYS, he has a chance at rehab. In adult, he will return as an animal, because he has to act like one to survive."
She committed Williams to DYS.
"I struggled. I wasn't diminishing [the mother's] loss. I put myself in her shoes. I know it was really painful."
• A 13-year-old girl, who wanted to keep her baby. "I went with my gut, and by the law. The law says that a mother's right is paramount, and can't be taken away unless the mother had validly given up her right and there's proof of abuse or neglect. Neither was the case." The girl had taken steps to give up the baby for adoption, but changed her mind before losing her parental rights. "This got front-page treatment, TV I had tons of angry reaction." But, she says, "I knew I had done the right thing."
Sitting at the bench, McGee Brown isn't happy. A teen-age girl involved in a convoluted custody case has done something stupid: forged a teacher's signature on an attendance sheet. McGee Brown, who called the school to verify the document, is incredulous. "How dare you! How dare you!" The girl turns on the tears; McGee Brown is unmoved.
It's clear to McGee Brown the girl's grandmother, with whom she's living, can't control her. Instead of removing her from the home, however, McGee Brown hits on an unusual solution. She orders her to wear an electronic monitoring device, programmed to alert police if she leaves her house—other than to school or to the courthouse.
"If you respect me, I respect you," McGee Brown says. "But you been dissing me; and I don't stand for that. I'm not your mother." (However, by early January, the girl had ignored McGee Brown's order; she's now living in a foster home.)
Days later, at the end of another morning in the courtroom, McGee Brown prepares to rush off to a meeting. "Depressing day," she says. But she is cheered by one case. It is part of the SMART program, a pilot effort based on the belief that school attendance reduces juvenile crime. "I've never seen a felony case here of a kid who goes to school," McGee Brown says. Five unexcused absences trigger a response to the court, which investigates the family. "Sometimes, it's something simple, like not being able to afford to buy an alarm clock," she says. "Other times, it's more serious issues." The front-end intervention is designed to ward off "kids raising themselves for 10 years" and landing in jail. She hopes to expand the program from the three Columbus schools now involved.
This particular SMART case discovered that the mother of the truant kids was illiterate. Now, mom is in a literacy class and the children are doing well. In the courtroom that morning, the mother shares with McGee Brown a teacher's note praising her son. "Wow. That's incredible," McGee Brown says. "You sure Ricky didn't write this?" She's half-joking. The mother assures her it's authentic.
McGee Brown nods; a small victory. "I'm very, very pleased," she says, flashing that quick smile.
The mother smiles, too.
This story originally appeared in the March 1999 issue of Columbus Monthly.
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