Holding Court: The Fearless Yvette McGee Brown on the Courtroom, Family and Looking Ahead

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly
Yvette McGee Brown at Jones Day

She walks into the classroom, tosses her bag unceremoniously to the floor, claps to get the kids' attention and, with a wide sweep of her hand and the flair of a woman who can command any room, says: "Ladies and gentleman, my name is Yvette McGee Brown. How many of you think education is important?"

And after the hands of 23 students-all of the third, fourth and fifth graders at Mansion Day School, an East Side preparatory academy for African-American children-shoot into the air, she tells them that she thinks it is, too.

"When I was your age, I didn't even know what to dream, but I looked around my neighborhood, and I knew there had to be something more," McGee Brown says. "And I wanted it."

And then she tells them about how she was born to a teenage single mom living in poverty on Mount Vernon Avenue. How she never knew her father growing up. How she was a chubby-she calls it "thick," in air quotes-child with too-big glasses and too-little self-esteem, a shy kid who spent her time curled up with a book. How she ran for class president at Mifflin High School and lost. How she played clarinet in the band but wasn't always first chair. How she worked on the high-school newspaper but never made editor.

"If you asked anybody back then what my prospects were," she says, "they would have said, 'Well, zero.' "

But then, a teacher named Mrs. Turner got a hold of her. On Saturdays, she invited McGee Brown (just Yvette McGee back then) and other students to her home, where they ate hot dogs and potato chips and caught up on extra chemistry studies in the backyard under the sparkling springtime sun.

Later, a guidance counselor approached McGee Brown when she was getting fresh with a boy against the school locker. The counselor broke it up and told the teenage girl she was too smart to mess around and not go to college.

And, as McGee Brown tells the Mansion Day School students, "I could have told her to get on up outta my face. Or I could listen. I chose to listen."

Her grandmother, Eunice Banks-an uneducated but wise woman born in 1906 to sharecropping parents in the deep South, a woman with a keen eye and a sharp tongue meant not to hurt her granddaughter but to instead slice off her rough edges-never let go.

Before you know it, McGee Brown was giving her high-school commencement speech. And then, she became the first person in her family to go to college (Ohio University, a 1982 journalism degree) before earning a full-ride scholarship to Ohio State University's law school. She became the first black woman elected to the Franklin County Common Pleas Court (Domestic and Juvenile Division, 1992 to 2002) and, in 2010, became the first African-American woman to serve on the Ohio Supreme Court, the first person of color of either sex to serve there in more than 40 years.

In between, she helped found the Center for Child and Family Advocacy at Nationwide Children's Hospital (now The Center for Family Safety and Healing), and led it for eight years. And she ran (unsuccessfully) on former Gov. Ted Strickland's Democratic ticket for lieutenant governor in 2010.

These days, she's 54 and a partner in charge of diversity, inclusion and advancement for the global law firm Jones Day. (She was most recently in the news as the defense attorney for her friend and former Columbus Public Schools Superintendent Gene Harris, who was convicted in January of a misdemeanor dereliction of duty charge related to the district's data-rigging scandal.)

Oh, and she married Independence High School teacher and coach Tony Brown 22 years ago this June and together they raised three talented, successful and beautiful children.


The secret to all of those successes?

"I had teachers who cared about me. I had teachers who told me I could be anything I wanted to be. Teachers who told me I could go to college and teachers who told me I could be somebody someday," she told the students. "All that matters is that you have big dreams and that you are willing to work harder than everyone else to get them."

By her senior year in high school, McGee Brown had unlocked her confidence, and her leadership skills had taken hold. Once her chutzpah had developed, there was no turning back.

Take, for instance, how she came to know the late Federal Judge Robert M. Duncan who, in 1977, ordered the desegregation of Columbus Public Schools and oversaw the transformation.

McGee Brown's senior government class focused on his decision. And she had some things she wanted to know.

"So, being 17 and not understanding the power of a federal judge, I called him up," she says. "He agreed to meet with me."

She recalls she had never before been around a distinguished black man. She was starstuck, yes, but more awed by his humble nature. Why would he, such an important man, care what some poor high school girl had to say? But he did.

And, as McGee Brown came to know him and lean on him for counsel and advice, the powerful advocacy for children that has been the hallmark of every phase of her career grew from a seed to a mighty oak.

He was the kind of jurist-and, more importantly, human being-she wanted to be. Thinking of him today still makes her smile, and her eyes well with tears.

"He was a wonderful friend and mentor-the father I never had," she says. She served as the mistress of ceremonies for his public memorial in 2012 and hit every right note about the man who she cherished so much.

How that relationship began underscores everything that led McGee Brown to become such a respected trailblazer, says Deborah Lindsay, a longtime friend and former anchor at WSYX Channel 6 (she was Deborah Countiss back then).

"I can just see her striding in to see a federal judge and telling him what she thought, just like it was the most normal thing for any teenager in the world to do," Lindsay says. "Yvette is just so inherently comfortable in her own skin. She so fully inhabits everything, and is so authentic-it definitely is 'what you see is what you get' with her-that there's no arrogance. People respond to that."

After law school, McGee Brown worked as a lawyer for both the juvenile and adult state prisons departments. Janet Jackson, a former Franklin County Common Pleas court judge and Columbus city attorney who now heads the Central Ohio United Way, was part of the team that recruited her in 1984.

The women shared similar backgrounds, and Jackson immediately recognized some of herself in the young lawyer who came to her interview ready to play. For Jackson, one moment stands out.

When Jackson first became a lawyer, it remained a boys' game. The female lawyers even dressed like the men, nothing but black and gray suits, flat black shoes, the occasional string tie.

But on McGee Brown's interview day, Jackson wore a bold, purple suit and tri-colored heels. The outfit made a statement, and McGee Brown commented that she couldn't wait to wear one like it. Not because she coveted the clothes, of course, but because she embraced the message they sent.

"I thought, 'Whoa, now. You've got to earn that right,' " Jackson says. "But Yvette was already so self-assured. I had never seen anyone with such great potential. I knew she was going to make such a difference in the world. And she has done more than I ever even imagined."

McGee Brown's rise to the bench was quick. The Democratic Party came calling in 1991. There was an election coming up, and the party wanted her to run for the open juvenile/domestic seat in the Franklin County Common Pleas Court.

"I feel like the party saw this dynamic, young African-American woman lawyer who they thought looked good for them but had absolutely no chance of winning," says Cindy Lazarus, another of McGee Brown's longtime friends and mentors. "But, man, did she show them."

McGee Brown not only won the election, but she quickly became the court's administrative judge, a position of both stature and power.

Lazarus, a trailblazer in her own right as a former Columbus City Councilwoman (only the second woman in its history to be its president), a former Franklin County Court of Appeals judge and former CEO of the Columbus YWCA, saw McGee Brown as a game-changer.

"The campaign trail is not a terribly forgiving environment. And none of us had a playbook back then," Lazarus says. "The campaigns were like boot camp. You came out a very different person than who you were when you went in."

But not McGee Brown. She held true. And after she became a judge, she put her stamp on justice right away.

She was tough. She regularly tangled with Children Services-"I was the stick in their eyes," she says "because, if the state is going to take over parenting of a child, then the state damn well better do it right."-and brooked no histrionics in court and offered little situational sympathy. Given what was known about her background, people whispered in the backrooms early on that she would dispense justice with hugs rather than punches.

That was not to be.

"Being poor is no excuse for committing crimes and hurting others. One not always need lead to the other. No one gets out of childhood unscarred," she says. "That's where I lost patience in the court, and it came out on the bench. I wanted to find that internal thing, that switch, in every child. I wanted to find that one thing that would make people think 'I am not accepting this life.' "

McGee Brown never walked any path alone. Her mother, Sylvia Kendrick, 73, and her beloved late grandmother held her up whenever it looked as if she might stumble.

"I have a grateful spirit" she says. "I am where I am because people gave me a hand."

Then she met Tony Brown, her opposite in nearly every way. Where she is boisterous, he is quiet. She wears power suits, he wears cardigans. He's a coach; she cannot make a basket at their driveway hoop to save her soul. They are an it-takes-two-to-tango kind of couple. And their beginning makes for a great story.

A trustee at Faith Ministries, he was sitting next to McGee Brown's mother one Sunday at church in 1992. She arrived late, as usual, and scooted past him to take a seat.

"Before she sat down I just felt … " he pauses for effect. He shakes his head, looks to the heavens. "It was just life, you know. Whoooooooo, yes. Life."

Before they left church that day, he asked for her phone number. And at 8 o'clock that night, he called and came to her condo, pretending he wanted some campaign signs. He told her God had spoken to him about the two of them. Did she hear it, too?

Nope, she told him. God hadn't said a word.

He persisted. Their courtship lasted through her successful campaign; she took the bench in January 1993 and they married that June.

Nothing came easily. Tony was a widower, with daughters ages 14 and 6 at home.

"They had memories I didn't share. I felt left out," McGee Brown recalls. But Tony would call family meetings in the basement-she credits him with saving it all many times-and he told his two daughters more than once: "She's here to stay and you're not going anywhere so y'all better make this work."

She eventually adopted both girls. Belinda Stockton is 36 and lives in Virginia with her husband, Marcus. They have given the Browns their only two grandchildren so far, Joshua, 4, and 19-month-old Sophia, who are doted on by their grandparents without relent. Daughter Laura Waters-Brown is 28 and works for the Cleveland Browns. The girls call her mom. And the son they had together, David, turned 18 in March. They are a family in every sense of the word.

"Tony was so strong in his belief that we were going to alright," McGee Brown says. "It just couldn't have been any other way."

And it was in the Brown family kitchen that another transformation took hold.

There was already change underfoot. Tony was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2001. And McGee Brown was growing increasingly troubled by the ugliness that comes inside a juvenile court. The horror of those cases was seeping into her home; she wasn't leaving it at the courthouse anymore.

Then came this: Laura was a teenager and wanted to go to a party. Her mother said no. The family was discussing it, and she and Tony still tell the story the same way. Even after all of these years, you can still see a touch of pain on their faces as they do.

Laura pleaded. Her mother pressed. Who would be there? How well did she know them? She'd already said no, and she wasn't going to change her mind.

The begging continued. Yvette snapped. She yelled at her daughter that awful things can happen: "I had a teenager gang raped on a pool table today …"

Everyone froze. Tony turned to his wife. "I said, 'You need to get some perspective.' "

Not long after that, McGee Brown was having coffee with Abigail Wexner and she floated the idea of doing something more. Turned out, Wexner had something in mind.

Together, with the help and ideas and impetus of so many others, the Center for Child and Family Advocacy at Nationwide Children's Hospital was born. It became a national model on how to break the cycle of family violence and fade the scars of trauma.

As McGee Brown inched closer to deciding to lead the center, her husband asked her if she could handle not being called judge. The question gave her pause.

But she had promised herself that she would never be a judge who phoned it in. The work is too important. The lives matter too much.

She now sees the center as her legacy, and says her work there was centered on a favorite parable from the Bible.

"As a judge, I had been dedicated to plucking drowning children from the river," she says. "But with the center, I decided to go upstream and see who was throwing them in."

McGee Brown likes a challenge. The center was thriving, and it was time for her to move on. Politics returned in the form of a chance to be Strickland's running mate on the gubernatorial ticket. But they lost in November 2010.

McGee Brown says the grueling campaign taught her that she doesn't do well scripted. "Some campaign aide the same age as my daughter told me to stop using the words 'birth control' and to use 'contraception' instead, because it polls better. It's all ridiculous. The parties don't want candidates, they want caricatures."

Less than a week after the election, the members of the Legislative Black Caucus were pushing for McGee Brown's appointment to the Ohio Supreme Court. Strickland appointed her to a vacancy that December.

"It was such important, thoughtful work," McGee Brown says of her time on the court. "I never really lost the awe of that achievement. I was so honored to play a part in history."

Then came her second political defeat, losing to now Justice Sharon L. Kennedy in what court observers called a stunning upset.

Lindsay says, though, where others would have seen failure, her friend saw only opportunity.

"Of course there was disappointment. But I feel like I would have needed a moment to grieve. She did not," Lindsay says. "Once Yvette has conquered a mountain, she isn't really ever interested in conquering it again. She immediately just asked: What's next?"

And that's how she landed at Jones Day.

These days, she and Tony are preparing for life as empty-nesters. They're taking couples' Pilates and looking for a salsa dance class. David will leave for the prestigious Claremont McKenna College in southern California this fall.

David says he'll study politics, philosophy and economics and then go to law school. He credits his mother for his ambition and drive.

"She expects a certain level of excellence, and she doesn't tolerate being terrible," David says of his mom. "I have been able to outwork and outsmart a lot of people because of my mother."

Both of his parents always treated all three kids as adults, he says. Their opinions always mattered.

And, speaking of his sisters, ask him about them and he launches into a recitation on birth order and the Myers Briggs personality test. He mentions that his two sisters don't believe he got punished enough, that their parents were too easy on him. He disagrees: "It's just that I never did anything wrong."

As he says these things, his mother pierces the evening with her laugh. Have we mentioned her signature laugh? It is loud, long and almost only-dog-hearing high-pitched. It erupts quickly and often. It is pure, unfiltered delight.

Tony also laughs at his son's descriptions, so hard that he doubles over on the couch. It is clear theirs is a happy home, one filled with order and respect and love and joy.

And back at that classroom at Mansion Day School, McGee Brown brags on her own children. She talks about how they're all smart and successful. But she also talks about the kids who came before her in juvenile court, the ones she still wishes she could have saved.

And she tells these students that it comes down not to circumstance but to choice.

She tells them life is shaped like a pyramid. The bottom is wide, and everyone begins there. Those who stay there are the good-time folks, having fun without care. At first. But eventually, you have to decide whether you are going to climb.

She is testifying now. Her voice is rising and her arms are outstretched in emphasis.

"The higher up toward the point that you go, the less room there is to bring others along with you," she tells the kids. "So choose wisely. Do your friends want the same goals as you? Are they focused on the same things you are? You have to decide. Because not everyone can make it all the way up."

She pauses, gives them time to process. They stare, their little mouths agape.

Her eyes crinkle with delight. She claps her hands together once and lets loose a laugh.

"We cool?" she asks them. "I'll see you at the finish line."

And, as they file out of the room, each and every one knows that at least one person believes in them, and her name is Yvette McGee Brown.

A Grandmother's Wisdom

Yvette McGee Brown was 12 when she found out who her father was. And that he had never wanted anything to do with her at all. That same year, her mother fell gravely ill. So her grandmother, Eunice Banks, always a force to already be reckoned and the steadfast pillar of stability in young Yvette's life, moved into the family's home.

Mrs. Banks was a hard worker, serving in restaurants, taking in other people's laundry for extra money, doing whatever she had to keep the family afloat. And she tolerated no mischief.

She would sit in her oversized easy chair, crocheting and watching game shows on the television, always keeping a sly eye on her granddaughter's every move.

She dispensed advice the way other people use a dash of red pepper: sparingly-but it always provided a kick.

When McGee Brown was studying journalism at Ohio University, she planned to move to Washington D.C. and work on Capitol Hill. She had explored law school, and Ohio State wanted her. She was unsure about it, and she told her grandmother so. Three more years of school? She would be 25 by then-25! "I thought that was just forever and forever," she recalls.

Her grandmother let her vent. Finally, after letting enough time pass that the protracted silence would add weight to her single sentence, Mrs. Banks told her granddaughter without looking up from her crocheting, "Well, if you're going to live to be 25 anyway, why not be 25 and be a lawyer?"

It seemed so simple.

"From the beginning, I never wanted to disrespect my family or shame my grandmother's name. That has always been my motivation," McGee Brown says. The tears come easily as she remembers her grandmother, who died on Christmas Day in in 1985, a month after watching with pride as McGee Brown was sworn into the bar and became a lawyer.

Today, when McGee Brown gives speeches-she is a powerful, sought-after orator-she offers Mrs. Banks' wisdom and advice frequently. Some examples:

•It doesn't matter where you start. It matters where you finish.

•Your zip code does not determine your destination.

•Who told you life was fair? Next time, work harder.

•You go to school every day, and you learn everything them people have to teach you because once they've taught it to you, they can never take it away.

•Stupid lasts forever.