“It’s a madhouse,” Judge Nancy R. McDonnell exclaims, throwing both hands in the air as she describes election season.
On the 16th floor of Cleveland’s Justice Building — behind the courtroom — McDonnell sits comfortably behind her monogramed oak desk immersed in a stack of documents. With Nov. 4 only weeks away, the energy of previous elections fills both the thoughts and office of Judge McDonnell. Overlooking Lake Erie, McDonnell’s spacious office is a clear indicator of both success and experience.
Although running unopposed in the Nov. 4 election, McDonnell, 55, is no stranger to the sheer insanity of a campaign. After winning her first election in 1996, McDonnell quickly became accustomed to the challenges that follow a career in politics. “What have I gotten myself into?” is a question that has frequently crossed her mind, she said in an interview.
With almost 18 years of experience as a judge, she says she is at the top of her game and ready for another term. At the beginning of next year, McDonnell, a Democrat, will once again take a seat as a judge of the Cuyahoga Court of Common Pleas.
A graduate of Regina High School, McDonnell attended the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. and was in the class of 1982. Right after graduation, McDonnell was accepted into the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. Upon completing her law degree, she joined the Cleveland Bar Association in 1985.
McDonnell started her professional career in 1986 as the assistant county prosecutor in the Criminal Division at the Cuyahoga County Courthouse. In 1991, she became a magistrate at Lakewood Municipal Court, a position she held for five years. In 1996, McDonnell ran for judge in the Court of Common Pleas and won.
Interpreting the law can be a stressful job. Every day in the courtroom is different, McDonnell says. Whether she is dealing with civil or criminal cases, McDonnell’s job is to remain impartial in making decisions — even the difficult ones. Although McDonnell may come across a case that causes her to second-guess herself, she always keeps a thought in the back of her mind – “best thing to do is to be consistent and stay true to the law.”.
As if deciding a person’s future were not challenging enough, McDonnell has to handle other obstacles in the workplace. One challenge she is still forced to deal with is occupational bias. As a female in a male-dominated field, McDonnell says she has overcome some gender discrepancies during her career. When she attended law school in the mid 1980s, for example, only 30 percent of the class was female. Now, almost 40 years later, women still make up less than fifty percent of all law schools in the United States.
In law school, McDonnell said she did not notice any gender bias amongst her peers. It was not until they were all competing for jobs that she noticed she belonged to a minority in her field.
Because she was one of the few female attorneys in the courtroom at the start of her career, McDonnell said she had to overlook comments suggesting she was making decisions based on her gender. She said even now, female judges may be looked at as being “easily fooled and (liable to) have their emotions played with.” With confidence in her voice, McDonnell said she has never let these comments interfere with her work.
As stressful as her job may be, McDonnell says she tries her very best to keep her home life separate from her work life.
Jane Kosko, McDonnell’s daughter, said her mother rarely let work affect her family. Being a mother of three, McDonnell says she has too much work at home to let her work follow her outside of the courtroom. Seeing her mother at work has greatly influenced Kosko’s work ethic. “My mother’s job has impacted my view on women in the workforce greatly,” says Kosko. “It has made me realize that I can do whatever I want to do.”
Down the road
So what’s down the road for Judge McDonnell? Over the next six years, McDonnell said, she plans to remain involved with different committees on the court as well as continuing her work with the Judge Nancy R. McDonnell Community Based Correctional Facility.
Recently voted the best community based correctional facility in the state of Ohio, the Nancy R. McDonnell CBCF offers an alternative for men convicted of low-level felonies, instead of sending them to prison. CBCFs offer a place those recovering from drug abuse and other related crimes to get back on their feet in a safe environment. The Nancy R. McDonnell CBCF also provides job training, medical services, and allows residents to remain in a community that is familiar to them. In the future Judge McDonnell said she hopes to open a facility for women as well.
Although it may seem that McDonnell is all work, she does have some time to play. One of the perks of being a judge is the ability to marry off your friends. “We see some sad stuff … some bad stuff, so this is joy,” she says.
Even when times get tough, McDonnell says she works to keep a cool head. Regardless of the pressure that this career presents, the “madness” does not scare her away.
“It’s strange but I kind of like it — the madness,” she says with a grin.