All-Female Judicial Officer Team Talk Law Career Journeys

By Alyssa Barajas

Henry County’s three judges — all women — have a variety of stories to tell. Two of them — Henry County Common Pleas Judge Amy Rosebrook and Napoleon Municipal Court Judge Elizabeth Schuller — recently were sworn in while a third, Henry County Domestic Relations/Juvenile Judge Denise Herman McColley is nearing retirement after a long judicial career.

According to 2022 data in this year’s edition of The American Bench, 35% of all judges in Ohio are women, but in Henry County, the number is 100%.

“It is interesting to me,” noted McColley, who chose not to seek re-election this year and will retire at year’s end. (Magistrate Melissa Peper Firestone is the only candidate to replace her in the November election.) “When I see that and how things were when I first practiced in 1981, I would guess that many attorneys that were practicing at that time would be very surprised. But I think it’s a natural progression.”

Of the three county judges, McColley had been practicing in Henry County the longest. She was part of a firm in 1981, then went on to be part-time magistrate for Henry County in 1996, as well as Fulton County later in 1998. In 2005, she was appointed to her current position as common pleas judge for the domestic relations/juvenile divisions.

McColley reported that in the northwest Ohio counties she was essentially the only female lawyer in active practice in the beginning. Although there were a couple of other female lawyers that were married to male lawyers, they were not really seen in court.

She also shared that when she was at Ohio State University, one-third of the class was female and the school was quite proud of that since it was unheard of at the time.

A unique fact shared between these three woman judges is that their passion for pursuing law was not really influenced by certain people in their lives — in fact, none of them have a family history of lawyers.

McColley has a background in education, Rosebrook in history, and Schuller originally in psychology before switching to political science.

Although there wasn’t anything pivotal to cause a change in their career courses, the women share similar sentiments of wanting to help improve lives.

“It was just all the ways laws can be used to help people,” Rosebrook began to explain her attraction to the field. “I liked the problem-solving part of it, where there was an issue and there was a side that I needed to argue for a client.”

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Rosebrook started out as an associate lawyer at Hanna & Fisher law firm, where she eventually became a partner in 2003. Then in 2011, she served as the Napoleon Municipal Court judge until her appointment as the Henry County Common Pleas Court judge on Dec. 6.

“I love my job,” Rosebrook said. “I liked being a lawyer, but I am grateful for the opportunity to serve as a judge. I love what I do. I feel like I can help people and the community.”

Schuller reflected this thought as well. She was appointed to her position on April 25, but what she has gathered so far on the job is that “as a small-town judge, you have the ability to really make a difference in people’s lives.”

Some examples of such moments are drug court cases.

“We have a great many of cases that involve drug offenses and we have those cases where we get somebody treatment and help… It takes such hard work on the part of the individual to help themselves and get clean,” Rosebrook shared.

“Drug problems have been an issue since the last 10 years,” McColley said as well. “We’ve developed parenting classes for high-conflict families… In some ways, we have to do things that are more along with social work. We’re referring people to counseling and we’re very much involved with local agencies, and I think that helps, seeing families do better.”

When asked what they found was the most challenging throughout their career, the women expressed that due to their strong support systems — their peers, their staff, their husbands, their family, and mentors — they were kept steady and persevered through every trial.

However, there was just one thing that left their law career experiences unique versus those of their male colleagues: motherhood.

“Having your own practice and juggling motherhood is its own child,” Schuller laughed while thinking about her time as an attorney.

Before becoming a judge and before kids, she had her own private practice in Defiance. However, she transferred over to the UAW legal services as a managing attorney after starting her family.

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“I had two, and then three, young kids and I was trying to operate a business,” explained Schuller of her reasoning for the scenery change.

When one has their own private practice, she said, there is no such thing as maternity leave. If she did not work, she did not have a consistent income. Her decision to work at UAW Ford GM was made to balance her family and work life, and she did not regret it.

“That was hard — the hours and being a mom,” Rosebrook remarked. “You have to be there for your clients and you definitely want to be there for your kids. I don’t know many who don’t have that problem if you are a mom and you’re employed outside the home.”

McColley divulged that for her being a judge was actually a little easier than being in private practice. Her schedule was a little more regulated and the hours more regular. She felt that it was a good thing for her kids in many ways. She was able to take them to her meetings and it allowed them to meet a lot of interesting people.

The experience of motherhood, the women felt, enriched their engagements with others and widened their perspectives in the end.

McColley shared that she had lost her daughter when she was 16 years old in an auto accident. That, she admitted, has made her more compassionate to families and children she sees in her court.

“All my career I’ve worked with children and families. Two of my interests are wanting to do better and developing new ways to do the best we can for them,” she expressed.

The three female judges were asked what advice they would give to people looking to pursue the same career path as them, girls in particular.

“Be confident in your abilities,” Rosebrook emphasized. “Put in the hard work and then trust your hard work. Do the best job you possibly can and trust yourself… Hard work is, by anybody, I think respected today.”

“I would tell them to first of all study hard when you’re younger. Make sure you graduate high school and college,” McColley began. “Whoever wants to do this, you just keep at it. For me, going to continuous education was an opportunity to learn more, to do better, to get some new ideas. I think there’s so much more to learn. You’ve got a lifetime of learning when you’re in this profession.”

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“I would say if you can job shadow, if you can intern, I would highly suggest doing those options,” Schuller suggested.

Before she decided to make the commitment to law school, she took up internships and shadowed other lawyers in order to figure out if this was what she really wanted to do.

“There are so many areas of practice. Do you want to do patent law? Do you want to do criminal law? Getting that real-world experience, to me, is pretty important,” she iterated.

In a bittersweet turn of events, this year will actually be Judge McColley’s last before her retirement. However, the long-time judge said she will not be sitting at home just because she will become retired.

“I think I still feel that I can do a lot,” she said. “And there are a lot of different things I’m interested in. … I can continue to do mediation, I could teach if I wanted to — travel, things like that.”

Peper Firestone likely will take over the position, so McColley’s departure will not put an end to Henry County’s female-led judicial team.

“We are a rural community and not progressive by any means,” Schuller said. “So for the entire county to have female judicial officers is just great — especially for our youth. Having these positions for other young girls to see that yes, they can do that even when if they live in Henry or Defiance or whatever rural community… I mean, all three of us are living proof.”

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Photo courtesy of Denise McColley

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