Ohio Justice Patrick F. Fischer interviews former Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton in the fifth episode of “Reflections from the Bench.”
Justice Patrick F. Fischer: Hello. Joining me today is retired Ohio Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton. Welcome.
Former Justice Stratton: Thank you.
Justice Fischer: You were appointed in 1996 and you retired at the end of 2012? Why didn’t you run again?
Justice Stratton: I did three statewide races and two local races. I didn’t think I had it in me to do a fourth race. I had begun working on issues with mental health and criminal justice that really became my passion. I decided there’s a lot of people that want my job, but not a lot of people that want to work in this area. So it’s time to make a move.
Justice Fischer: So what are you doing these days?
Justice Stratton: I have kind of two diverse lives. I didn’t intend to practice law at all when I left. But some friends came calling and then some other friends, and then I met with the law firm Vorys, Sater, Seymour, and Pease LLP. I vetted them. Nobody left the firm. Secretaries didn’t leave the firm. They really cared about their people. It was a good atmosphere to work in and so I started just part-time. I don’t give them very many hours because that’s not why I left the bench. I’m basically an appellate coach. I try to make good lawyers better and I try to tell them how to write briefs that I wanted to read and argue cases I wanted to hear. So it’s been really fun to do that, but the rest of my work is around criminal justice, mental illness, veterans, and youth.
Justice Fischer: In fact, you do so much appellate work. You’re one of the best public lawyers in America.
Justice Stratton: Yes. I have very much behind the scenes. I’m not in the public eye at all.
Justice Fischer: Well, the other thing I found out from your time at Vorys (law firm) is you’re a member of their autonomous vehicle working group. Is that right?
Justice Stratton: That is actually something that I pushed for. My first major before I went to law school was nuclear physics. It’s a long story how I got to law. But anyhow, I have had the love of science fiction for all my life. I almost exclusively read that for pleasure and I’ve been fascinated by these issues. And then I started reading about it and autonomous vehicles are the wave of the future. Drones are here now. They’re being used everywhere in field inspections and bridge inspections. My son, who serves search warrants, and my son, who is a movie director, use them now instead of helicopters. So I went to the firm about a year and a half ago, and said, “We really need to get ahead of the curve. We need to develop a practice in this.” Law firms are not very entrepreneurial. It took a little while, but finally they got the fever and they put together an autonomous drones and autonomous vehicle drones section. We went out to the testing site over at Honda and I got to ride in one of those cars that automatically stops. When you don’t break yourself, it’s fascinating. So we’re really trying to develop that area. But it’s absolutely not related to anything else I do in my life, except that I think it is fun.
Justice Fischer: It was interesting that you would work on that area because I hadn’t heard of any law firm working on that area. Now, you were trial judge before the Supreme Court?
Justice Stratton: I was one of the very first women to try civil lawsuits. I was there, I think, (as) the first woman to try a civil lawsuit pregnant. (It was a) very interesting experience. I used it to my full advantage.
Justice Fischer: Did you win?
Justice Stratton: Oh sir, your honor, I really need to take a little break. I’m feeling faint. He was going way too long on the other side. Yes, shameless.
Justice Fischer: OK. You ever miss being on the Court?
Justice Stratton: No, I don’t. When I left the trial bench, I didn’t miss it. When I left the Supreme Court, I didn’t miss it. I had done that 16 years. As you know, it’s five feet of briefs every two weeks. If you get an extra week, you get an extra foot at that pile. I really became so passionate and interested in the mental health work. I thought it’s time for somebody else to do this job. I want to pursue that.
Justice Fischer: Let’s go back a little bit before trial or the Supreme Court. (You were) born in Thailand?
Justice Stratton: Yes.
Justice Fischer: (You) spent your childhood in South Vietnam and Malaysia. Missionary parents. What was it like? Do you remember anything about Vietnam during that time?
Justice Stratton: Very much so. I mean, I was there until the eighth grade. To me, it was my normal life. I didn’t know any different. But when I was born in Bangkok, it was very primitive in the little village we lived, which was eight hours away by train. So my mom came down by train a couple of days before just to have a good hospital in Bangkok that the Seventh Day Adventists ran. It’s a good thing she did because I was a breech (birth) and I had to be (delivered by) C-section. I would not be here if we had stayed in the little village. My dad came down by train the day before and fortunately was able to be there. But in those days, we didn’t have insurance. They actually wanted you to pay your bill before you left the hospital. And my parents, being missionaries, didn’t have much money. So, my dad sold a tape recorder that we had for the equivalent of 50 bucks and got me out of the hospital. So, I like to say that my life was worth 50 bucks at the time. So, I lived there for six years in that little village called Nong Kai. When we were six years old, we all were required to go to a mission-run boarding school which was at that time in South Vietnam. Our parents were not permitted to home school. So for nine months out of each year, I was at a mission-run boarding school with kids from other countries. My roommate was a Vietnamese kid, another was an Indonesian kid. We (were) all actually Americans. But we all had the culture that we were born and raised and so (it) was a very interesting mix. The Vietnam War became way too serious. The school had to evacuate. My dad had actually pulled me out the year before because I had braces and there was nowhere in Vietnam to (get treatment). So I lived with the mission family. When the school was evacuated and my dad was in charge, I joined up with the school in Bangkok for a year. But it was very primitive. We had taken over a thing called the American Club. We had little tiny rooms so they built triple decker bunks that could fit six of us in a room. They had lead shelters over the sidewalks. We went to school in our rubber shoes because of the flooding. Now you see where my school-funding vote may be going. But we had totally excellent, dedicated teachers who had come from America. So then, they moved the school to Malaysia because it was just too bad an environment in Bangkok. And we spent the last three years in the mountains of Malaysia in a beautiful setting for our school.
Justice Fischer: Do you think that experience affected you in any way when you’re on the Supreme Court?
Justice Stratton: Oh, absolutely. I grew up in countries that didn’t have freedom of press, freedom of religion, or democracy. (These are) things that we just so take for granted. I knew (they) were so precious. So, it helped me in my balancing act when we had this right versus that right, or this challenge versus that challenge. To have that experience and to say you know the things that make this country great are really important to keep strong. For example, our freedom of press, freedom of religion, freedom of speech (are important). Because once those things start eroding, then you get into the dictatorships that I grew up in.
Justice Fischer: You get back to the United States, you’re 18 years old, in college. Why did you go to law school?
Justice Stratton: It’s a funny story. As I said, I start off in nuclear physics. They dropped the program the year I started and it was an engineering college. It did not have other majors and I decided I didn’t want just physics or chemistry. Then, I realized I had this great heritage growing up overseas. So I made a 180-degree turn. I was going to go into the United Nations work and embassy work, the third-culture kid stuff. So I transferred to University of Florida and decided I wanted to major in international relations. Well, I met my former husband right before I transferred and his electrical engineering major would transfer to University of Florida. Well, along the way he was in a college, which was 90 percent men, and they said you shouldn’t be following her around. So he said if you want to marry me, you have to come back to Texas and go back to the school. It only had a two-person history department. But that was the only (school) my credits would transfer to. So I chose love over career and I moved back. Then (I thought) if he’s not going to follow me to Florida, he’s not following me to Thailand or overseas. So what do I do? I played the piano for a quartet that the school sponsored that tried to recruit kids to sing in churches and schools and stuff. My chaperone said, “You like to write and you like to act. Why don’t you become a lawyer?”
Justice Fischer: Act?
Justice Stratton: No save-the-world stuff. And somewhere concurrent because I still have this very religious side, (this) came the thought I want to be a judge. Now, I have no idea what a judge did. I never saw Perry Mason because we didn’t have TV until my last year of school. I saw one American show at night. I never saw a judge or a lawyer in Thailand that I was aware of, but it just seemed like something I should do with my life. So on the day I went to law school, I (said I) want to be a judge.
Justice Fischer: Wow. Just as I told you before, it was just the opposite (for me). How did you end up at Ohio State then?
Justice Stratton: Well, we were going to this college in Texas, but he was from Ohio. It was a private college and once he got married, his parents said, “you’re on your own,” which they should. We were financially unable to pay. So we moved back (to Ohio) and I had actually ended up going to Akron to finish my undergrad. Akron would accept you as a resident, if you’re married to one. OSU would not. So, then we moved down here because my first husband got a job at WTVN radio. He was in the radio business. So I went to law school down here because of that.
Justice Fischer: Did you enjoy law school?
Justice Stratton: I did.
Justice Fischer: Some do and some don’t.
Justice Stratton: I was married. So, I didn’t take it quite maybe as seriously as some who have no other life, which a lot of the law students did. But it was a reordering. I mean, I was a straight-A student in college. But when I got to law school, my first grade was 34 in contracts. I asked 34 out of 40? No, it’s 34 out of 100. I thought, what?! So you realize you’re with every other “A” student. So, I was not top of my class, but neither did I want law school to be my entire life. But I did ok.
Justice Fischer: Then what?
Justice Stratton: Then I couldn’t get a job. Nobody was hiring women at the time. I can tell you a whole lot of stories, but that is for another time and place. But I couldn’t get a job. I got a job as a law clerk. They couldn’t decide to hire me as an attorney. I finally got a job with a firm that did take a chance and hired me as an attorney, but then they couldn’t make me a partner. And things like that went on and, finally, I just tried never to burn bridges. I just tried to do the best I could. The very first firm I worked at several of the lawyers had left. They were doing the business litigation part and they wanted a new partner. And so six years later, they called me up out of the blue. It was at my firm that I was with one partner that didn’t want a woman. And so the whole thing was a big mess. They called me up and said, “We don’t know how to approach you on this, but are you interested in maybe talking about coming and joining us?” If I’d burn that bridge, maybe I wouldn’t have had that opportunity. So, I joined my new firm, which was Wesp, Osterkamp, and Stratton. They had no issues with discrimination anymore. I loved it and I was there until I ran for judge.
Justice Fischer: How long between passing the bar and running for judge?
Justice Stratton: I was in practice nine years. Now I’m a long-term planner. So I had a five-, 10-, 15-, 20-year goal. In 20 years, I wanted to be a judge. All the judges I knew were in their 50s and 60s. But because I was doing all these things in my methodical planning way to get there, I ended up getting a chance to run for judge. I ran against an incumbent. I wasn’t appointed, I ran. One woman and five men (were) on the Republican ticket.
Justice Fischer: In the primary?
Justice Stratton: No, it was in the general. I took out the incumbent and became a judge.
Justice Fischer: That’s hard to do, but I’ve done it and it’s not fun.
Justice Stratton: Well, I was 34. I was the youngest by 10 years. (I was) the only one with small children and the only woman. Yet, I had another whole series of interesting experiences.
Justice Fischer: OK, so you are a seven-year trial judge. Why run for the Supreme Court?
Justice Stratton: I didn’t plan to. I was going to the federal court. That was my next five-year game plan, 10-year game plan. You are appointed. You get more money. You don’t have to run again. So, I was headed in that direction in time to put everything in place for that. I got a call out of the blue that Justice Craig Wright was retiring and would I consider an appointment to that spot? I was like, Ok, I just met my second husband. I had not married him yet. My first husband left me six months after I was elected. So it’s like Pavlov’s response. Run for office, get elected, lose husband. I haven’t even married this guy yet. What do I do? I mean, I’ve just won election for a second time. I have a six-year term ahead of me, but I thought if you’re appointed, even though I was appointed in March and I had to run in November, I had not planned that route. I thought, wow, this seems like what the good Lord wants me to do. So I took a chance. I talked to my now-husband, I got married to him in September, and he said, “Go for it, absolutely. I’ll be behind you.” And he had never been married so he had no idea that a marriage consisted of your wife meeting some stranger driving around the counties for a day and coming home at midnight for a year and a half. And because he had no expectations, it ended up working out alright. But yeah. So I didn’t plan that route.
Justice Fischer: So you literally got married in the middle of the campaign?
Justice Stratton: Well, right before the campaign. But all the interviewing and stuff had already happened.
Justice Fischer: Well, share with us some of your best memories on the Court.
Justice Stratton: First of all, I had wonderful colleagues as you know and you get to have wonderful friendships. But (it was) also the campaigning process. I, frankly, was a person that loved campaigning because I love people. And I made so many friends and what I ended up doing is making the campaign. Well, you know as a justice, you’re boring as a campaigner. I can’t talk about a thing. I can’t give you my opinion on that or I won’t give you my opinion. With the mental health and criminal justice work, I could talk about it because it was the administration of justice, which you’re allowed to do. So every campaign speech was about that. Every campaign paid speech (was) about training police officers called crisis intervention teams. Because of that and because you give hundreds of speeches, you have a chance to really push the agenda. And that was really wonderful. And then I really enjoyed the legal process. I’ve seen other justices you’ve interviewed talk about this too. But when you’re a trial judge, you’re making decisions really quick and occasionally get appealed. But most of the time you don’t. And you have nobody else to bounce it off on most of time. On the Supreme Court, you have the luxury to think about it and hear other people’s opinions, and sometimes somebody will say something (such as), “Oh I never thought of that angle. And that’s really right.” Then, sometimes when you’re in the minority and you’re so frustrated because you can’t get that fourth vote for your viewpoint. So I really enjoyed that give-and-take process.
Justice Fischer: I have to say what I’ve learned, and you tell me if you believe this, is that that the time you have to think is so different than in practice.
Justice Stratton: Oh my God, yes.
Justice Fischer: Practitioners. I mean, when I was a practitioner, my client wanted to know right then. Do you think that makes us too slow in the judicial system, in terms of the modern way of everything has be done today?
Justice Stratton: I think that most judges should think faster and get their opinions out sooner because I think that there is way too much delay. It’s valuable to have the time to think, but when I was a trial judge, I ruled from the bench. I would go back (and) I would say, “OK, I’ll take it under advisement.” I go back and sit in my office just like a juror, and I would consider my decision. Then, I would go out on the bench the same day and give my opinion. Very few judges do that. But lawyers loved it because they got their opinion right away. It came from the judge rather than having to explain to your client why the judge ruled against him, and their parties are there. They can clear up any (issues) or when they say, “Your honor, you left this point out.” That’s how I practiced when I was a judge, and I was pretty prompt on getting my opinions out when I was on the bench.
Justice Fischer: Now, during your tenure there were four cases known as DeRolph and today still on the campaign circuit, we still get asked about DeRolph. Tell me your feelings about that.
Justice Stratton: DeRolph was an interesting mix that I think a lot of people don’t really understand. They all talk about it being about school funding. Well, school funding is not something that we, as judges, have the right to tell the legislature how to do. Do you take the funding from the program for pregnant women? Do you take the funding from the roads? It’s a balancing act. But when I looked at all of the evidence, 90 percent of the evidence we had was all about buildings and supplies. The teachers were pretty well paid compared to the national average. There was no complaints about the teacher pay. So the allocations that the schools made was to keep the teachers happy, keep them funded, probably because they had unions to deal with, and the buildings were just in disarray. The decisions that we made ended up in the school funding for the buildings project and everywhere I went when I started campaigning again after that you saw beautiful new buildings. So in my opinion what the case really focused on got fixed. The fundamental issue of how you fund them to me is not an issue a court should decide. It’s a policy decision because it involves so many factors to look at.
Justice Fischer: Now, on a somewhat serious, but also interesting note, tell me the story of Violet Moon.
Justice Stratton: My parents went out to Thailand in 1950. Now, my dad was a farmer from Minnesota, but he was one of five brothers that volunteered. He was one of the five that had to go to World War II. He went to World War II, he was stationed in New Hebrides Islands, he was a bomb demolition expert, and he became a Christian. He got to know some missionaries. So, he went to become a missionary. When he came back after the war, he went to a bible college in New York. That was a Christian and Missionary Alliance Bible College. My mother was raised in Long Island. She was very involved in the Salvation Army as a child and she worked in a Grumman air factory making airplane parts during the war, and then she decided she wanted to go to bible college. She was offered a supervisor position after the war, but she decided she wanted to follow her heart. So, they met at college and our mission required them to serve two years as pastor under the theory if you didn’t make it as a pastor, you weren’t going to make it as a missionary. So they sent them to a church in Prattville, Alabama. My dad made $50 a week.
Justice Fischer: It’s a lot different than Minnesota.
Justice Stratton: Oh my God, there was a culture shock for them. But the mission said, you had to raise $1,000 for your passage to Thailand, which was by boat then. That’s a lot of money on $50 so my mom just believed in prayer. She started praying, and one day a woman from Toledo, Ohio, sent her a check for $1,000. She had picked her from a list of candidates that their church had sent them from Canada to the mission field. She sent my parents this check for a $1,000, which gave them their passage to Thailand. They had no idea that their daughter would come back to Ohio. So that’s how they got to Thailand. So when I came back to America, eventually I ended up in Ohio, and went to the First Christian Missionary Alliance Church here in Ohio on Henderson Road. I did a lot of wills and estate planning for people in my church. I had a little lady named Ethel Morris that needed a will. So I did it for her and then she came in one day and she was very distraught. She said, “I have a sister named Violet Moon and she has this brain condition. She has to have surgery, but they’ve canceled her insurance, and we don’t know what we’re going to do.” So I said, “Well let me get into this.” I talked to the insurance company, the doctor, the hospital, and I found out that short-term memory loss was a true medical side effect of this brain condition. So, the insurance company agreed to reinstate her insurance. We paid the back premium. So we did and Violet was able to go forward and have her surgery. It was very successful. So, my mom and dad tend to stay in Florida on furloughs. They get a furlough once every five years. So, I got to see them once every five years once I came back to America. But they come up to visit and people of my church always wanted to meet my missionary parents. So, I called up Ethel because she was elderly. I said, “Can you get Violet Moon and come to church on Sunday because mom and dad are coming and they want to meet you?” So she called up Violet and said, “Eve Stratton’s parents are coming to church on Sunday. Would you go with me?” And she said, “Oh, I know a lot of missionaries. I love missionaries. What are their names?” Ethyl said, “Their names are Corrine and Elmer Sahlberg.” There was a pause, and then Violet said, “That’s very strange. Thirty-five years ago, my husband and I gave $,1000 so Corrine and Elmer Sahlberg can go to Thailand.”
Justice Fischer: That is just amazing.
Justice Stratton: So, I happen to think that’s why I’m here. That’s why I have this job. That’s why I have this mission. Because of that check.
Justice Fischer: That’s one of the great stories, at least to me, I’ve heard on all this because it just takes the whole thing full circle. It could not be just coincidence. I do want to know about the stampede girls’ goat-tying competition you won?
Justice Stratton: Well, as I said, I was at this college that was basically 90 percent men because it was engineering in those days. Not many women went into that field. I was studying nuclear physics there and it’s a Christian college. So instead of a dance, because a lot of Christians believe dance is evil, I was never allowed to dance. But I love to dance. So they had a rodeo instead. And because it was Texas ‒ where the college was ‒ that fit too. So I had all these events and they had just a couple for women, and they had the girls’ goat-tying a contest. But they couldn’t get enough women to join it. So they asked me and I’m thinking, “I’ve ridden elephants. I can handle a goat.” So what I had to do is run out, you have to chase it down, you have to throw it down. You tie three legs together and put your hands up. So, I never had practiced. I just did it. I went out, threw it down, tied the legs, and raised my hands. Apparently, I did it faster than anybody else. I have a little gold goat sitting in my office. I put that on my resumé on my second campaign. It was the most talked-about thing. None of the other accomplishments mattered one bit. But that goat tying, by golly, they talk about it. It’s a fun little thing.
Justice Fischer: Well, let’s change (the subject) a little bit further. What do you see as the biggest or newest trend emerging in the court system?
Justice Stratton: I think (it’s) the declining access to justice and the declining ability to try cases. I know it concerns the bar, as a whole. It concerns me because when I was a trial lawyer, I tried a case two or three times a month and now you’ll talk to lawyers, they’re lucky if they get one trial a year. But sometimes you need those trials. You need the jury to sort things out. You need that and settlements sometimes are forced on you, because (of) the economics, rather than it’s the right thing to do in the justice of it. So, I’m really concerned about that, and I’m really concerned that people who don’t have income and have means don’t have the ability to access justice. I know the Court’s doing an access-to-justice project, but there is a threat now to cut the funding again for legal aid and that’s an ongoing battle. Everybody needs legal representation and so I’m a big proponent that the bar association, the bar, and the lawyers have a ticket to a monopoly. Because of that, they have a duty to give back, and they have a duty to serve and a duty to do pro bono (work).
Justice Fischer: Is it more difficult to be a judge today than when you started as a judge?
Justice Stratton: I don’t know. It’s more difficult to be a Supreme Court justice because you have that public scrutiny that you don’t have as a trial judge. You’re also making policy decisions. So one side hates you, and the other side loves you. So, I think it’s much more difficult on that stage that you’re in now than it was as a trial judge. But overall, I don’t necessarily think so.
Justice Fischer: (You have may heard of) one of those letters to yourself. What would you write? If you knew now what you didn’t know then?
Justice Stratton: I don’t know that I would have changed anything. I’m pretty happy with the path my life took. I always have been trying to work less, but never succeeded. I don’t know that I would have ‒ if I told my younger self to do that ‒ it would have done any work because it’s not doing any good now.
Justice Fischer: It seems like you enjoy what you’re doing.
Justice Stratton: I love what I’m doing now.
Justice Fischer: When you’re not doing all that, I understand you paint.
Justice Stratton: Yes.
Justice Fischer: What type of painting?
Justice Stratton: I do a lot of realistic paintings. I have a picture in my office that’s of a leopard drinking water at night. I do a lot of sunsets. My husband calls it the dark period. (I paint) a lot of sunsets with different scenes. Yeah, I just have fun doing it.
Justice Fischer: Would you do your own portrait?
Justice Stratton: No, no I’m not good at (painting) people. I don’t paint people very well.
Justice Fischer: I also understand you’re a fly fisherman. Where do you fish?
Justice Stratton: My husband and I have fished all over. We’ve been in Costa Rica. We’ve been in Chile. We have a place now in Montana. We fish and we go out there into Michigan.
Justice Fischer: Yeah, your law clerks told me I need to ask you certain things. I don’t know if it’s your lack or greatness in driving directional prowess?
Justice Stratton: GPS is the world’s great invention, let me put it that way. I also discovered that somebody named my condition. (It was) one of the lawyers I was doing a case with recently and I love it. I’ve got directional dyslexia. I will turn left instead of right. I will end up in London instead of Logan. Yes, I’m pretty famous for that. Even now, I hire a friend of mine to drive me when I go around the state and to do the stepping up work on mental health. I have someone drive me because I’m dangerous.
Justice Fischer: The other thing they talked about is how you allowed them or gave a little push for them to get involved with projects. Why?
Justice Stratton: Because being a law clerk is a very isolated job, as you know. Just like being a justice, it’s a very isolated job. You just sit in your cubicle and read or sit at home and read. I thought it was important for their sense of value and self-worth for them to also be involved in things and I wanted to encourage them to do that. So, I did, yes.
Justice Fischer: Now in terms of serving on the Ohio Supreme Court, what do you want your legacy to be?
Justice Stratton: (I made) an opinion that was common sense-based, based in precedent in law, and hopefully got to the right, moral conclusion as well.
Justice Fischer: What advice would you have for a newly minted judge or attorney?
Justice Stratton: Well, I have a 10 tips for success I always give at speeches. Get off your iPod, get off your iPhone, reconnect with people, go to lunches, sit down, and talk to them, get to know them. I mean, I used to invite my opponents out to lunch when I was a young lawyer for that rule. I’d say, “I just want to get to know you because we’re fighting tooth and nail.” When you get to know them, you still fight hard for your client. But the nastiness is gone because now you know this person. So I think the Internet has been a blessing and a curse at the same time. I would get 40 or 50 emails a day. Before, you never would talk to somebody 40 or 50 times a day, or open 40 or 50 letters. But by the same token, it has cut down on the human interaction, which I think is very important. And for lawyers and judges, I mean judges should get out of their ivory tower. Go to bar association events. I know I am preaching to the choir here. You were heavily involved. But that’s important to keep you connected to real life.
Justice Fischer: Thank you for your time.
Justice Stratton: Glad you did this. And thank you for taking on this project.