Fearlessness and $500 were all Stratton possessed when she moved alone to America for college at 18. She held several small jobs while earning a degree in history from the University of Akron, then worked nights at the Lazarus cosmetics counter while enrolled in Ohio State’s Moritz College of Law. Alphabetical seating meant the BCI’s Stickrath sat next to her that first year, and he recalls his friend as a smart, serious student. “That combination has obviously served her well,” he says. “It’s been no surprise to see the career success she’s had.”
Stratton also showed ferocious determination while breaking into the male-dominated field of law. She applied for numerous jobs in her first six months after graduation. No, she kept being told. “I kept interviewing and interviewing because I loved it, and I knew I’d be good at it,” says Stratton, who eventually was hired by a small Columbus law firm. She took cues from the book Dress for Success, plowed hours into cases, impressed others in the courtroom with her preparation and networked persistently, even with adversaries. She wanted to be a judge by age 50. “There’s no explanation why, other than it was my calling,” Stratton says. “It just felt like that was what I was supposed to do with my life.” In 1989, she became the first woman elected to Franklin County Common Pleas Court. She was 34.
“To some extent, she got tested by the lawyers because of her youth,” says Michael Close ’67, a fellow Republican elected to the same court that year. “Eve had to be tough. She had to learn when she had to make the calls and when she could bend. She did a fine job.”
Stratton learned how to get things done, sometimes enlisting Close to introduce her ideas about court administration so there’d be less pushback from older, male judges. This woman prosecutors dubbed “The Velvet Hammer” for her tough sentencing in white-collar crime cases wasn’t afraid to do what she thought necessary. She never buckled under her workload, which grew like spring weeds after Gov. George Voinovich appointed her to the Ohio Supreme Court in 1996. She later earned three six-year terms from voters. Dave Smith, her friend and volunteer driver for nearly 30 years, removed a bench seat from the back of his black Chevy van and installed a countertop desk so she could read legal briefs and write on the road. “We’d go to a campaign dinner or fundraiser in Cleveland or Akron or wherever and she’d get back in the van at 10 o’clock at night,” Smith recalls. “She’d take a 5- or 10-minute nap, and then she’d get up, turn the lights on and work the rest of the drive home. It didn’t matter what time of night it was, she’d work.”
‘I was unleashed’
Despite loving her role as a justice, the work closest to Stratton’s heart increasingly involved improving a judicial system swollen with repeat offenders experiencing mental illness. “I had several family members over the years suffer from mental illness, and I saw what it could do to a family,” she says. “As a trial judge, I had so many cases involving the mentally ill. They didn’t belong in the system, but I didn’t know what to do with them. The more I researched it and talked to people involved, I realized there was a huge need. It was an area without much leadership. People have a passion for cancer or diabetes, but mental illness didn’t have a political voice. I felt I could make a difference. The veterans courts were an extension of my mental health work, and working with juveniles was another version.”
Stratton formed and chaired committees to combat the challenges. After learning that her early strategy of jailing those convicted most often led to costly recidivism, not necessary treatment, she created an atmosphere of acceptance for mental health courts that took into account the complicated issues involved. The work led to the creation of 44 mental health courts and 23 veterans courts in Ohio. Her time kept evaporating until 2012 when she had one of her “eureka moments,” which occasionally come out of the blue to offer a clear path. Stratton concluded her calling to help provide mental health services to offenders would best be pursued as a private citizen.
“Think of how courageous it was for her to leave the Supreme Court,” McGee Brown says. “Most people can’t wait to get into those seats and stay forever.”
Instead, Stratton couldn’t wait to get into the community at large and build small communities bonded by a just cause. “I was unleashed,” she says.
Her Stepping Up colleague Craig says Stratton has rewired, not retired. Some mornings, she wakes up without an alarm clock, “my mind going so much I’ve got to get up and deal with it.” Carrie Marioth, legal secretary at Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease, says Stratton’s schedule is “bonkers.” Problem-solving often has her meeting with county officials somewhere around the state, GPS required. For events outside Columbus, she still works in the backseat while Smith drives her Ford Escape. “We’ve got two cell phones, an iPad and a laptop going in the car at all times,” Smith says. “The phone doesn’t stop ringing, and she doesn’t stop answering emails, from the minute she gets into the car until we get back home. It wears me out. She’s passionate about what she’s doing, and I think when you’re passionate about something, you find the energy to do it.”
She also has passion and energy for the practice of law, and about one-third of her time is spent as counsel with Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease, a job she’s held since early 2013. She works with the firm’s clients -and sometimes outside companies and law firms throughout the countryin an advisory role that she sees as a direct application of her Ohio State education.
“I am basically an appellate coach,” Stratton says. “I try to make excellent lawyers even better. I help them shape their arguments, craft their briefs, and they practice their oral arguments with me pretending to be the judge to prepare for cases. It’s a lot of fun. I like the complexity of the difficult legal issues. I like pitting my mind and training against the best way to craft an argument. I find it very satisfying professionally and emotionally.”
Although no longer a justice, Stratton’s advocacy work still occasionally lands her in the halls of state power, where her renowned reputation for personal connection and communication command attention — and ignite action. “She does not take no for an answer,” Plouck says. “If you want to move an initiative forward, she is an excellent partner to have.”
Seeing a person instead of a title enables Stratton to keep party lines from walling off progress. McGee Brown, a Democrat, says it was clear that Stratton viewed herself as a public servant, not a politician, when they served together on Franklin County Common Pleas Court and the Ohio Supreme Court. “As a colleague, she was great to work with,” McGee Brown says. “Eve and I didn’t always agree, but it was never in a disrespectful way.”
When the Ohio Attorney General’s Task Force on Criminal Justice and Mental Illness (which Stratton co-chairs) met recently, attendees introduced themselves and their work affiliation. Someone delivered an often-heard quip, “I work for Eve Stratton.” Another replied,
Stratton, shown here at a meeting in Columbus with law enforcement officers representing 83 counties, joins forces with officials at all levels of government to further the causes of people with mental illness.
A connector in her element
“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.”
This quote by French philosopher Albert Camus is one of Stratton’s favorites, fueling 60- and 70-hour work weeks despite being of retirement age. She’s set a goal to give up Saturday and Sunday work within the next two years, and there are means of escape. Her husband, whom she credits for his abiding support in all her endeavors, is building a home they will share in the Montana wilderness. While the house is under construction, the couple retreats to a rustic 10-by-10-foot cabin on the land they’ve owned for three years. They’ve been fly-fishing in Chile and Costa Rica, and they enjoy traveling to see Stratton’s sons, Luke, a light and sound director for music shows who lives in Denver, and Tyler, an assistant film and TV director in Los Angeles. At home, Stratton cooks Thai food, works in the garden, paints and writes poetry and science fiction stories.
Yet one pursuit tugs at her heart and demands her time more than most others.
“She really likes getting people together in a room, talking about a problem and getting them to move forward on it,” Tyler says. “She has this great ability to get people to want to do stuff they didn’t know they wanted to do. Her way is not to play hardball with them; it’s more like kill them with personal attention.”
Stratton is in her element on this morning in Zanesville, walking out from behind the podium, pointing to people, prodding participation in the library basement. She asks all 30 who they are and what they do, and responds each time by rattling off suggestions about who in the room could help whom and how.
Brian Wagner, executive director of the Muskingum County Community Foundation, mentions a grant. “Now here is a person who said he’s here to help,” Stratton tells the others, “and he has money!” Laughter fills the room. “A little money,” Wagner clarifies. “I’ve learned you don’t get unless you ask,” replies this contingent’s connection maker.
Stratton’s idea of leadership is to empower others. She says for some unknown reason she’s always been able to see — often in ways others don’t — who should be in a group and how they should be linked. Her job is to make everyone coalesce, no matter their diverse agendas. With that intention, a sense of accomplishment is palpable on a rainy morning in Muskingum County as the two-hour meeting closes with applause. Zanesville Municipal Court Judge William Joseph approaches Stratton. “What you are doing is wonderful,” he tells her.
As the room clears, Stratton collects her Stepping Up brochures, lifts her briefcase and, in uncharacteristic fashion, heads slowly down the hall. A day earlier, she spoke in Columbus to law enforcement officers from 83 counties at a Buckeye State Sheriffs’ Association gathering. Several thanked her after that presentation, in which she shared a similar swirl of names, program details and suggestions for dealing with mentally ill criminals. Now, less than 24 hours later in Zanesville, Stratton gets on the elevator and lets out a sigh. “I always feel like a balloon deflating after one of these,” she says.
The feeling doesn’t last. Zanesville is barely in the rearview mirror when Stratton — papers spread around her in the car’s backseat — puts in her earbuds and joins a conference call as the miles roll by on Interstate 70. Home beckons in Columbus, where on a small scrap of paper in her office desk is an unattributed quote, one she considers a good motto to live by.
“Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, mango juice in one hand, chocolate in the other, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming ‘WOO HOO — what a ride!’”
Synchronicity: one of the many blessings of life
You never know how the good you do — the person you assist or the thing you advance — can come back to you in ways you don’t expect.
Before I was born, my parents were assigned to a church in Alabama in preparation for doing missionary work. Their mission required them to raise $1,000 for passage to Thailand. My father was making only $50 a week as a pastor, so Mom started praying. Sure enough, one day Dad came home with a check for $1,000. A church family in Toledo, Ohio, picked my parents at random from a list of missionaries and sent them a check.
When I was practicing law, I was doing a will for a widow named Ethel Morris. She was very distressed. Her sister, Violet Moon, needed brain surgery, but her insurance had been canceled because she’d forgotten to pay her premiums. I got involved, and doctors found that her memory loss was a medical side effect of her condition. I got the insurance company to reinstate Violet’s coverage once she paid her bills, and Violet went on to have a successful surgery.