With any type of history, someone has to be the first. And for Ohio’s out LGBTQ+ judges, that first someone is the Honorable Mary Wiseman.
Appointed to the Montgomery County Common Court of Pleas by former Governor Ted Strickland in 2007, Judge Wiseman was subsequently elected to terms on the bench in 2008, 2010, and 2016. She has presided over countless cases, using her patented blend of empathy and jurisprudence to fairly and compassionately apply the law to every individual that appears before her.
Oh, and also, she absolutely hates those afternoon judge tv shows.
The Buckeye Flame caught up with Judge Wiseman to talk about her historic path to the bench, her work to bring LGBTQ+ equality to Dayton, and, yes, her distinct lack of enthusiasm for Judge Judy.
Give us the Mary Wiseman Ohio backstory. How did you land where you currently sit?
MW: I was born in Chilicothe, but I actually grew up in Indiana, just outside of Indianapolis in a little town called Greenfield. I started out going to college at Purdue, and then transferred after a couple of years to Ball State, and then from there went to law school in Little Rock, Arkansas.
My parents, who had been living in Indiana, retired back to their little hometown in southeastern Ohio called McArthur, a small village with a population of less than 1,000 people. My dad was very ill and I needed to be a car-drive away as opposed to an airline flight away. So—and this was largely before the internet—I sent a cover letter and a resume to every law firm whose name and address I could find in Cincinnati, Columbus, and Dayton. I got a job in Dayton and I have been here ever since. That was in 1991 and now Dayton is my adopted hometown.
Was little Mary’s dream to wear a judicial robe one day?
Becoming a judge was an aspiration when I became a lawyer, but it seemed inconceivable, because there were no out gay people who were judges.
I soon turn 60, and for those of us in this age group, you know when you were growing up gay in the 70s and 80s, there were some very bright lines that were not open and available to you. Becoming a judge was in that category because it was just unheard of that there would be an out gay judge.
But when I was practicing law, I always thought I would really love to be a judge. And like a lot of things, sometimes the stars just align. With my great thanks and appreciation to Governor Ted Strickland, he was willing to take the potential heat, break that barrier in Ohio, and I got the job. To this day, there are very few out gay judges in Ohio and across the country at the state and federal level.
Let’s go back before the judgeship to your time serving on the Dayton City Commission. I spoke with [Dayton Mayor and Ohio gubernatorial candidate] Nan Whaley a few weeks ago, and she shared that she was so inspired by your work to bring LGBTQ+ equality to Dayton. Tell us about those efforts.
It was a great honor and privilege to serve Dayton on that City Commission from 1998 to 2002. I learned so much about municipal government and wonky things, which I love, because I tend to be wonky. I love the policies and the nuts and bolts and the statistics and pie charts.
In 1999, I thought it was really important for Dayton to put its stake in the ground and pass a nondiscrimination ordinance. They had one that didn’t include sexual orientation or gender identity and I thought it was important to get our local ordinance expanded to encompass those categories.
I had gone to my fellow commissioners and said, “This is my idea, this is my plan, will you support it?” The Datyon mayor at the time said absolutely not. But my colleagues on the Commission said, “Absolutely, it sounds like a great plan. We’ll support it no matter what.”
Then it unfolded and there was tremendous community backlash led by conservative groups as well as many faith groups in the area. They thought it was a horrible idea, just at a really unexpected level. I knew there would be pushback, but the level of vitriol of the harshness and criticism really took me aback.
And my supportive colleagues came to me and said, “We changed our mind. We’re not going to do it. You’re on your own.”
So I went from having a 4-1 vote for the ordinance to a 1-4 vote against it. It was a painful lesson in politics and a painful lesson in human nature. But it also gave me a lot of insight and growth and determination. That process was a microcosm and that process put a spotlight on why those nondiscrimination ordinances are needed. That torch was picked up by people like Mayor Whaley.
You set the groundwork!
I put the pin on the map of it being something that needed to be done. It was a really long relay race, more like a marathon. I just happened to run the first leg. I’ll always be grateful to Nan Whaley for getting that across the finish line. Having inclusive ordinances sends a signal to the entire community that we are welcome and embracing of diversity, and it would have been detrimental if it had not happened.
Then we look statewide. You’re a judge in a state that does not have LGBTQ+ statewide protections and also has a ton lawmakers who are pretty deadest on preventing that from happening. You’re not a lawmaker, but you’re a chief arbiter and interpreter of the law. How do you navigate that?
That’s a great question and there are a lot of threads that run through that.
As a judge, my job is to apply to the law make decision on the basis on how the law fits the facts or doesn’t fit the facts. And I have to apply those laws whether I agree with them or not. So there’s a big component where, as a judge doing the nuts and bolts of my job, it doesn’t matter what you think about the laws.
Do I have the opportunity to talk with legislators and suggest to them that there are changes and improvements that can be made? Absolutely. I can do that with my fellow judges and the judges’ associations that seek changes in the law from the legislature.
And I can do that as a private person as well when I’m talking to legislators and say, “Here’s the unfairness of being married on a Sunday and fired from your job on Monday.” That’s a very real potential circumstance in Ohio but for the federal schema, and that’s just not right. It’s just not fair. Other people and other groups would not want that to happen to them, and it should not be happening to LGBTQ people in Ohio.
From a personal perspective, I’m a big believer that unfairness to one is a threat to all. The state of Ohio needs to take progressive steps towards making sure that the laws on the books reflect inclusion, tolerance, equity, and diversity, because that’s what Ohio is all about. It’s a great state because we have such a rich history with amazing diversity, and our laws need to reflect that. Change is always slow and painful, and often times, I’ve learned it really is two steps forward and one step back. But the long arc of history bends towards justice and that’s a truism that no one can escape.
How do you sit with the title of “first out LGBTQ+ judge in Ohio?”
I have a lot of pride in that moniker. To be the person who finally breaks the glass ceiling and breaks a barrier? I mean, “Yes! This is wonderful!”
But then you just have to do your work. I do feel I have this responsibility to be good, to have the highest integrity, to have a sterling reputation. I work really hard at what I do because I want to represent the community well. I would never want something I say or did to reflect poorly on my many communities, whether it’s women in the law or the LGBTQ community in the law.
At end of the day, judges are elected in Ohio. That’s another realism. Getting appointed and breaking a barrier is awesome. But you must serve your citizens well. You have to communicate well with them. You have to be fair and patient and understanding in the courtroom. You have to be smart in how you’re applying the law to the facts so that you get smiley faces and gold stars from the court of appeals. And you have to be nice to people. That’s one of the things that I think is so important to the law.
Ken, I have to tell you, I hate those judge shows, the ones that are on between 3-5pm in the afternoon. Judge Judy and Judge Mean So-and-So, where you see judges and they are just so mean to people. I actually despise those shows. That’s not what it’s like in a real courtroom.
A big part of what we do in the courtroom is to provide people the opportunity to be heard. And that requires a lot of time and a lot of patience. You’re dealing with people in crisis, people who may have substance use issues or mental health issues. They may not be very good at expressing themselves and the judge’s role is to create an environment for those people to feel safe and supported, to feel like they are talking to someone who has empathy towards them.
Now, just because I have empathy doesn’t mean I can’t hold people responsible for their conduct. But you can do that in a way where we judges respect your humanity. Being a judge is a funny profession because 50% of my clientele lose.
I didn’t think of it that way. That’s rough.
It is rough and it’s adversarial. If you were in business and you knew that 50% of your customers are going to be unsatisfied, that’s a tough business model.
My goal is to say, “Ok, you may not win this court case, but you’re going to know why you lost, that you were treated respectfully, and that you were taken seriously. And that you had an opportunity to have your side of the story be told.”
Those are the things that I really enjoy doing. And I feel fortunate because I love people and I love to listen to people. I love to hear their stories and provide them with that opportunity to tell a little bit of their story so they feel that their interaction with this system we call the “justice system” really is just.
Last question, what advice do you have for people who want to pursue this judgeship path?
That’s another great question. I think it’s really important to let the decision-makers know that you’re interested in being a judge. Whether you want to be appointed or elected, you have to put your stake in the ground and say, “I want to hang my hat here.”
And it’s really important be involved in the community in as many ways as you can meaningfully invest, whether that’s working on political campaigns or doing philanthropic work with nonprofits. Find something that you love and work your heart out for it. The community wants people who feel passionately, have a record of putting elbow grease behind the passion, and working hard to make a positive difference in the community.
And finally, you’ve got have a sense of humor and a thick skin. You’ve got to make light of things and not let those arrows that are going to fly your way bother you. That’s something I have certainly learned in my many years of living my private life in the public eye. You have to be like a duck and let things roll off your back and live to fight another day. 🔥