October 21, 2014

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Women rule on state’s 9th appellate court

When Medina attorney Jennifer Hensal took her seat on the 9th District Court of Appeals last month, she made history: She became the fifth judge on Ohio’s first all-female appellate court.

Hensal achieved the feat in last November’s election by defeating incumbent Judge Clair Dickenson, who had been the lone man on the bench.

During the campaign, Hensal said she never considered the possibility that her victory would score a first for Ohio women.

“I didn’t know that there weren’t other all-female courts,” she said.

While there are many female lawyers, courtrooms tend to have more men serving on the bench, she said.

“Female members of the bar are not generally judges, but I think it’s a good thing we’re here,” she said.

Hensal, 45, of Akron, has 19 years of experience as a lawyer but said she’s never experienced much discrimination.

She has served as assistant prosecutor in Medina and Wadsworth and had a private law practice in Medina.

“I opened my own law office and worked for firms in Medina that were large but never experienced discrimination,” she said.

On the 9th District Court, which hears appeals for Medina, Lorain, Wayne and Summit counties, Hensal joins Presiding Judge Carla Moore and judges Eve Belfance, Donna Carr and Beth Whitmore.

Whitmore, 67, is of a generation that found more barriers to women entering the legal profession. She said she encountered a few men who weren’t ready to see women in the courtroom.

After serving in the Air Force during the Vietnam War and graduating from the University of Akron with a law degree in 1982, she remembers being asked at a job interview what the firm should do if she were to get pregnant.

“My answer was, ‘I’ll carry on,’ ” she said. “Can you imagine if an employer asked that question now?”

After getting the job, Whitmore said she instituted changes some of the male lawyers weren’t used to, including working from home on weekends rather than coming into the office.

“I told them I’ll do the workload, but I’m a mother. I’m not coming in on the weekend,” she said.

After 13 years practicing law, Whitmore was elected a Summit County Common Pleas Court judge.

She said there were still a few attorneys who weren’t used to seeing a woman on the bench.

She recalled one attorney who was late for a case and angry about being fined.

“He came into my office after we had adjourned and said, ‘Young lady, you can’t do that.’ ”

Whitmore said she responded by quietly asking him to leave before he said anything else. She said it’s likely he forgot he was speaking with a judge.

“They just weren’t used to seeing me as a judge,” she said.

Hensal said she didn’t run into that problem.

“My career path didn’t really take me through any hurdles where being a female were really apparent,” Hensal said. “But I think it’s great we’re making history.”

Contact Loren Genson at (330) 721-4063 or lgenson@medina-gazette.com.