The Honorable Geraldine Bledsoe Ford was one of the amazing women who were role models for me growing up as a young Black girl in Detroit. In fact, during my lifetime, Judge Ford made history when she became the first Black woman to be elected in the United States as a judge.
According to the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame, Judge Ford’s –
[M]ost significant achievement against the greatest odds, however, would come in 1966, when she scored a stunning, upset victory to serve as judge on the Detroit Recorder’s Court. Although a black woman had never been elected to the bench before without benefit of prior appointment in the history of the United States, and her candidacy was surrounded by clouds of skepticism, Ford’s qualifications swept the election and she led the ticket repeatedly for the following 33 years. After a court reorganization, she served another year as a Circuit Court Judge, before retiring in 1999.
Judge Ford spent much of her judicial career hearing criminal cases. On the bench, she was known as “Mean Geraldine” to unprepared attorneys and the many people who had the misfortune of being beneficiaries of her tough prison sentences. But Judge Ford had a softer side.
As many of my parents’ circle of friends, she mentored children from the next generation. When I started attending Detroit’s Wayne State University Law School, I became the beneficiary of that mentoring – and her friendship.
I remember when Judge Ford invited me to lunch one day during my first semester to see how I was handling the rigors of life in law school and to hear my “intentions” for the practice of law. Fresh off the excitement of taking criminal law with Professor Ken Callahan, I was convinced that criminal defense was for me.
As if she was listening to an attorney in her courtroom, Judge Ford gave me the respect of waiting until I shared my new-found goal. Then with the candor she was known for – both on and off the bench, she looked me straight in the eye and said –
What followed was her stern assessment of how the rigors of criminal law were not a good match for me. She wasn’t going to let happen. As I look back – I know Judge Ford wasn’t questioning my ability to take on that area of practice but the toll it would take on me personally.
In her eyes, I just didn’t have the emotional makeup to represent people often accused of horrific crimes. And frankly, as I look back on that conversation, knowing myself a lot better than I did then – she was right. I wish Judge Ford was still here so I could circle back and let her know I understand now that –
Criminal defense work would have sucked the life out of me.
After delivering her “verdict” to me that day at lunch, Judge Ford went on to gently nudge me towards a practice in corporate law, which is where I eventually landed after graduation. Mind you, she kept track of me until I did.
Over the many years since that conversation with Judge Ford, I’ve thought how lucky I was that she cared enough to make time to share her wisdom, experience and advice and also teach me how to pay it forward. And I do.