Melody Stewart was destined to sit on a bench. Early on, it just looked like it would be a piano bench.
“I loved music so much,” says the 56-year-old, who learned to play at age 5 and majored in music at the University of Cincinnati. “I was the only child in my neighborhood with a piano at home.”
On January 31, she placed those piano-playing hands upon the Bible to be sworn in to Ohio’s Supreme Court. Not only did she become the first African-American woman and the first black Democrat elected to the state’s highest court, she also became the first African-American Democrat elected to any statewide office — succeeding where the late Stephanie Tubbs Jones and Nina Turner failed.
“The historical significance is not lost on me,” she says. “I do feel that sense of weight to be a positive figure.”
The only child in a single-parent household, Stewart grew up first in Cleveland’s Hough neighborhood then in East Cleveland. Her political career began at Beaumont School, where she was elected the first minority student body president of the all-girls institution.
“I’d never run for anything before except the bus to catch it on time,” she laughs.
She caught the law bug late, too. After college, she managed a health care staffing office where the company’s vice president was studying law. Intrigued by the textbooks, she soon enrolled in Cleveland State University’s Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. After earning her law degree in 1988, she spent a few years as an assistant law director before launching a career in education.
Yet, a more active role in legal proceedings called her.
“You get to research and apply the law, write the appeal — well-reasoned decisions that guide the legal community,” she says. “That’s been appealing to me.”
She spent the last 12 years on the 8th Ohio District Court of Appeals. Her legal acumen was lauded by peers. The Ohio State Bar Association gave her the state’s highest rating — 29 out of 30 possible points — based on her fairness and equity in the judicial process.
When she ran for the Supreme Court, her staff first projected a campaign budget of $1 million. She laughed.
“I said, ‘If you think I am going to raise a million dollars, you’re smoking something,’ ” she says. “I raised less money than any statewide candidate on either side by a lot.”
Instead of TV ads, which she couldn’t afford, she hustled. She slept two to three hours per night and visited 62 of 88 counties. With Ohio’s all-Republican court, her message was simple: Don’t draft another right tackle.
“If the court were a football team, it had all right tackles,” says Stewart, who joins newly elected Michael P. Donnelly as the bench’s only Democratic judges. “A one party Supreme Court is not a good thing for our state.”
A star-studded congratulations greeted Stewart’s defeat of incumbent Justice Mary DeGenaro in November. “AMAZING!!!” tweeted LeBron James, recognizing her election’s historic significance. “Congrats Judge Melody Stewart. #ChangeWillCome”
But beyond making history, Stewart hopes to diminish politics’ role in the court, pushing for transparency and accountability and making it more effective and efficient.
“Short of committing a crime, you can remain in your seat until you are aged out,” she says. “Whatever we do would be better than what we have now.”
Even when not in campaign mode, she doesn’t get much rest. In fact, her piano bench remains warm, as she scored a yet-to-be released historical short film. Mostly, she’s focused on being a change-maker who can get her Republican colleagues to listen to her ideas.
“I hope when my time is done, people will say, ‘She made the Supreme Court better,’ ” she says. “I hope I contribute to make the state of Ohio a better place.”