Marilyn Zayas, an IT manager turned lawyer turned appellate court judge, is seeking to unseat Pat DeWine, a Republican and the son of Ohio's current governor, from the Ohio Supreme Court.
Judge Marilyn Zayas can pinpoint the exact time in her life when she knew that the law was her calling.
A judge of the Ohio First District Court of Appeals, Zayas, the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants, grew up in Spanish Harlem, Bay Ridge, and Washington Heights in New York City in the 1970s, in a neighborhood she said was nicknamed at one point "Crack City, USA." She said that when her mother began working outside their home for the first time, in a sewing factory, she gained the confidence and independence to move away from her difficult marriage — but faced a custody battle over Zayas' youngest brother.
"I was going with her because she did not have perfect command of English, so I was her informal interpreter," Zayas recalled in an interview with the American Independent Foundation. She recalled believing that if she could just help a family court judge understand her mother's experiences and reasoning for fighting very hard for custody, even though she didn't have the economic means to hire an attorney, she could retain custody of her son.
"It was that experience of understanding the impact that the courts and the law has on people's lives," Zayas said. "I knew that someday I wanted to be an attorney, I just didn't know when or how."
The "when" and "how" of Zayas' legal career are unconventional, to say the least: She attended City College of the City of New York, where she eventually graduated with a degree in computer science, although she initially studied electrical engineering. That led her to move to Ohio in 1988 for a job at Procter & Gamble, where she worked as an IT manager until 1994.
For years she put off attending law school because she never felt it was a good time. "Then finally I realized, Oh, boy. There's always going to be a reason, a bad time to go to law school. When is there a good time? Especially after you're married and have kids? So, yeah, I finally just ripped the Band-Aid off and did it." Zayas earned her law degree in 1997 from the University of Cincinnati College of Law.
Both engineering and the law require a lot of analytical thinking, according to Zayas. "There's a lot of parallels. … I call it my engineering brain," she explained. "An engineering brain really enjoys complexity, but also enjoys understanding the relationship of things."
Zayas was first approached to run for a position as a judge in 2013, but said she thought, "Who would vote for me? Because I didn't see anybody that came from my background or life circumstances. It seemed like most of the judges came from a very elite background, and I don't."
But after practicing law for several years, she finally reached a point where she realized that something in the courts needed to change, and she realized she was the best person for the job. Zayas ran for an empty seat on Ohio's First District Court of Appeals in 2016, her first time ever running for office, and won the election. In 2018, she received more than 60% of the vote in winning reelection, something she credits to her commitment to the rule of law and nonpartisan approach to interpreting it.
"That's what I set out to do. I set out to do exactly what I told the voters that I was going to do," Zayas said. "I'm not here to serve any special interests. I'm here to serve the people, the law, the Constitution, and that's it. I'm not here to serve anything else. It doesn't matter what party endorsed me. I am here to serve the community, the law, the Constitution."
It's her unusual path to the courts that Zayas credits as her unique experiential strength as she runs as a Democrat to unseat Republican Pat DeWine, an associate justice of the Ohio Supreme Court and the son of Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine.
Zayas says she brings those experiences with her into the courtroom: "When you go to court and you know that you have a judge who doesn't have a hidden agenda, and you know you have a judge that's really following the law, and following the policies, and following the procedure, even when the law's not on your side, at the end of the day, it's going to be okay."
When asked what inspired her to run for the Supreme Court, Zayas bluntly stated: "The short answer is, I got to the point where I thought, I want politics out of our Supreme Court. I want to restore the integrity, I want to restore the public's confidence."
She highlighted a recent court case in Ohio as an example of the partisan nature of the court. In December 2016, right before Ohio Supreme Court justices Judith Ann Lanzinger and Paul Pfeifer were to retire, the court ruled it unconstitutional in the state for juveniles accused of specific offenses to have their legal proceedings automatically transferred to adult court systems once they've reached a certain age.
It was a ruling that criminal justice advocates called "a gift of true due process for Ohio's youth at risk." But the court decided to reconsider the case in 2017, after Lanzinger's and Pfeifer's successors, Pat DeWine and Pat Fischer, were sworn in.
A motion to reconsider a case that had already been ruled on in the state's highest court was something of a legal Hail Mary, Zayas felt. "Less than 1% of them are ever granted," she said. After reconsideration, to Zayas' shock, the court's original ruling was reversed.
"The losing party decided they wanted to try to get another bite at the apple, and that's not the way this works," she said. "You don't get to redo a case because there's two different justices, and perhaps they would have a different outcome."
She's believed since then that the Ohio Supreme Court has a problem and says that is what compelled her to run for a position on the court at the first opportunity she saw fit.
Zayas said her legal aspirations still trace back to those formative experiences interpreting for her mother in family court in New York: "I want … all the courts to really strive so that people know that they have a fair opportunity to be heard."
"The same thing that I wanted for my mother, the same thing that I wanted for myself as a kiddo, where everyone thought I was just going to be a statistic," Zayas said. "I just wanted a fair chance."
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.