While Susan Baker Ross sat in a stark cell in the Franklin County Jail in May 1989, she read her trial advocacy textbook and wondered how she’d ended up at this low point.
Ross, then a first-year law student at the University of Akron, was serving 10 days for her second conviction for operating a vehicle while under the influence (OVI).
When she left jail, she resolved to never return.
“I was glad it was behind me — and was pretty determined it wasn’t going to happen to me again,” Ross said.
Ross succeeded in this quest. She completed law school, passed the bar and embarked on a 27-year legal career that culminated in her being elected a Summit County Common Pleas judge in November. She’ll take the bench this week and will celebrate 30 years of sobriety in July.
Ross, 53, is thought to be one of the only judges in Ohio who is open about her addiction and recovery and is sharing her experience to try to help others. She’s been involved for many years with the Akron Bar Association, including chairing a committee that assists attorneys with addiction issues. She also has shared her story at local drug courts.
When Ross takes the bench, she plans to continue to be open about her past struggles and thinks her experiences will aid her in dealing with those appearing before her.
“I’m not going to change who I am because I got elected to be a judge,” she said in a recent interview.
Ross’ colleagues and friends say her legal experience, combined with the insight from her past, will make her an excellent addition to the Common Pleas bench.
“She’s a great person and she’s authentic about her journey,” said Summit County Common Pleas Judge Joy Oldfield, who recently had Ross speak at her drug court. “Who doesn’t love a story about a person who struggles — and comes out on top?”
Ross’ parents divorced when she was only 2, and she lived with her mother in Westerville in central Ohio.
She suffered a childhood trauma that landed her in counseling as a teen and she thinks likely contributed to her turning to alcohol and drugs.
Ross managed to stay out of trouble in high school, though she was drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana and cigarettes.
After high school, she moved to Akron to live with her father, the late Wayne Baker, a longtime University of Akron history professor, and attend UA.
Ross got her first OVI in May 1987 in Columbus. She received three days in Oriana House, a fine and a driver’s license suspension.
She graduated from UA in May 1988 and started UA’s law school in August. A few months later, she got her second OVI, again in Columbus.
This time, Ross also was charged with felony drug abuse because officers officers found trace amounts of cocaine on a mirror in her purse during her earlier arrest.
Concerned about how a felony might impact her ability to get her law degree, Ross said she pleaded guilty to the OVI and to attempted drug abuse, a first-degree misdemeanor.
The judge hammered her this time. She was a law student who’d already had one chance — and squandered it.
Ross was sentenced to 10 days in jail, a six-month suspended jail sentence, three days in a substance abuse treatment center and probation with weekly drug testing.
“That was pretty shocking,” Ross recalled.
The harsh penalty, though, served as a wake-up call.
Ross completed law school in 1991 and applied to take the bar exam. The Akron Bar Association, which interviews all law students who apply for the bar, offered Ross only conditional approval.
Ross, who by this time had been sober for two years, appealed the recommendation. Her recovery sponsor and late UA law professor Dana Castle wrote affidavits and attended a hearing on her behalf. She was deemed fit without conditions, took the bar and passed.
Ross worked as a law clerk for Akron and then as an assistant prosecutor in the civil divisions of the Portage and Summit County prosecutor’s offices. She was among the first hires in 2001 for newly elected Summit Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh.
Walsh knew Ross from the Akron law director’s office, where she’d once researched and written a summary judgment in one of Walsh’s civil cases. Walsh figured if Ross had done that good of a job as a law student, she’d make a great civil prosecutor. She said she wasn’t concerned about Ross’ past struggles.
“I felt confident it wasn’t going to pose a problem,” Walsh said, adding that Ross did a good job, working for her for nearly 10 years.
After that, Ross practiced privately and then became a magistrate in Akron Municipal Court, eventually heading the traffic court.
While Ross built her legal resume, she also started a family and began her effort to help others struggling with addiction.
Ross, now divorced, has a son and a daughter who will graduate today from the University of Akron — a great Mother's Day gift.
Starting in 2001, Ross volunteered with the Akron Bar Association’s Lawyer’s Assistance Committee, which had assisted her when she got into trouble. The committee provides confidential help to attorneys struggling with alcohol, drugs or mental health problems.
Ross also spoke at numerous continuing legal education classes on substance abuse and helped with a seminar on productive ways for lawyers to cope with their jobs.
“It felt good to give back,” Ross said. “I wish more attorneys reached out to us.”
Attorneys are among the occupations most at risk for alcohol abuse. A recent study published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine found that more than 20 percent of lawyers in the United States abused alcohol.
Jobs at highest risk for alcohol abuse
Larry Scanlon, an Akron attorney, said Ross has been an influential leader in the local bar.
“Susan’s got a very positive message,” said Scanlon, who served with Ross on the assistance committee. “She’s helped a lot of people, and I think she’ll do the same from the bench.”
As an Akron magistrate, Ross at times filled in for the judges, including in Oldfield’s drug court when she was still on the Akron bench. Ross recalls once when she was overseeing drug court and a participant asked her in the middle of a session, “Didn’t I see you at the Language of the Heart meeting?”
Ross, who wasn’t quite sure how to respond to this question about a 12-step recovery meeting, told her: “Yes, I think you did see me there. You realize that anonymity is one of the facets of the program.”
The woman gasped, and everyone in the courtroom laughed.
Ross asked Oldfield whether she handled this properly and the judge invited Ross to return to her court – this time to share her story. Ross accepted the invitation and visited the court again with both Oldfield and Judge Jon Oldham, who took over drug court when Oldfield moved to Common Pleas, at the helm.
Lawyers' substance use
Running for judge
Ross wanted to run for Akron judge, but the timing never quite worked out.
She jumped at the chance last year to run for a Common Pleas spot against Judge Jill Flagg Lanzinger, who had been appointed to the seat in March 2017. They competed in the November election for a new, six-year term.
Ross didn’t try to hide her past troubles during the campaign, instead mentioning them in her literature, at campaign events and during interviews. She did so in case Lanzinger decided to use her struggles against her — a step Lanzinger didn’t take — and because she had always been open about her past struggles.
Ross, a Democrat who likely was helped by anti-Republican sentiment though the race was nonpartisan, beat Lanzinger with 54 percent of the vote.
Ross will be sworn in as a judge at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Ocasek building and will officially take the bench Friday.
Ross said her new job won’t deter her efforts to help others with addictions. She plans to continue her work with the bar association and at local drug courts.
She spoke on a recent morning at a drug-court graduation in Oldfield’s Common Pleas courtroom, detailing her long road from defendant to judge.
“My name is Susan — and I’m an alcoholic,” she said to the participants, family members and court officials in the packed courtroom.
“Hello, Susan!” they responded.
“You can do anything,” she told them. “What limits us is our brains. It is going to lie to us … Tell it to shut up — and find that peace and serenity.”
Ross earned a standing ovation.
Patricia Solombrino, 48, of Akron, one of the drug court graduates, was inspired by Ross’ remarks. Solombrino, who is currently juggling three jobs, said she’d like to go back to school to study child care or the culinary arts.
“She did it,” Solombrino said of Ross. “I can do it now.”
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705, email@example.com and on Twitter:@swarsmithabj.