CINCINNATI - Judge Sylvia Hendon tells it like it is and how it should be.
As she leaves the bench, the woman who's held court for Hamilton County's kids for decades offers powerful insights in a one-on-one interview with WCPO’s Julie O’Neill.
“This is my first day on the bench. It was Dec. 13, 1983,” Hendon says as she looks at a framed photo in her office.
“I look like I'm 13 years old … absolutely no business being on the bench … and now I'm getting booted out.”
The Hamilton County District Court of Appeals judge cleaned out her office Wednesday after more than 33 years on the bench.
O’Neill: “What do you think when you see that young woman?"
Hendon: “I think I probably should've gotten a different hairdo between then and now, which I haven't really done much of.”
Here’s Hendon’s career in a nutshell: Elected to Municipal Court in November 1983 and served for 10 years. Appointed to Juvenile Court In January 1993, stayed 12 years. Elected to the First District Court of Appeals in November 2004. She is the only sitting judge to have served as presiding judge in all three levels of court.
She has been busy much of her career tackling some of our toughest kid cases in Juvenile Court.
“That's where I left my heart,” Hendon says.
Hendon remembers shopping sales for the stuffed animals she kept on hand for the youngest kids who came to her courtroom.
“When the little ones would come into court with their older brothers or sisters, or when the little ones would come in with custody battles … we would give them a stuffed animal to make them feel a little bit more comfortable. And they would get to come in and pick out of the basket which one they wanted," Hendon said.
“I would hunt anytime there was any kind of a sale someplace, and especially Walgreen's because they used to have these really inexpensive ones. We had 20 or 30 of them at any given time. It was fun and I really did see a calming effect.”
Hendon had a tough side to go with her soft side.
“I was called a number of things, one of which was the Wicked Witch. Dragon Lady, that was a favorite,” she said.
O’Neill: “Is it tough being the bad guy?”
Hendon: “If you're a mom (she's a mother of two), you've learned how to be the bad guy kind of naturally … Sometimes, if I fault myself, it's probably that I wasn't tough enough on some of the kids in juvenile court early on. I've come ... to realize that there are some youngsters who if you get to them early enough and get to them strongly enough you might divert them.”
Over the years, Hendon has seen juvenile crimes worsen drastically.
“When I came to Juvenile Court, probably the most serious things we ever saw were auto thefts and maybe an occasional burglary. The week that I came back as a judge I had three murder cases sitting on my docket. That was in 1993. It's only gotten worse,” she said.
But Hendon said she’s optimistic about new laws and attitudes about dealing with juvenile crime and offenders.
“What has happened across the country is a pendulum swing. Legislatures across the country decided to get very tough on juvenile crime, so they passed a lot of draconian laws. There are some states that even allow the death penalty for juveniles, which is now being overturned. There are states like Ohio that have mandatory transfers to the adult court. which the Supreme Court just declared to be unconstitutional a couple of weeks ago,” Hendon said.
“So what went from a very lax set of penalties for juveniles, we suddenly came up with a very stringent and pretty draconian set of penalties, some of which were mandatory time.
“Now we're swinging back the other way."
She see judges getting to use more discretion.
“Judging from the latest Ohio Supreme Court ruling, I think they're going to pretty much get rid of everything that has the word mandatory in it. And they're going to go back to giving the discretion to the judges, which any judge will tell you is a good thing," Hendon said.
“We get elected because people trust us to do what is right, and if a child should be placed in an institution, I would hope that that judge would place them in an institution. If a child needs to go to the adult court, I would hope that that judge will send that child to the adult court. But we had legislation that required that to happen even in cases when it shouldn't have, and hopefully that's being undone and we're coming back to a more centric view of the whole juvenile justice system.
“People make a huge living writing articles about the development of a child's brain and why a child can't be held responsible for certain things because of their upbringing and all that. I don't believe in any of that. What I believe is that you take the child as you find the child and some of them have had actually horrendous backgrounds. I had a little boy last week who's never ever had a home. Ever. Never.
“Is it a surprise that he goes astray? Absolutely not. Do we excuse the fact that he shot at somebody? No, we shouldn't because if we do because of his background he's likely going to go out and shoot somebody again. So you need to react to the facts that you have in front of you - but with compassion.
“So many of these kids respond to structure. They respond to an expectation of achievement and once you can kind of ingrain that into some of these kids it's amazing what they do with their lives. Just amazing.
“On the other hand there are some kids that you're not going to break the cycle.”
For the last few years Hendon has handled some of the juvenile court docket - along with her full load on the court of appeals - for no extra pay.
That followed Tracie Hunter’s conviction and suspension from the bench. It was supposed to be for a week and turned into almost three years.
“When all of that happened, they just asked me if I would come in and pinch hit for a week and I said of course,” Hendon said. “Well, as all part-time jobs go, it became week after week after week, and I could not be paid because I was a sitting judge and you can't get two sources of compensation.”
But it’s been rewarding in so many other ways, she said.
“If that's my volunteer work in my life, so be it because I have loved every minute of it,” Hendon said. “That is a very special family over there and it's been an honor to be back there.
“Every once in a while you actually get a success story and the kids will write you letters and that makes you feel good. Or you'll run into somebody in the grocery store. The most chilling thing that can happen to a judge is have someone say from behind you, ‘Aren't you Judge Hendon?’ and you go ‘Yes,’ and then you wait. And without exception it's always been for me, ‘You had my son in court 20 years ago and I just want to tell you he's doing really well.’ And how good that makes you feel.
“And the letters and the cards that you get from people that tell you, ‘I went to college. I got my degree. I just wanted to let you know that I'm married and I have two children and we're all doing well.’
“It's wonderful. It really is.”
“A hundred years from now it won't matter what kind of car you drove, what your bank account was, but the world might be a better place because you were important in the life of a child.”
Hendon would love to have kept her seat, but Ohio law prevents judges from running again after age 70. She will miss it. She says she feels like she did on Dec, 13, 1983.
“I just think of how much time has gone by and how I still feel like I did that day - that I walk in and everything is still new," Hendon said. "Someone's life is on the line in one way or another and every single case is different. And I don't care if it's your first day or your last day, you have that same feeling of ‘Oh, my goodness, who am I to tell you what to do?’ All I can do is tell you what the law says I have to tell you. You're in charge of your own life.
“It's just such an incredible feeling of responsibility … and if there's any piece of advice I can give to anybody on the way in, it's do what you think is right. Make sure you can sleep at night, because I'm on my way out and I truly feel not only that I've done the right thing but that I've been able to sleep at night.”
Hendon shared her views on:
The Court of Appeals:
“The nice thing about the Court of Appeals is it has sense of finality. When you're on the trial bench, everything gets second-guessed by the Court of Appeals, so when you're on the Court of Appeals you get to do the second guessing and only a miniscule of our cases go to the Supreme Court, so we are kind of the end of the line for this district. So it's an awesome responsibility and I did like that. I liked interpreting the law for this district. I liked the variety of cases that we had over here.”
Age limits for judges
“Age is such a different thing now than when that law was written. You know our constitution says that a judge can't run again after age 70. It's time for that to be revisited.
“If you are blessed enough to have good health, there's no reason why a judge can't continue to sit after 70. The federal court does it. There's no limitation on the federal court and as a visiting judge I'll be coming back sporadically … So the fiction that you can't run again after you've turned 70 really needs to be abolished. But it was on the ballot and the voters said no so. We last a lot of really good judges in the last couple of years.
“It's very bittersweet, no question about it. It would be intensely much worse if I didn't have the opportunity to come back in the future as a visiting judge."
READ Hendon’s biography.