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Judge Retires after Career of Empowering Overlooked Populations

Image of a female judge with her chin resting on her hand speaking to another woman

Former Lucas County Juvenile Judge Connie Zemmelman helped reform how courts handle youth dealing with complex and traumatic issues.

Image of a female judge with her chin resting on her hand speaking to another woman

Former Lucas County Juvenile Judge Connie Zemmelman helped reform how courts handle youth dealing with complex and traumatic issues.

Some people are naturally drawn to helping others. For decades, one northwest Ohio judge used her platform to give a voice to those who couldn’t be heard.

Lucas County Juvenile Judge Connie Zemmelman recently retired after 14 years on the bench and prior service as a probate court magistrate and private attorney.

“It was hard to leave all those people who I worked with and saw every day,” said Zemmelman, referring to her colleagues, specifically her staff.

The ability to speak for others’ best interests started with her initial career path – as a translator.

Shortly after receiving her undergraduate degree, Zemmelman began translating conversations between Spanish-speaking farm workers and lawyers working with the Ohio Migrant Legal Action Program in Bowling Green.

“As I was doing more there, I started getting more interested in the legal side rather than the translating,” said Zemmelman. “In learning more about the law, I was working with people who were underprivileged and weren’t always treated fairly. They needed help from lawyers and couldn’t afford them.”

After graduating from the University of Toledo College of Law in 1981, Zemmelman spent 25 years in private practice. One decade included criminal defense work, but the majority of her cases focused on family law – adoptions, surrogacy matters, probate issues, and estates.

Zemmelman’s perspective and path changed in 2007 when she was appointed to the bench by former Gov. Ted Strickland.

“It felt strange and took a while to settle in,” Zemmelman said. “I had looked up to judges for so long that I needed some time to realize I was now part of that judiciary.”

She said she learned that being a judge “is not about the person but the position.  That outlook helped me command respect for it.”

Decades of experience dealing with family matters paid immediate dividends for Zemmelman’s ability to handle a specialized docket.

Having inherited a family drug court from her predecessor, the retired Judge James Ray, Zemmelman helped expand the program and its services to children and to parents struggling with substance use issues.

At the time of Zemmelman’s departure, about 60 percent of participants reunited with their children.

“It really is a tough docket, but it was my favorite part of the job,” she said. “I really enjoyed working with those people. You have to learn to be really tough and not enable them, but be compassionate and show them you still care.”

While there were numerous impactful cases from her family dependency court, no single matter changed her judicial course more than one juvenile with underlying issues.

About a decade ago, a teen appeared in front of Zemmelman multiple times for burglary, truancy, and drug offenses. Despite the court’s best efforts to get the girl help, she kept getting in more trouble.

“Eventually, we found out she was being trafficked by her mother,” Zemmelman said.

That revelation returned Zemmelman to her advocacy roots.

She joined the Lucas County Human Trafficking Coalition, regularly speaking and presenting to groups in the community about the prevalence of child exploitation.

In 2011, that activism caught the attention of then-state representative and current state Sen. Teresa Fedor. She asked Zemmelman to help her draft what became the Ohio Safe Harbor Law, which allows judges to put holds on juveniles’ cases in order to seek appropriate services for them if an offense resulted from being trafficked.

“I knew that in Lucas County we were doing a pretty good job of not treating victims like criminals, but there was much more work to be done,” Zemmelman said. “A lot of these kids were being forced to do things and getting involved in criminal behaviors directly related to their victimization.”

A common thread for the spectrum of offenses in her court – from delinquency and drugs to human trafficking and gun violence – was trauma.

Given many people’s lack of awareness and exposure to the instability and issues caused by life-altering anguish, Zemmelman approached each case individually.

In trying “to understand and respect each person’s background,” she was able to better contextualize how an offender ended up in her court and the best way to rehabilitate them while also balancing public safety.

For all of the successes amid difficult circumstances, the most lasting part of her legal career could be as a positive influence for girls and women seeking positions of prominence.

One prime example is her daughter, Rebecca, a fellow attorney.

“Women aren't always given the same opportunities, but they’re seeing through women like me that they can excel and become whatever they want to be,” Zemmelman said.

Even though she’s stepping away from the bench full time, Zemmelman will still serve as a private judge for surrogacy cases, and stay involved with the human trafficking coalition.

With her added free time, Zemmelman plans to reengage with a couple of passions – the piano and pickleball. She also intends to travel with her husband, Norman, a retired Lucas County domestic relations judge whom she credits for his personal and professional support.

“I’m looking forward to the next adventure,” she said.