In the summer of 1994, shortly after Solomon Oliver Jr., a professor of law and associate dean at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, was confirmed as President Clinton’s choice for U.S. District Court Judge for the Northern District of Ohio, he received a congratulatory call from Wooster alumnus, Judge Rod Kennedy ’77.
“Now I think Sol Oliver is a great human being,” says Kennedy. “But after I’d told him ‘Congrats,’ I said, ‘You’ve got to watch it. The Chief Justice told me that they put powder in your robe—kind of like jerk powder—and if you put it on without cleaning it first, then you become a jerk.’”
Oliver replied that he could foresee no problem. The robe he was wearing was not a judge’s robe at all, but a minister’s robe, worn by his uncle. He would welcome anything that rubbed off.
The playful story illustrates what Judge Oliver considers his touchstone. “I am grounded by my family. I have a responsibility to stay true to my heritage and the values that I learned.”
Sol Oliver, the fourth of 10 children of the Reverend Solomon and Willie Lee Oliver, grew up in a small town near Birmingham, Alabama, during a time of segregation, repression, and unrest. Blacks could not take jobs as bus drivers or even store clerks. Serving in government roles was unthinkable. In 1963, the same year as the Birmingham church bombing, Oliver was traveling through rural Georgia to a church convention with two deacons. When he tried to use a gas station restroom, he was attacked by the white attendant, who was convinced that the trio had been sent by Attorney General Robert Kennedy to integrate the facility.
Oliver took note, figuring that if the Attorney General could strike such fear in people’s hearts, then perhaps being a lawyer was a pretty good idea.
Repression, says Oliver, is a teacher. “The question is, ‘What is your response?’ Do you grow to hate your oppressors? Or grow to hate yourself? For me, the answer was ‘neither.’ My parents taught me that people like this aren’t monsters, or less than human beings, but simply people who are misguided. And this lesson I’ve carried with me for life. When I look at the people I have to sentence, it’s my responsibility not to condemn them as human beings.”
As Oliver talks about his job, he chooses words with careful deliberation. One word reappears many times: Respect. His courtroom, he says, must be a place of respect. He treats everyone who comes before him with respect. He demands that attorneys respect each other.
As a federal judge, he hears a wide range of cases, including civil lawsuits for employment discrimination, violation of civil rights, copyright and patent infringement, securities fraud, and injuries caused by defective consumer products. He rules on criminal prosecutions for public corruption, defrauding government programs, and conspiracies to buy and sell drugs.
And does the power of being a judge ever prompt him to worry about that jerk phenomenon that Judge Kennedy alerted him to?
“I don’t think of a judge as being who I am. It’s what I do. If people I respect believed I saw myself as being a better human being with higher status because I was a judge that would be upsetting to me. I’d be very disappointed and upset with myself.
“My whole approach involves remembering who I am, where I came from, and the values that I learned from my parents, and carrying those forward in everything I do.”
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