Congratulations to Judge Deborah Turner, who was honored on Thursday, May 25, as a Cleveland State University Law Alumni Association Alumni of the Year. A former teacher, Judge Turner tries to stay involved with students at all levels from primary school to law school, as she knows more than most the impact of inspiring the next generation of potential members of the bar.
While she always had an interest in a legal career, a lack of finances pushed her to pursue a career in education. Her original interest in the law stems back to her childhood and an interaction and positive experience with prominent civil rights lawyer and CSU|LAW Hall of Fame member Stanley Tolliver ’53. Tolliver, a frequent patron of Judge Turner’s mother’s restaurant, successfully represented her mother during some legal issues and Judge Turner hoped she could one day help people the way Tolliver helped her family.
Judge Turner worked as a public-school educator for 20 years, primarily in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District. She taught the social studies curriculum, which included history, geography, government and a high school law class, and coached the school’s mock trial team.
While she loved teaching immensely, Judge Turner was able to attend law school after 15 years of teaching thanks to CSULAW’s evening program and being accepted as a Marshall Scholar. She was already quite familiar with CSU having received a Bachelor of Arts in history, with Secondary Education Certification and a Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction from the University. And she was quite familiar with the challenges of balancing work and schooling. Turner completed her undergraduate degree at CSU in seven years, as she would frequently need to leave school for a quarter at a time to save up money for tuition working various jobs including as a as a hotel maid, a UPS truck loader, and a clerk at a maid company.
While teaching during the day and attending law school during evenings, Judge Turner still found time to cook for her family of four children and her husband Rev. Donald M. Turner (they have now been married 51 years and also have six grandchildren), create lesson plans, grade papers, study, and participate in the Black Law Students Association (BLSA) and Employment Law Clinic. She recalls sleeping for approximately 3.5 hours per night during law school.
“My legal education helped me realize that challenges make you stronger and at the end of the day the key ingredient is perseverance.”
Judge Turner has not only persevered but has thrived throughout her legal career. In 2018, Judge Turner was elected as the 5th African American female elected to the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas, General Division.
Her path to the bench began with service as the personal bailiff and magistrate to the Honorable Janet E. Burney, Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court. It was during that tenure that she began seeing herself as a future judge. Her other legal positions include serving as a magistrate in Bedford Municipal Court, Prosecutor and Assistant Law Director for the city of Bedford Heights, Prosecutor for the city of Warrensville Heights, guardian ad litem, Counsel for the Bedford Heights Charter Review, and operating her own practice as a criminal and family law attorney.
Judge Turner is a member of the Black Women’s Political Action Committee and the National Council of Negro Women, Western Reserve Section. Since taking the bench, she has also remained involved with the community by visiting schools to encourage students and is also involved with food distribution, voter registration and services to nursing homes, and youth groups.
“Community involvement is very important,” explained Judge Turner. “These organizations provide many opportunities to engage the community and provide vital services.”
Possessing knowledge derived from the challenges of raising her own son with Downs Syndrome, Judge Turner is an advocate for individuals with disabilities. She has spoken to parent groups regarding employment programs for individuals with developmental disabilities and strives to have the laws applied to those with disabilities in an equitable fashion.
“It is very humbling and brings great joy being named CSULAA Alumni of the Year. I count it as a blessing beyond my wildest dreams,” Judge Turner said of the honor.
Judge Turner with Court Administrator Greg Popovich and Deputy Court Administrator Andrea Kinast.