From Humble Beginnings to the Highest Heights

Rev. Donald L. Perryman, D.Min.

By Rev. Donald L. Perryman, Ph.D.
The Truth Contributor

  The most fundamental leadership role is simply to be an example, a model: one whose life has credibility with others, has integrity, diligence, humility, the spirit of servant-leadership, of contribution.

-Stephen R. Covey

The Ohio Supreme Court races are clearly at the center of the Ohio midterm elections.

Looming high court decisions on redistricting, abortion, and LGBTQ+ rights may decide the course of history for centuries.

With three seats available, voters must ensure fairness comes to Ohio’s highest court.

Judge Marilyn Zayas, Ohio Supreme Court candidate, deserves our political support and utmost focus. Currently a judge of the Ohio First District Court of Appeals, Zayas is the first and only Latina elected to any Ohio appellate court. But, more importantly, her life’s journey and professional pilgrimage have been that of integrity, diligence, humility, a spirit of servant-leadership, and contribution. Zayas likes to say about her candidacy, ‘Who we are is what we bring to the court.’

The following is the conclusion of my two-part conversation with Judge Zayas about her life’s journey, judicial reputation, and candidacy for Ohio’s highest court.

Judge Marilyn Zayas

Perryman: Let’s talk about your work as a judge and what we might expect if we see you on the Ohio Supreme Court.

Zayas: One of the things I’m very passionate about in coming to the Supreme Court is the specialty dockets. Even within the juvenile court system, specialty dockets are very impactful and collaborative in working with the family and with services while providing accountability.

Perryman: Are there examples?

Zayas: In the adult system, you also have the mental health court, the veteran’s court, and the drug court. There’s also something called the second chance court, which is for people that are victims of trafficking. These are impactful courts because it’s a partnership of services and accountability. Individuals must go through all the process steps, which dramatically decreases recidivism. As a result, people can change their lives and change their trajectories.

But I will tell you, and I think this will surprise you, even every metropolitan area in Ohio does not have all those specialty courts. However, if we want to impact crime, stability, and the economy, that is one of the ways that we can really do it significantly.

Perryman:  What else are you passionate about?

Zayas: The other thing that I’m genuinely passionate about is a road map created 20 years ago on how to have a more fair judiciary in Ohio. I’m talking about this as much as possible to bring accountability and transparency to the Supreme Court, which is much needed.

Twenty years ago, then-Chief Justice Moyer put together The Ohio Commission on Racial Fairness. This statewide bipartisan commission included judges, attorneys, and individuals. That report was released 20 years ago, and almost every recommendation there has been left untouched, undone. For example, have you heard of the sentencing database?

Perryman:  I have.

Zayas: Let me tell you that the commission recommended implementing the sentencing database 20 years ago. So, we merely have to follow the roadmap that is already there. One of the other recommendations was to require every attorney and judge to complete bias training to renew their license. Now you know that doesn’t happen.

Perryman: It’s amazing that it has not yet happened after twenty years.

Zayas: I’ll give you the third recommendation because these are the three that I’m most passionate about. The other request was that all criminal defense attorneys or would-be criminal defense attorneys undergo a free certification process provided by the Supreme Court.

Perryman: What type of training?

Zayas: They are training so that criminal defense attorneys understand search and seizure law and criminal procedure and how to present a jury trial.

Perryman: In other words, training to wipe out the incompetent legal representation a lot of criminal defendants receive.

Zayas: I’ll let you use your words. That’s further than I can go. However, I will tell you that my passion for that piece is born from my experience as an appellate judge and reading transcripts of what happened at the trial court.

Also, the Moyer report is not limited to recommendations. The Racial Fairness Implementation Task Force was a separate commission to identify which recommendations were doable in Ohio and provide an action plan for implementation. This commission presented criminal defense training as entirely doable. Yet, after 20 years, it remains undone.

Perryman: And if you’re elected, will you ensure implementation?

Zayas:  I am passionate about the sentencing database.

Perryman: I understand the database as a tool to collect all the sentencing data from all the judges in Ohio. Analysts can then identify disparate sentencing trends in certain rural or white areas. They can also determine whether a particular judge sentences a person of color to ‘x’ number of years or months as opposed to white.

Zayas: The new controversy is that some of the sitting justices question whether it should be accessible to the public or simply accessible to attorneys. I believe in accountability, so it should be accessible to the public.

I’m also passionate about having certification training and uniform training for any attorney who will do criminal defense work. In addition, I’m passionate about requiring bias training as part of the two-year continuing legal education.

Those three priorities come directly from the Report on Racial Fairness commissioned by the Supreme Court of Ohio. In addition, I’m passionate about expanding the specialty dockets that have been proven to help people get on their feet.

Perryman: Anything else you want to add?

Zayas:  I do want to add something else. As you know, this is such an important election and as I said earlier, ‘Who we are is what we bring to the court.’

My brothers and I should’ve been statistics. It’s not even a joke; I’ve reflected on this because my brothers and I have taken these interesting paths.

My oldest brother is a police officer. He was a career police officer and was hit by a drunk driver while on duty. He survived miraculously. He has 9/11 lung disease, but he’s very passionate. For decades he’s been working on a program that brings community theatre to one of the toughest neighborhoods in the Bronx, New York.

My other two brothers are teachers, and for decades they have been passionate about the Boy Scouts, where they are troop leaders.

Then there’s me, and I’ve realized that my brothers and I went through so many difficulties that we really don’t want other people to go through unnecessary hardships.

Perryman: Why is the election so important for you, personally?

Zayas: For me, then, it’s two-fold. First, it’s not just me as a judge, which is so important because if you are doing your job, faithful to the law, and making sure everyone’s treated equally, that is a profound impact. It’s not the whole solution, but it profoundly impacts justice.

But I’m also very passionate about working with young people. So right after I became a judge, I created a program. I work with the Cincinnati Public Schools and also with law students. I call it Educating Tomorrow’s Leaders, and I bring students to the court so that they can not only experience and watch what happens in the court of appeals, which is very similar to the Supreme Court, I take them behind the scenes where my own staff attorneys don’t even have keys to enter.

They get to see where we meet before court. They come out through the same door that I go into court. They sit on the three chairs of the court of appeals and pretend they’re running the court or whatever they want to do.

I had a moment right after I was elected when I realized that I could never have dreamt of this. I just wanted to get through high school, and then I wanted to get through college, and I felt like if I made it through college, I’d done it.

Then, I realized there are other kids out there that are like me, and they don’t even actualize their full potential. They don’t even see it in themselves.

So, when you have these opportunities to be an example, it’s two-fold.

It’s doing it with excellence, leaving that door open, and leaving a positive reputation. But, still, it’s also about not forgetting where you come from and always remembering that other young people are going through their own hardships and not forgetting about that.

Perryman: Lastly, you talked earlier about your humble beginning in Washington Heights. How much does the In the Heights musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda reflect your experience?

Zayas: A community swimming pool is in one of the movie’s biggest scenes. We used to go to that pool every week in the summer when I was a kid. There’s a tower, lockers, and there’s the kiddie pool. I know that pool like you can’t believe it. The church I went to is in the movie, and the building I grew up in shows up at least three times.

Perryman: So, what did you think of the movie?

Zayas: I’m going to be honest with you. I really wanted to see the movie, but I was afraid that I would have one of those ugly emotional cries because those were difficult times for me, but that didn’t happen. So, it wound up as a very joyous movie.

I had actually avoided going back to Washington Heights all my life. But nevertheless, last November, I decided to go back. I went up to the apartment I grew up in, and actually, it was like closing a circle of like this is where I grew up.

There was a lot of pain here and many difficult times, but this is where I grew up, and I’m grateful that this is where I grew up because it gave me what I needed for what I’m doing. So, when I went back, I felt like God gave me exactly what I needed to be able to do this job now.

What I thought would be an ugly cry was like a loop closed when I was in that apartment where I grew up.

Perryman: Yes. Your roots provided not only the catalyst but also confirmation for doing your vital life’s work.

Zayas: That’s exactly right.

Contact Rev. Donald Perryman, PhD at