Judge Elisabeth French brings balance.
Words by Javacia Harris Bowser
Photos by Kyle Carpenter
Trust. The Honorable Elisabeth French uses the word a lot when discussing the career path that brought her to the bench.
"Being a judge, you do have a lot of power, so there’s a lot of trust involved with the use of that power,” she says.
Elisabeth was elected as a circuit court Judge for Jefferson County, Alabama, in 2010. When she was re-elected six years later, she made headlines and history. In November 2016, nine black women—including Elisabeth—were elected to become district and circuit court judges in Jefferson County, an unprecedented event.
Elisabeth doesn’t believe people have voted for her simply because of her gender or race. She believes she
has gained people’s trust by building a reputation as a lawyer who fights for those who have been physically or financially hurt.
“People can see through if someone is not genuine or can’t be trusted,” she says.
In 2019, Elisabeth was trusted with even more responsibility when she was appointed to the Court of the Judiciary. If a com-plaint is made against a judge and there’s a need for a settle mentor trial, the matter goes before the Court of the Judiciary. This means she’s a judge of judges. “It’s probably the highest honor that I’ve gotten,” Elisabeth says.
But to get here, Elisabeth had to first trust herself.
In the early years of her law career, Elisabeth traveled all over the country trying cases of medical malpractice, pharmaceutical mass tort, and more.
While she was building her career, Elisabeth was also building a family with her husband, attorney G. Courtney French. Once she was pregnant with her second child, Elisabeth decided it was time to halt the hustle.
“Many successful women would say you don’t take a step back; you lean in,” Elisabeth says. Yes, she’s read Sheryl Sandberg’s wildly popular book on this matter. She even calls the book “awesome.” But sometimes, she says, you have to lean back.
“I was on an airplane every week,” she explains. “I was either going to be that mom that was gone all the time, or I had to step back.”
When asked what advice she’d give other working moms, Elisabeth notes that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.
“I just followed my heart and I thought long-term,” she says. “If I don’t get it right with these children, what have I really done? I have an awesome career, but if my kids are not healthy, then why am I really working so hard?”
ACT OF COURAGE
After her second child was born, Elisabeth became a solo practitioner so she could continue to practice law and stay close to home. During this time, she decided she wanted to become a judge.
“I think it was just courage that came over me,” Elisabeth says.
When the Alabama Democratic Executive Committee removed a candidate from the November 2, 2010, ballot and had to find a replacement, Elisabeth threw her hat in the ring and was chosen as the Democratic candidate.
“I think they just trusted that I would work hard and try to do the right thing—try to make it a level playing field,” Elisabeth says. She would go onto win the seat.
“Judge French has an outstanding legal mind, is fundamentally fair, and above all, compassionate about people,” says Alabama Supreme Court Associate Justice Sarah Stewart, who appointed Elisabeth for the Court of the Judiciary. “I think Judge French is so highly respected by her peers, lawyers, and the public, because of these qualities. She is very intelligent, believes in justice, but tempers it all with mercy.”
WHAT A MENTOR DOES
When Elisabeth was first elected, the late Judge Helen Shores Lee, the first African-American woman elected to the Jefferson County Circuit Court, took Elisabeth under her wing.
“She was a trailblazer,” Elisabeth says of Judge Lee. “She would tell me about lawyers who were resistant to her being there just because of her skin color, and she would tell me how she handled things. That’s what a mentor does.”
Now Elisabeth is a mentor to others. Judge Shera Grant, who became a d
istrict court judge for Jefferson County in January 2016, considers Elisabeth not only a colleague but a confidant.
“Elisabeth has always offered sound advice on work/life balance for the working mother,” Shera says. “We both have young children and want to make sure that our personal lives with our families thrive, as well as our professional lives.”
Being a judge and a woman is a balancing act, Elisabeth says, and not just because she’s a mother.
“As a woman, I think there’s a fine line that we walk,” Elisabeth says, ex-plaining that women can’t be too aggressive, too gentle, or too emotional i na field such as hers. “There’s no need to be rude to people, but as a lawyer and as a judge there’s a definite need to be firm.”
Though Elisabeth is notably courteous and soft-spoken, she doesn’t let people mistake her kindness for weakness.
“If I say something, I mean it. And if they don’t believe me, I’ll show them that I meant it—in a nice way,” she says with a laugh. “You get more bees with honey.”