February is Black History Month and it’s a time to recognize the past but also honor those who are achieving great things today.
Firsts are being made in the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Ohio. In January 2024, Jessica E. Price Smith officially became Chief Judge.
The Cleveland native is the first Black woman to hold that title. In 2011, she was also the first Black woman to be appointed to the bench for the same bankruptcy court.
“The first Black chief judge for the Northern District of Ohio was Randolph Baxter,” said Price Smith. “It is the person that I succeeded on the bench, that’s the person who gave me my first job.”
She is proud to walk in his footsteps. Early in her career, she also clerked for this court.
“When I first had the opportunity to clerk, that’s where I learned that in bankruptcy, you can kind of do a little bit of everything, so after my clerkship, I became a bankruptcy practitioner,” Price Smith said.
She became a partner in a firm, as well, which led her to the ultimate goal of a judgeship. Price Smith mapped out a career that she believed would make her the best candidate when the opportunity arrived.
On her journey, she achieved successes but also faced challenges.
“There are a lot of people across the spectrum, different backgrounds, ethnicities, different incomes that can find themselves in bankruptcy, but there are very few Black bankruptcy lawyers and there are even fewer Black bankruptcy business lawyers,” she said.
Price Smith said it’s the kind of business where relationships are important.
“People have to trust that you understand their business, that you can either help them reorganize or help them find a solution to the issues they’re having,” she said.
Her goal was to help people develop trust in her because of her skill set.
“But when I did that there would be places I would show up where people didn’t know me and they would presume I was not supposed to be there, which is always fascinating,” Price Smith said. “I think we all have kind of that story when someone asks you, when lunch is going to be served and you’re actually the speaker and not a server.”
Price Smith is a wife and mother of two boys ages 13 and 11.
“I’ve learned a lot from motherhood and mothering two different types of personalities. I love their world, the way they see things, the way that they believe that anything is possible.”
It’s a belief she wants to instill in the next generation.
“That’s one of the reasons why I am always open and available for any group that wants to come in and bring their students in because they need to see a courtroom is a place that they can be as a lawyer, as a judge, as an administrator. This is something that is completely open and available to you,”
Price Smith often makes herself available in the local community. “I am involved in several organisations whose goals are to make an impact in our community. I believe that service is in fact the rent we pay to be there,” she said. “If you have the ability and the capacity to serve, that is what helps make your life more fulfilled.”