Municipal Court Judge Heather S. Russell,
nominated by Women Helping Women

by: Susie Owens

Too often, the world’s rules don’t adequately align with the hearts of women—those whose hearts have the capacity to simultaneously love, care for, nurture, and pave the way for those who can’t quite take care of things themselves. Whether they are our children, aging parents, friends, or victims of crime and poverty, women often find themselves unable to stretch their wings wide enough to do the work placed in front of them.

Yet, the Honorable Heather Russell found a way to step up and expand her reach. Heather was serving victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, and homicides when she faced that moment every working mother dreads. It happened during a murder trial when the judge unexpectedly ordered the jury to stay past 4 p.m. Meanwhile, her 12-year old son needed to be picked up and dressed in football pads for the peewee football homecoming parade float.

Heather knew, with two growing boys, there would be many future moments like this. Staying home was not an option. Her solution was simple and brilliant: Run for judge. “If I were presiding over a jury, I could break for the day at the end of normal courthouse hours at 4 pm and still be present as a mom, and continue with the jury the next morning.”

This strategy empowered Heather, allowing her to serve justice to help both victims and perpetrators to break that cycle of violence. More importantly, Heather won.

As a result, her life became chaotic, but full.  “This is a woman who, in a single day, could make and deliver chicken soup to sick neighbors before heading to the office, expertly charge through a full day’s docket of difficult and emotional criminal hearings and trials, whip off her robes and suit while throwing on shorts and sneakers to race to her sons’ baseball games, take calls at night to authorize search warrants, and meet the patrolmen in her bathrobe when they knock on her door in the wee hours to sign those warrants,” says her friend Catherine Vernon.

Still, there were times when Heather had “working mom’s remorse.”  But she found creative ways to be present with her kids.  When she was a prosecuting attorney, she used 10 vacation days each summer to accompany them on their weekly field trips.  Today, young mothers in the prosecutor’s office use Heather’s example to set similar work schedules around their children’s lives.

“I advise them not to feel guilty about going back to work — because a mother who loves her job is a happy, fulfilled mother.”

Heather is quick to point out that it is not the size of a paycheck that creates success. What matters is to “follow your passion,” even when people tell you that you have no aptitude for it.  When Heather applied to law school, her mediocre LSAT led the recruiter to conclude that she did not have an “aptitude for law,” despite the fact that she had a high GPA and two degrees.  “My folks told me to apply anyway because I would regret it if I didn’t at least try,” Heather says. “Not only did the law school admit me, but I got a fellowship that fully paid my tuition!”

Today, with the boys grown, Heather’s time allows her to work on creating a special program for those arrested with diagnoses of trauma, addiction, and mental health issues that come from being sex trafficked.

pointer-dingyIf you could change one thing in the world what would it be?

“I wish that all children could have loving families; that they could be raised with their basic needs met, with structure and respect for their family, for hard work, for education, and for personal achievement.”

pointer-dingyWhat is the most important piece of advice you would share with a young woman growing up today?

“Find a way to be financially independent so that your well-being does not depend on someone else’s decisions.  My mom taught me to believe that you can do whatever you dream of, and I try to instill that in the people I deal with from the bench.”

pointer-dingyWhat women influenced you the most either past or present?

“My mom!  She graduated first in her class in Scotland, but was unable to go to college because of World War II.  In her 50’s she applied to college and had to take the GED because she couldn’t find her high school diploma.  Eventually, she got her Master’s degree.”

pointer-dingyWhat’s your favorite quote? 

“The best prize life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”
~ Theodore Roosevelt

 

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