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Judge Croce finds good fit in new seat

2/20/2014 - West Side Leader
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By Kathleen Folkerth

Judge Christine Croce is shown with members of the St. Vincent-St. Mary High School Mock Trial Team. From left are AnnMarie Costigan, Monica Pirie, Bryan Borodkin, Croce, Rollie Shank, Jane Bozsik and Ashley Johenning.
Photo courtesy of Judge Christine Croce
Summit County Common Pleas Judge Christine Croce said she’s feeling like her new position suits her well.
Photo courtesy of Summit County Common Pleas Court
DOWNTOWN AKRON — Newly appointed Summit County Common Pleas Judge Christine Croce said she may have found the job she wants to do until she retires.

“I really do love being a trial judge,” she said. “I don’t have aspirations to go to another level. I don’t think that’s where my qualifications will lead me. A trial judge at the common pleas level is what I think I’m best suited for. I’m hoping to stay for 15 or 20 years. This is where I would love to retire from.”

Croce, 47, of Green, was appointed to the seat previously held by Judge Judith Hunter, who retired last summer. She took office Nov. 27 after serving nearly two years as a judge in Barberton Municipal Court.

For Croce, who grew up in Brook Park, being in the legal profession was something that interested her from a young age.

“I always wanted to be a prosecutor,” she said, adding that seeing the law profession on TV shows growing up piqued her interest in the field.

She came to Akron to attend The University of Akron (UA).

“I started college, then started feeling like, who wants to go to school for seven or eight years?” she said. “So I focused my major on public relations and journalism. In my third year, I decided I would not be happy doing that, so I took my LSATs and went to night school [at the UA Law School].”

Croce said she grew up working for her parents’ small business, and a couple of years into her undergraduate years she started working in delivery for Federal Express. She did that for four years, into her law school days.

“It was a physical job, which was good,” she said. “I learned how to work with the public.”

She was at work by 5:50 a.m., worked a full day, then went to law school and spent her evenings studying.

It was tough, but it meant she had to have good time-management skills, she said.

Halfway through law school, she began working for the city of Akron’s Law Department in the Civil Division. She had the chance to work in traffic court and tried hundreds of cases.

She moved to the Summit County Prosecutor’s Office in 1995, working under then-prosecutor Maureen O’Connor. Working as an assistant prosecutor, she honed her trial skills and had the chance to try up to three cases a week, she said.

“It was invaluable,” she said of the experience.

In 2001, the chance to  work for the Summit County Sheriff’s Office came up. In nine years there, Croce served as legal counsel, assisting deputies with search warrants and other tasks. As time went on, her duties expanded to handling the multi-million dollar budget and personnel duties for the more than 500 employees of the office.

The idea of running for judge at some point had been on her mind, Croce said, but after helping with some other political campaigns, she wasn’t sure about it. In 2005, she was asked to run for the Ward 4 seat on Green City Council.

“I thought City Council would be a good way to help my community on a smaller scale,” she said.

She served one term and then decided to run for the Barberton Clerk of Courts seat in 2009.

“My legal background was already there, and I knew how the clerk’s office works,” she said. “It was almost a seamless transition. I had experience at the sheriff’s [office] and County Council level, as far as how to prepare a budget.”

Two years into her term, she decided to run for judge. But she said that wasn’t when she initially planned to make the attempt for higher office.

“Judge [Greg] Macko was planning on running,” she said. “I did not run for clerk to turn around and run two years later for judge. Then Judge Macko decided to retire. I thought, if not him, why not me?”

She successfully won the race in the 2011 General Election and took office in January 2012, joining Judge David Fish on the bench.

Her time in Barberton had been great, Croce said. So when the Summit County Republican Party was seeking applicants to recommend to Gov. John Kasich to be appointed to Hunter’s seat last year, Croce said she hesitated to apply.

“I lamented about it,” she said. “I really had become part of that community. The citizens of Barberton are probably the most committed to their community that I have seen. From the day I walked into that building in the Clerk of Courts, they had embraced me. So it was hard to do. It was a tough decision.”

When the local party sent their recommendations to Columbus, Croce was not first on the list, so she didn’t think the seat would be hers.

“I thought, at least I did it and I won’t have regrets,” she said. “Then I got a phone call and was offered the job. It completely caught me off guard. I was happy, excited and sad. It was a bag of mixed emotions.”

While it was hard to leave Barberton, she said she felt at ease once she started work in the Summit County Courthouse in Downtown Akron — the same place she’d worked early in her career.

“It was somewhat like coming home because I started here,” she said. “I really do love being here. There were so many faces that were here when I left.”

Croce must run in the Nov. 4 General Election this year to keep her seat and get a full term. She filed to run and will face John Clark in the contest.

Meanwhile, she’s enjoying her new role, as well as her current stint as coach for the St. Vincent-St. Mary High School’s mock trial team, for which fellow Judge Amy Corrigall Jones recruited her.

“The best part is to watch their progress,” she said. “It’s awesome. I’m like a proud mother. They are so eager to take in what you know and turn around and implement it. They are such a great group of kids.”

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