Judge Deweese’s Message to Women: “There Are No Limits to What You Can Achieve”

By Julie Wrinn

Judge Deborah Deweese grew up in a blue collar neighborhood in the south end of Louisville and remembers watching TV most nights with her parents and brothers. The family’s favorite show was Perry Mason, and one night her dad said to young Deborah, “Why don’t you be a lawyer like him?”

“That resonated with me,” remembers Judge Deweese, “and I can’t say that I ever wanted to do anything else.” It was typical of her father’s insistence that she could do anything, “that there was no difference between me and my two brothers”—not an ordinary viewpoint at the time.

A 1981 Political Science major at UK, Deborah Deweese came on the bench in 1994 when there were just five women judges on the District Court in Jefferson County out of 21 total. Now the majority of the District Court judges are women, the Circuit Court is about half women, and the Family Court bench is nearly all women. It’s been a sea change for women in the profession. “I’d like to say that the whole notion of men being uncomfortable with women lawyers and women judges has gone away completely. It has not,” admits Deweese. “There are still some male attorneys who are uncomfortable with women attorneys, women judges, any women in the system. I’m hoping that will ultimately go away altogether. I have two adult sons, and I have raised them to believe that women are in every way their equal.” One of them, Stephen Clay Sims, is following in his mother’s footsteps as a current Political Science major at UK.

Along with her father’s belief in her abilities, Deweese was fortunate in the example of her mother, who worked for the phone company for over forty years and was comfortable in a position of authority. Her mother did face discrimination, however, and Judge Deweese feels it’s important for women to remind each other of that. “I don’t think we can remind them enough. Discriminiation doesn’t just go away and not come back. Young women have work to do in order to continue the progress. I worry about them being too comfortable with it because they’ve never experienced anything else.”

Deweese was lucky to have supportive parents, and at the University of Kentucky and its Political Science Department, she found an intellectual home. “I was a voracious reader and gatherer of knowledge. In Political Science you read and ingest and discuss and analyze some very sophisticated topics.” Because of these habits of mind, Deweese feels that law school was less difficult for her than for many. In today’s changing political environment, critical thinking strikes her as more important than ever, an essential life skill. “To evaluate, analyze, categorize what’s important, what’s not, what’s the takeaway, what’s the big picture. In Political Science you’ll learn what is a smokescreen, a trend, an anomaly.”

In her freshman year at UK, Deweese joined a student group called the Business Affairs Roundtable. “I’m sure it had something to do with my mother saying, ‘Now when you’re up there, you need to involve yourself in things.’” Deweese remembers receiving encouragement from a member of the roundtable who was Student Body President at the time—Jim Newberry (Political Science ’78, Law ’81, Mayor of Lexington 2006–11). “I have really good memories of Jim—he was a senior then—he probably took pity on this young freshman who was in over her head. But I remember that he spoke to me a lot, and engaged me, and made me feel like I was part of the process. That’s a vivid memory for me. It probably got me off on the right foot in school.”

Deweese is now passionate about serving in a mentor role herself. “It can’t be stated enough that there are no obstacles to anything you choose to do, no matter who tries to throw those obstacles up.” She’s gone back to her high school with that message, to the young men and women both, but particularly to the women. “To tell them what I think, but also to let them see me and to know that they can be decision makers, they can be comfortable with that process of having that power and authority and decision making ability.”

“I’m a real fan of women and their capabilities. I see the things that they do. And we’re also raising children, and we’re involved in our communities, and we’re tying to juggle all these things. I do think it’s important to support women and mentor women.” Deweese also stresses the benefit of having a strong partner, as she does in husband Benham Sims, an attorney and former judge himself. “He is an equally vocal believer in women’s advancement and achievement,” she says.

Judge Deweese will now also mentor UK students in her new role as chair the UK Political Science Alumni Council, one of eight alumni who have agreed to serve as a resource for students and faculty. The council’s first official meeting took place on October 27, 2017.

After 20 years on the bench, 1994–2014, Judge Deweese’s Political Science major became newly relevant when she ran for office in Kentucky’s 30th Circuit Court, as Family Court Judge, an elected office with an eight-year term, 2015–23. She credits her Political Science courses at UK with building a foundation of knowledge about how the political system operates, which served her well during her campaign.

“I feel like UK and the Political Science Department were a real springboard for my career. I had very little life experience when I went to UK, and it just opened my eyes to everything in life. To everything that there could be in life. That there were no limits in life. And I’m grateful for that, and I’m grateful for the really rigorous academic experience I had there.”

 

 

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