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DR Judge Kani Hightower discusses her mission on the bench

Summit County Domestic Relations Judge Kani H. Hightower took her seat on the bench on Jan. 6, 2023. She is pictured here with her mother attorney Lynda Harvey Williams being sworn in by Summit County Probate Judge Elinore Marsh Stormer. (Photo courtesy of Domestic Relations Judge Kani H. Hightower).

Legal News Reporter

Published: September 29, 2023

Imagine having to take five buses to get to the courthouse for a 9 a.m. appearance or parking well over a mile away and walking due to financial challenges and/or a scarcity of nearby lots.
It’s situations like these that Summit County Domestic Relations Court Judge Kani H. Hightower said many residents are forced to deal with anytime they need to go to court.
The difficulties are at the forefront of her justice initiatives, which seek to make the court and its services more accessible to underprivileged and underrepresented residents in Summit County.
“I ran for domestic relations court judge because I wanted to serve on the bench where I could make the greatest impact,” said Judge Hightower, who took her seat on Jan. 6, 2023. “Our court can conceivably reach more than 50% of the residents in the county at some point in their lives.
“For children who have experienced trauma, it’s a gateway court,” she said. “If our court can work with kids, parents, grandparents and guardians to resolve issues then maybe we can help prevent them from having further involvement in the justice system later in life.”
Helping to ensure equity for all residents, regardless of their circumstances, has been a goal of Judge Hightower’s for much of her life.
Raised in Stow, she received her bachelor’s degree in English with a concentration in paralegal studies from Kent State University.
While at Kent State, she was appointed clerk of council for the city of Aurora. During her time with the city, she earned the designation of certified municipal clerk.
While attending The University of Akron School of Law, she started working as a senior paralegal and law clerk at Lynda Harvey Williams & Associates, the firm that her mother founded.
After receiving her law degree in 2008, she was hired as an associate at the firm where she was a trial attorney focusing on the areas of criminal, civil, family, juvenile and probate law. She was also an appellate lawyer and submitted multiple briefs to the Ohio Supreme Court.
Around the same time she also became a senior lecturer at Akron Law.
From January 2009 through 2019 she was an adjunct professor at the law school.
Judge Hightower resumed her position in August 2023 and is now teaching family law practice and procedure.
She was also the bar exam coordinator for a number of years and ran the summer writing center.
Judge Hightower was appointed as a part-time Akron Municipal Court magistrate in December 2019 and took her seat on the bench in January 2020.
She split her docket with Magistrate Jennifer Towell, now a judge on the Summit County Common Pleas Court. During that time she presided over thousands of cases including evictions, traffic, criminal arraignments and small claims.
She initially ran for Summit County Domestic Relations Court judge in 2020 vying for Administrative Judge John Quinn’s seat after he retired at the end of his term.
While Domestic Relations Judge Katarina Cook (now administrative judge) won that election, Judge Hightower ran again in 2022, unseating Republican Judge Susan (Susie) K. Steinhauer, who was appointed to fill the remainder of Judge Cook’s term.
“When I learned I was elected, I almost didn’t believe it,” said Judge Hightower. “There are no Black judges serving on Summit County Common Pleas Court. In fact, prior to 1990 when Saundra Robinson was elected juvenile court judge, there had never been an African American at the common pleas court level.
“I am only the third Black countywide judge and the first Black Domestic Relations judge,” she said.
Akron Municipal Court Judge Annalisa Stubbs Williams, who worked with Judge Hightower during her time as magistrate and whom Judge Hightower calls “one of her early mentors,” said her skill set will serve her well as a judge.
“I’ve known Kani for a very long time,” said Judge Williams. “Her mother, attorney Lynda Harvey Williams, and I both worked in the Akron city law department together in the late ‘80s. Even back then, it was obvious that Kani was going to do great things. I’m not at all surprised that she is now a judge.
“She has always been known for her exceptional work ethic,” said Judge Williams. “Whenever she appeared in court before me as an attorney, she was extremely knowledgeable and well-prepared. Later as a magistrate in the Akron Municipal Court, she made great decisions that had a meaningful impact on people’s lives.
“Judge Hightower has an unwavering commitment to impartiality and fairness. She is very compassionate and takes time to understand the human stories behind her cases. I am certain these attributes will serve her well as a judge and positively benefit the residents of Summit County.
“Despite her impressive achievements, Judge Hightower remains remarkably humble. She doesn’t let her success define her and treats everyone with the same respect and consideration, regardless of a person’s background.
“I am so very proud of her.”
Summit County Probate Judge Elinore Marsh Stormer, who swore in Judge Hightower, echoed similar sentiments.
“I have known Kani Hightower since she was a teenager,” said Judge Stormer. “She was remarkable then and grew into a remarkable woman. 
“She brings the invaluable knowledge of a practitioner in a number of courts as well as the understanding of our community to her judicial position. She has a great heart for people and the work she was elected to do. Summit County can be very proud.”
As part of her initiatives to create equity for those who use the courthouse, Judge Hightower said she has been in discussions with a number of officials to see if more parking can be made available, perhaps adding a shuttle to get people to and from their cars, much like what’s done at airports.
“Since the Morley garage closed to the public, it’s been a real struggle for people to find parking,” said Judge Hightower. “For example, we have 13 judges in the county courthouse and many employees and we have limited parking available outside the courthouse for people with disabilities.
“We also have people who cannot afford a car or don’t always have access to one,” she said. “All of these factors play into hearings not starting on time and may make the justice system less accessible to disadvantaged or underprivileged residents.”
Judge Hightower is also examining ways to improve procedural fairness by stepping up efforts to ensure residents are informed beforehand when their paperwork is not in order or a hearing has been postponed.
“It’s extremely frustrating for a person to show up to court only to find out the case can’t go forward because they are missing paperwork or something was filed incorrectly,” said Judge Hightower.
“I am also utilizing Zoom whenever attorneys are appearing without their clients, which limits the need for the clients to unnecessarily appear at the courthouse in person.
“When litigants do show up, I also want to make sure that myself or a magistrate is available to answer any questions they might have before or after the proceeding,” said Judge Hightower.
Outside of the court, Judge Hightower said she remains committed to giving back to the legal profession and the community.
A member of the Akron and Ohio State bar associations, Judge Hightower has served on the Akron Bar Association Board of Trustees. She is also an Akron Bar Foundation Fellow and a past fellow of the OSBA.
Judge Hightower currently serves as an Akron Bar Association Character & Fitness interviewer and is a part of the Bench-Bar Committee and Family Law Section. She has also chaired the Akron Bar Association’s Juvenile Court Committee and is a former member of the Grievance Investigative Subcommittee and the Judicial Commission.
Additionally, Judge Hightower is a member of the Akron-Canton Barristers and Ohio Black Judges associations and previously served as the District 9 trustee for the Ohio Women’s Bar Association, where she is still a member.
She is also a member of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority Inc. and is the parliamentarian and former legislative chair for Jack and Jill of America Inc.’s Akron Chapter.
Judge Hightower said she has dedicated her entire legal career to serving the public and working to create more equity in the system.
“I believe my service as a domestic relations judge is the perfect role to continue this mission,” said Judge Hightower.