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Toledo Legal News - News Toledo feels like home to native New Yorker Judge Norman Zemmelman


photo of Judge Norman Zemmelman“Do you know the opening line from Anna Karenina? ‘All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’. That’s really what we do here.” Judge Norman Zemmelman, the Administrative Judge of Lucas County’s Domestic Relations Court, is a dispute arbitrator, a uniter of people. “Every case is memorable where the parties get together and resolve their problems. Whether it’s through a judge’s involvement, a magistrate’s involvement or court counseling, in Domestic Relations Court, helping people remedy, solving their problems makes cases memorable.”

Judge Zemmelman knows a lot about remedying problems. In the crisp fall of 1990 he was appointed to the board of commissioners of the Lucas Metropolitan Housing Authority (LMHA). At the time, LCMHA was one of 25 housing authorities that was classified as “troubled”, which meant that HUD was looking for immediate improvements or would step in and take control. Well, by 1994 LMHA was one of 20 agencies categorized as “excellent”. “It went from one extreme, to another. It had never happened before. And it was simply the result of five diverse people coming together to do something for this community.” As thanks for all the hard work the five board members did, Toledo named a part of the city after each of them. Today, children can play baseball on Zemmelman Field on the East Side. And while playing ball, Judge Zemmelman hopes the young children are imagining themselves as Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese or Sandy Koufax.

You see, Norman Zemmelman grew up in Brooklyn.

“Ebbets Field was my childhood. And it was ripped from me at age 14 when O’Malley moved the Dodgers out to Los Angeles. I collect autographed baseballs of Brooklyn Dodgers. If they didn’t play in Brooklyn, phew, I don’t want them.”

As heartbreaking as the loss of his hometown team was for the young Zemmelman, his childhood was not a grey wash of sorrow. “Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950’s was wonderful. It was when things were relatively safe. It was very ethnic and everyone seemed to get along. I lived in a great combined Jewish/Italian neighborhood. Every restaurant was either pizza or kosher challah.”

Upon turning 18, Judge Zemmelman thought he might enjoy teaching history, so he began attending classes at Long Island University. He paid his way through school by working a number of jobs. His last two years he survived by driving a hack (known to the Midwest as a taxi).

At Long Island University Judge Zemmelman majored in history with a minor in political science. To satisfy a requirement for his minor he took a course on constitutional law. “It was a new world to me. Instead of taking a mid-term I wrote a brief for the loosing side of a case we studied. The professor’s comments on the paper said that I should think about going to law school because I showed a propensity towards law.”

After graduating, the Judge moved to Toledo to attend law school at UT, a school he chose not least of all because it did not charge an application fee. This is no small reason considering that he put himself through law school by working the shipyards.

After law school, Judge Zemmelman began practicing with a law firm that broke up a year later. When that firm dissolved, Zemmelman and another lawyer from that firm, Harlan Britz (the nephew of one of Toledo’s foremost divorce attorneys, Max Britz) formed their own practice. “I did more Federal criminal stuff than anything else. I did some domestic relations work, in fact, if Harlan had a case with Max on the other side, I had to represent the person. So whatever domestic stuff I had, it was usually against Max Britz.”

It was as a practicing attorney that Judge Zemmelman met his wife, Connie. “Connie and I first met when she applied for a job as a law clerk with my firm. So got the job and was the best law clerk we’ve ever had.”

For the record, Connie Zemmelman is now herself a judge, being appointed to the Juvenile Division of the Lucas County Common Pleas Court in May of this year.

Norman Zemmelman worked with Britz for 25 years before being elected to the Domestic Relations Court in 1996. “I had the kind of practice where I did nothing but litigation and I was in courts all over the State. And I just picked up little things from this judge or that judge. Frankly, Harlan always had judicial ambitions and I didn’t, obviously, want to compete against him. So, when he announced that he was no longer interested in that, then I got a little involved in politics a little bit.”

After helping run a campaign for now deceased Judge Roger Weir, Zemmelman decided to run himself. “When the opportunity came to run for this position I did. And I won.”

As one of Toledo’s favorite adopted sons, Judge Zemmelman enjoys being able to help both his community and its people. He is proud of the many programs his Court has established to help divorced couples and their children and he brags on his court’s counseling program, “Ours was the first court counseling department in the country. It was set up in the late 1940’s or early ‘50’s. They’re the envy of every Domestic Court in the State, maybe the Country. They’re just eight wonderful master degree social workers.”

Toledo is a long way from the Jewish deli’s and Dodgers of Brooklyn, but for Judge Zemmelman there is no doubt where his home lies. “Coming to Toledo was a wonderful move on my part. This community is wonderful. I hope I can give back half of what it’s given me. My high school’s 50th reunion is coming up in soon and I’m starting to get calls from all my old classmates asking about me. They’re all on the East Coast somewhere and asking me how I ended up in Toledo, Ohio. And I always tell each one, this community has been great to me. It really has been. Coming out here is the best thing I’ve ever done.

Michael Davisson, Toledo Legal News Staff Writer

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