Making the Local Justice System Easier to Access
Summit County Domestic Relations Court Judge Kani H. Hightower is on a mission to make the justice system in Summit County, Ohio, more accessible for underprivileged and underrepresented citizens. Whether it’s related to transportation challenges or helping them sort through the red tape of documentation, Hightower, a Kent State University graduate, is creating solutions to streamline the process for Summit County residents.
“I ran for domestic relations court judge because I wanted to serve on the bench where I could make the greatest impact,” Hightower told Akron Legal News. “Our court can conceivably reach more than 50% of the residents in the county at some point in their lives.
Hightower, who took her seat on the Summit County Domestic Relations Court bench in January, graduated from Kent State University in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in English and a concentration in paralegal studies. She went on to get her law degree in 2008 from the University of Akron. Following law school, Hightower served as a trial attorney, focusing on the areas of criminal, civil, family, juvenile and probate law. She also was an appellate lawyer and submitted several briefs to the Ohio Supreme Court, in addition to becoming a senior lecturer then adjunct professor at Akron Law.
Not only has Hightower been able to break down barriers for Summit County residents, but she has done so in her own career as well.
“When I learned I was elected, I almost didn’t believe it,” Hightower told Akron Legal News. “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.”
Through her extensive work in the Summit County legal system, Hightower has come to observe many of the obstacles for those who need to utilize various services at the courthouse and is now working to create equity for Summit County residents who use the courts. This includes initiatives to assist with transportation challenges, such as proposing shuttle services to address the limited parking options, as well as offering Zoom hearings when attorneys are meeting without their clients, which would help limit unnecessary appearances in court. She also is looking into ways to improve procedural fairness through better communications from court offices regarding missing paperwork or postponed hearings.
Outside of court, Hightower is involved in numerous community and legal organizations.