Remembering Judge John Burlew the CBA’s first African American board president

Judge John Burlew was the first African American President of the Cincinnati Bar Association. He was President from 1988-89. That wasn’t very long ago. But long enough that it is good for us to remember him here, and trust me, there are a lot of reasons to remember him beyond the fact that he was CBA President, or the few words written here.

Judge Burlew went to Walnut Hills High School, then got a BA from Hanover College before receiving his JD from Salmon P. Chase School of Law in 1975. His first job out of law school was for Bea Larsen at the Legal Aid Society. He joined the CBA sometime between 1975 and 1977. We have a hefty file at the CBA about Judge Burlew and it has a lot to say. But it is not clear on when exactly he became a member of the CBA.


He quickly moved from Legal Aid to opening his own practice with Noel Caliman and defending criminal cases, professional licensing cases (for lawyers and doctors), and helping individuals bring employment cases. And the file has a massive amount of newspaper clippings covering these cases. He had a lot of cases, and a lot of them made the news.


He said, “I look at a law degree as a weapon. Like any weapon, it can be used for good or evil. It can be used selfishly to acquire wealth and power or generously to improve society or empower the powerless.” Not surprisingly, he had a black belt in karate that he obtained after law school.


Judge Burlew was stricken by histoplasmosis starting in 1986 that slowly but surely deteriorated his eyesight until he became legally blind. It did not slow him down at all and many did not even know that he could not see.


Judge Burlew was elected to the Municipal Court bench in 2001 and remained there until 2007. And he was involved in everything. He chaired the Ohio Civil Rights Commission. He was a trustee for the Calvary United Methodist Church. He was President of the Kennedy Heights Community Council. He coached his daughters’ soccer and basketball teams. These were the activities most important to him. There are many more.


Judge Burlew won a lot of awards. He won the Theodore M. Berry Award from the Cincinnati branch of the NAACP. He won the Ohio State Bar Association Media Award for his work as a legal consultant for WKRC-TV. He won the Ohio Civil Rights Commission award for his dedication to the struggle for equality. The Ohio House of Representatives passed a resolution in his honor for a record of service to the citizens of Ohio. These are just a few of the many he received.


When he was sworn in as President of the CBA in 1988, Judge Burlew was sworn in by the Honorable Theodore Berry and the Honorable William McClain. You will be interested to know that both of these men were denied admission to the CBA when they first applied, back before 1950. (After 1950, McClain became the first African American member of the CBA). The guest speaker at this CBA event was the Honorable Nathaniel Jones, on the Sixth Circuit United States Court of Appeals. Berry, McClain, and Jones are regarded as three tall pillars in Cincinnati’s civil rights history, and all three came to honor Judge Burlew that day.




Judge Burlew died in his sleep suddenly just before New Year’s in 2011. He was just 63 years old; gone far too soon.


Once, Judge Burlew was asked about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He said, “My favorite MLK speech is not ‘I Have A Dream.’ It is ‘The Drum Major.’ He [Dr. King] says, ‘Living long is nice, but I want to be remembered as a Drum Major for Justice.’”


I recommend that entire sermon. It talks about the human need to be recognized for doing good. You can find it online. 


Dr. King said, “If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness.”


And then he said, “And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.”


Judge John Burlew was high on the list of such servants for the citizens of Cincinnati and even today, in 2021, we are all better for it.

Doug Dennis is a past CBA president, serving 2016-2017, and an attorney with Frost Brown Todd. He met Judge Burlew and is grateful he did. Judge Burlew will be honored in a virtual celebratory event during Black History Month. Please check cincybar.org for details.