“Just keep going.” It’s a phrase the Honorable Janaya Trotter Bratton lives by in all aspects of life — educational pursuits, legal career, and now, her agenda as the incoming CBA president. She recalled her late mother, Donna McKee, sharing with her: “You have two options: to fall apart or to keep going.” And after her mother’s untimely death, she chose the latter, waging a successful campaign to become a county judge at just 39 in the immediate aftermath. This 2023-2024 bar year, as she becomes the Cincinnati Bar Association’s first Black female president in its history, she is poised to go further than ever.
A Cincinnati native, Trotter Bratton was exposed to the legal field at a young age through her uncle, attorney George Fred Crawford, who was a litigator before focusing on tax law. Trotter Bratton was drawn to litigation’s potential for justice.
“[I liked the idea of] doing something different every day,” said Trotter Bratton. “Litigation felt like a chance to stand up for what was right and push the needle to change things I didn’t like. It helps that I like interacting with people.”
Trotter Bratton started pushing the needle against injustice early on. As a senior at Winton Woods High School, she was present at a basketball game where the opposing team called the Winton Woods students racial slurs. A Winton Woods player and coach responded to the taunting and were disciplined for their response. Trotter Bratton was upset with the school’s handling of the situation and wrote a letter to her principal, the district’s superintendent, and the board of education condemning the school’s failure to act Trotter Bratton got the result she sought — complaints were filed on behalf of the Winton Woods students.
After graduation, she headed to Miami University, where she had early acceptance and a full-ride academic scholarship. But the on-campus atmosphere didn’t feel particularly welcoming.
“It was a complete culture shock to me,” she said. “My high school was so diverse. At Miami, I did not see many students who looked like me. There were classes where I was the only Black person. I was not used to it, and I certainly was not prepared for it.”
Soon thereafter Trotter Bratton transferred to Ohio State University. After graduating in 2005, she attended the Salmon P. Chase College of Law (as did her uncle.) She took a role with General Electric through the Minority Corporate Counsel Program during her first law school summer and was offered a position with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for her second summer. At the U.S. Attorney’s office, she was given perspective from now U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, Kenneth Parker, that would shape the future course of her career.
“Ken Parker asked me what I wanted to do after I graduated,” said Trotter Bratton. “I said, ‘I want to be a defense attorney,’ and he’s like, ‘Why are you at the U.S. Attorney’s Office?’ and I said, ‘Because I need to know how you all think!’ And then he asked me a question that I have carried with me throughout my career: ‘Who is the most powerful person in the courtroom?’ And I said, ‘The judge,’ and he explained to me that once the case was in the judge’s hands, then yes, the judge has the power, but before that, it’s the prosecutor who has power. The prosecutor decides whom to charge, what to charge, what to dismiss or reduce, and when to stand firm on the original charges. He made me realize that there was a lot to be done before a case even gets to a judge, and I wanted to be a part of that decision-making process.”
The broader context of the lesson was about ensuring fairness from all participating parties — something that has stuck with Trotter Bratton.
“Janaya has taken that understanding to the bench,” said Parker. “She’s gone to the bench with the expectation of the prosecutors who come in front of her that they have been fair in every aspect before they even get into her courtroom, and having that expectation there makes sure the tenets under our Constitution are abided by the governmental entity in the case.” In 2009, following a brief stint at the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority, she got her chance. On the same day former President Obama was sworn into office, Trotter Bratton began work as an assistant city prosecutor with the City of Cincinnati. The timing felt auspicious — and it was, even if the city’s financial state and furloughs soon led her to take a job with the firm Ritter & Randolph for a year before opening Trotter Law
Five years on, Trotter Bratton was eager to expand her horizons and move toward her passion for civil rights litigation. And then came a serendipitous referral — to represent the National NAACP, which was in litigation with the local Cincinnati chapter.
“I took the case while it was pending in state court. After much brainstorming and research, I concluded that for all the piecemealed issues being litigated in state court, the larger issue was trademark infringement. I was able to get the case removed to federal court, and ultimately get the resolution my client sought,” she said.
Trotter Bratton was awarded the NAACP’s prestigious Foot Soldier in the Sands Award for her work on the case.
While working on the NAACP case, Trotter Bratton reached out to now Judge Jennifer Branch, whom she’d met while chairing the Hamilton County Democratic Party’s judicial committee. Branch’s office helped Trotter Bratton with her first federal court filing.
Not long after, an associate position became open at Gerhardstein & Branch. Exhilarated by the NAACP case, and the potential to do more civil rights work, she joined the firm in 2016.
“Janaya would always go the extra mile to pursue justice in our cases,” said partner and renowned civil rights attorney Al Gerhardstein. “This meant late nights getting briefs just right, and long days pursuing witnesses in the far corners of the state. I was also immensely impressed by her dedication to her family and mother and to the [developmentally disabled adults] that shared her mother’s and later her own home [after the passing of her mother].”
The three years she spent at the firm were transformative for her — both professionally and personally. Trotter Bratton credits that time with helping her evolve and grow as a law practitioner.
“At Gerhardstein & Branch, excellence was the standard,” she said. “It was humbling to go from running my own practice to being an associate, but I am so happy I decided that aspiring to be the best in my profession was more important than my ego. I learned so much and it took my ability to practice law to a new level.”
The atmosphere at Gerhardstein & Branch also provided some respite and understanding when a series of difficult circumstances befell her family.
“While professionally my time at Gerhardstein & Branch was some of my best, personally, those were the hardest three and a half years of my life,” said Trotter Bratton. “My grandmother died during that time, and then my mom died. They gave me the time that I needed, and the balance of support to push me to keep going.”
Trotter Bratton’s mother provided independent living to two developmentally disabled adults who had lived with her mother for over fifteen years. After her mother died, Trotter Bratton became their primary caretaker, moving them into her home. And then, because that’s just how life is, a judicial seat came open on the Hamilton County Municipal Court. Becoming a judge was a dream she’d fostered for a few years by this point — one her late mother had foretold.
“My mom used to always tell people I was going to be a judge,” said Trotter Bratton. “She used to say it all the time. She would introduce me to people and say, ‘Hi, this is my daughter Janaya; she’s going to be a judge.’ She was so proud of it because she didn’t have the same opportunities she afforded me. For her to have a daughter who was an attorney just made her day! I think that was part of what fueled me during the most difficult time of my life, with the timing of running — I was like, ‘I’m just doing it, I’m going to be a judge.’ And here we are. I just wish that she was here to see it.”
Trotter Bratton’s seat on the municipal court was vacated by Retired Judge Fanon Rucker, who announced he was retiring at the end of August, the same month her mother passed away. But an open municipal court seat was an extreme rarity. Becoming a judge was a long-term goal at that point in her career, but timing was of the essence.
“The likelihood was that if I didn’t go for it, it would be a while before I had another chance,” said Trotter Bratton.
The support of her husband, William, her family, many friends, and her two dogs, helped ease her path, and she took office in November 2019. Her network of friends and colleagues has remained strong, and she has continued to build relationships along her path to becoming the CBA’s first Black woman president.
When she first joined the CBA in 2010, she wasn’t sure she belonged. She felt at the time that the CBA was for not necessarily geared towards attorneys of color, and was more specifically geared towards those who worked at large firms. To that end, she also joined the Black Lawyers Association of Cincinnati (BLAC), where she saw reflections of herself in the organization. After an invitation from a friend to participate in a CBA Young Lawyers Section activity, Trotter Bratton took her involvement even further, joining the YLS and the BLAC -CBA Round Table. Eventually, she joined the CBA’s prestigious leadership program, the Cincinnati Academy of Leadership for Lawyers (CALL). She credits former BLAC President Donyetta Bailey for recruiting her to join the board, and former CBA presidents Doug Dennis and John J. Williams with being very deliberate about diversifying bar leadership.
“Wanting me there and being able to appeal to what I need to feel like I belong there are two completely different things,” said Trotter Bratton. “That’s what hooked me about the CBA and kept me in — the commitment of the CBA Board of Trustees and staff to make our bar more inclusive. It’s a great group of people.”
Ultimately, Trotter Bratton sees her tenure as CBA president as an opportunity to reinforce connections in the community, expand bar membership in the region, and help members build relationships.
“If people really got to know one another and their bar association, it would break down a lot of preconceived notions and ultimately help practitioners grow personally and professionally,” said Trotter Bratton. “Connections matter. I love being a connector, I love getting to know people, and that is what I want to do is connect people who would typically not be connected to the bar. I like the space the bar affords that it doesn’t matter who, what, or where you are. We just come together and do the work and we have a common goal.”
Shokoohe is the director of communications for the CBA.