Sixteen years ago, Sharon J. Zealey worked as a summer law, clerk in the U.S. Attorney s office in southern Ohio. Today, she is the district’s chief federal prosecutor and law-enforcement officer — the first woman and first black to hold the position.
Nominated last July by retiring Sen. John Glenn and President Bill Clinton, Zealey received unanimous confirmation by the U.S. Senate and was sworn in before the new year. Her district encompasses 48 counties and includes Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati. Her job: prosecute those that violate federal law. On her side: 95 employees and a budget of $6.5 million.
When a crime is committed in the U.S., prosecutors from all tiers of the judicial system coordinate to decide on which level to try the case. The jurisdiction that allows for the harshest punishment generally gets the case. “The federal level serves best in cases of white collar crime, hate crimes, public corruption and violent crimes associated with drugs,” explains Zealey.
A case in point is her recent hate crimes indictment of two men accused of burning a cross on the lawn of an interracial couple. Trying this case at the federal level, says Zealey, 38, also sends a powerful message about the intolerance of such acts.
Zealey decided long ago she was going to work for the people. Growing up near a housing project in Nashville, Tennessee, she experienced crime firsthand; often there were shootings in her neighborhood, and riots were not uncommon. At a nearby park, she and her three older sisters were assaulted more than once. “I remember promising myself, one day I’ll make things better,” recalls Zealey, an outdoor enthusiast. “Public service is my way of fulfilling that promise.”
After graduating cum laude from Xavier College in New Orleans with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, Zealey attended the University of Cincinnati on full scholarship and earned her J.D. while working full time. Her first post-law school jobs were with Star Bank and the United Auto Workers Union.
In 1988, she became an associate at the law firm of Manley, Burke, Lipton & Cook and went on to win an important housing discrimination case. It involved a luxury apartment building that had never rented to African Americans and frequently turned them away. Shortly after the win, then-Ohio Attorney General Lee Fisher came calling. Zealey came highly touted as someone he should have on his team, and she leapt at the opportunity to join as deputy attorney general. When asked what made her stand out, Zealey doesn’t mince her words: “Nobody outprepares me on a case. When I represent a client, I do whatever it takes to win. I’m always cordial, but very aggressive.”
During her tenure with the state, Zealey took part in anti-violence and social programs that bettered the region. In 1992, her office began coordinating Operation Crackdown — a statewide, interagency project that closed over 100 crack houses. “When I pass by those houses today and see lights in the windows and kids playing, it feels great to know I helped