Eardell Jenner Rashford: Dialogue with an Adventist judge in New York City

A Christian who loves her Lord. A Seventh-day Adventist who is active in her church. A judge who dispenses justice in New York City. A woman who cares for the community in which she lives. That’s Eardell Jenner Rashford.

Eardell was born in Harlem, New York City. From elementary to tertiary level, she attended Adventist schools. In 1971 she received the Jurist Doctor degree (J.D.) from Howard University School of Law.

While attending law school, Eardell was active in community service, devoting time to the Washington, D. C., Neighborhood Consumer Information Center, where she was responsible for the investigation of consumer complaints. Upon completion of law school, she served as a law clerk for the New York City Legal Society. Later she was employed by the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs, and the Community Board Assistance Unit, where she continued until 1980.

In the 15 years that followed, Attorney Eardell Rashford handled commercial property cases for the New York City Division of Real Property. During that time, she served as an arbitrator in Small Claims Court for the city and the Better Business Bureau. In July 1995, Rashford was appointed a Judge of the Housing Court of the City of New York.

Dedicated to God, her church, and the community, Eardell gives glory and honor to God for what He has done in her life. She is a lifelong member of the Ephesus Seventh-day Adventist Church in Harlem, serving the congregation wherever she is needed from assistant church clerk to meeting the nurturing challenge of Sabbath school teaching. She has also been a legal advisor to the Northeastern Conference of Seventh-day Adventists and member of the governing board of Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama.

Judge Rashford, please tell us what helped shape you to be what you are.

Having been brought up in an Adventist home, God has always been foremost in my life. I am a product of Seventh-day Adventist education, thanks to the faithfulness of my parents in providing it for me through the years. I was born and brought up in Harlem, which is in uptown Manhattan, New York City. I now live in the Bronx, where I serve as a Housing Court Judge. All along, I have had a strong commitment to the communities in which I live and function, including the civic community, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and the Adventist educational institutions that have played major roles in shaping my life.

Have you always wanted to be a judge?

As a child my first dreams were of being an auto mechanic, since my father was an auto machinist. While in high school, I dreamed of becoming a lawyer. After I entered the legal profession, I was impressed to pursue serving on the bench. I felt God was leading me in that direction.

How did you enter the court system?

It was by choice. In September 1994 I applied for an opening in the Housing Court. There were 100 to 150 applicants for the position. After being interviewed by a subcommittee of the Housing Advisory Council, 40 were chosen to go before the full committee. At each level the exams were oral, which required the kind of concentration and focus judges need in their work, as well as the ability to respond appropriately. The process was a very demanding one. Out of the 40, four applicants were selected to appear before the New York City Bar Association. The process here was more detailed, eventually leading to an interview by the full Judiciary Committee of the Bar Association, then by three members of the Office of Court Administration, and finally by the Chief Administrative Judge of the City. I waited almost six months for the results of the interview. When the results finally came in February 1995, I was surprised: I was not selected.

Were you discouraged ? Did you assume that perhaps the doors may not open again?

No, I was at perfect peace, even though from February to June 1995, the only encouragement I received from the Office of Court Administration was a letter stating that if something became available I would be considered. Then, a sitting judge died unexpectedly, and I was called for the position. I realized that the peace I had experienced throughout the lengthy application and waiting process was a gift from God. He knew what was ahead; I did not. It was a wonderful time of deepening trust in Him and seeing His plan for my life unfold after so many months of not having any indication of what the outcome would be. I was greatly blessed by the experience.

What is your term of service in this post?

Five years. In New York City, judges are selected, elected or, more often, appointed by the mayor. As a Housing Court Judge, I function as a hearing officer, and was selected by internal appointment of the Office of Court Administration.

Has your religion created any challenges for you in your work?

No. We have no Sabbath problems. The New York City court system in general is very considerate of religious preferences, perhaps because of the diversity of religious affiliations of the people that live in the city. I am open about my beliefs. Every year in the Fall—when the sun begins to set earlier—I hand in a note explaining that I will be leaving earlier on Friday afternoons because of my religious beliefs, and there has never been a problem concerning this.

Please tell us what your day in court is like.

Court hours are from 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. However, I may spend time after that on decisions reserved earlier in the day. In my current role, I try cases as well as settle them. My court has a case load of 50 to100 cases a day. Naturally, not all cases are resolved in a given day. My regular schedule involves working on 30 to 40 cases each day to seek resolution. Each morning we make a speech to remind people that they are in court, and advise them on how they are expected to conduct themselves. I sit on a high bench, and this maintains a distance that helps to instill respect and maintain decorum in the court. I don’t often smile in court, so as not to give the impression of favoritism for one party or the other, but I’m known for my patience and understanding.

In a courtroom a judge often encounters situations that can be both challenging and frustrating. How do you relate to such instances?

If someone thinks being a Housing Court judge is aggravating, he or she probably shouldn’t be one. I do have a pet peeve, though, and that is people interrupting each other—lawyers interrupting adversaries, or either of them interrupting me. In my court, I make it clear that everyone has a chance to speak. Interrupting is not allowed and really not even necessary, under the circumstances. Consequently, everyone gets a chance to talk in my court.

My judicial perspective is that every problem has a solution. The tenant or the landlord, or both, may not like the solution, but every problem has a solution, according to the law.

In talking about your work, you exude joyousness. What makes your work so enjoyable?

I enjoy it because of three reasons: I am helping individuals; I am applying the law; and I am applying the law tempered with mercy for both sides. It’s challenging to know how to apply the law. It’s exciting because I don’t know what will be presented. It may be a routine case or a unique one. In any event, it’s always a surprise. Studying the intricacies of the law to determine which aspect should be applied in a given situation and how it should be applied is also creative.

Your life revolves around the law so much. How do you relate to that on a personal level?

I like being involved with the law and applying it. I trained as a lawyer, and lawyers are supposed to be honest people. They have a code of ethics that says they are supposed to be honest, so it’s just part of who I am. I like my work on the bench.

Has your work had an effect on your faith?

Yes, my work has made my faith stronger. I trust in God more. I lean on Him for help so I will say the right things. I pray a lot for wisdom—on and off the bench.

As a woman judge, do you see any particular dynamics at work?

There are times when a woman judge may not be as readily respected as a male judge by either lawyers or litigants, so I demand that respect. I maintain an air of respect that I expect of them while they are in court. The gender issue is just one more facet that I keep in mind in my goal of instilling respect for the court.

What do you feel about Adventists in court?

I believe the court system should be a last resort for a Seventh-day Adventist Christian—after exhausting the reconciliation and resolution steps outlined in Matthew 18. Individuals have to have some way of resolving problems. For Christians, the best recourse is Matthew 18, but when that does not yield the desired results, one should have access to legal remedies.

Is being a judge financially rewarding?

[Laughs.] Money isn’t the most important thing in life. A young attorney in his/her first year out of law school on Wall Street makes more money than I do as a judge. I believe that being happy with what you’re doing is the most rewarding thing a person could have.

Interview by Betty Cooney. Betty Cooney is a communication specialist and has worked for many years for the Seventh- day Adventist Church. Most recently she coordinated the Millennium Prophecy Seminar, aired via satellite from New York City.