There is a cadre of TV arbitration-based reality shows that are keeping viewers tuned in for a daily dose of justice. Viewers are so enthralled by the many men and women who wear robes and pound gavels on TV, each taking litigants to task as they sit and listen to compelling storytelling in their courtrooms. One judge in particular who is a definite standout, Judge Lynn Toler–charismatic, eloquent, passionate, wise and yes, beautiful. She is one of the longest-reigning arbiters on TV as she dishes out sage advice daily on her highly-rated show, Divorce Court. Since 2006, Toler has managed to uphold the decorum and dignity of the court without all of the undignified theatrical antics displayed by a few of her…ahem…colleagues.
Born in Columbus, Ohio, Toler had a childhood that was less than idyllic. She had a father who was a brilliant attorney but suffered from alcoholism, bipolar disorder and whose mercurial moods, and high-octane outbursts brought total disruption to the home. Toler’s mother, on the other hand, was a calming force in the household. She would always put into place practical strategies to try and stabilize her husband’s rages like for example not delivering bad news he could not handle, and screening phone calls.
By the time, Toler reached junior high school, she was so affected by her father’s manic depression that she began to act out herself. The irrational behaviors she exhibited resulted in her having two nervous breakdowns first at the age of nine and then again, at age sixteen. When Toler became an adult, she was then better able to rationalize her father’s adverse effect on the family by finally grasping that his illness was not intentional. Toler’s dad passed away in 2004, and her mother, whom she deemed her rock, died two years ago.
Despite her chaotic upbringing, Toler managed to earn an undergraduate degree from Harvard University and a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School and credits her mom for teaching her how to handle her own emotions to better face any situation or conflict. She began practicing law in Cleveland in 1984, working as an attorney specializing in civil matters. In 1993, at the age of 33, she was elected judge of the Cleveland Heights Municipal Court where she oversaw some 25,000 cases yearly that ran the gamut from domestic violence to homicide.
After retiring as a judge in 2001, she became an adjunct professor at the Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio where she taught civil rights law and women’s rights until 2006. She has written three books: My Mother’s Rule: A Practical Guide to Becoming an Emotional Genius, Making Marriage Work: New Rules for an Old Institution and Put It in Writing co-authored with Deborah Hutchinson.
The petite former Republican who just happened to change her party affiliation this year, speaks regularly across the country delivering messages of personal growth and empowerment. On her show, Divorce Court, the inflection in her voice is firm, honest, and highly persuasive. She also brings an unmatched vigor and sagacity that keeps her fans tuning in week after week.
When she is not taping Divorce Court, she is at home in Arizona with her husband of 29 years, Eric Mumford, whom she affectionately calls Big E because “he’s big and his name is Eric.” She has two sons, four stepsons and ten grandchildren.
Toler took time out from her jam-packed schedule to drop a few nuggets of wisdom on her 50BOLD fans.
50BOLD: Why did you decide to pursue law?
Toler: Well, I was supposed to go to medical school, but when I got to college, I couldn’t do the math. Dad said if I didn’t go to graduate school, ‘he was going to stop supporting me. I decided to go to law school. It was a default decision. I was like, ‘okay, I’ll go.’
50BOLD: What was your childhood like, was it happy?
Toler: My father was bipolar, he was unmedicated, and he drank a lot. I was an unstable kid. I had a little bit of whatever he had. So it was very stressful growing up. I was glad to be out of the house. My father was a great guy, but he just happened to be bipolar.
50BOLD: You were elected as a judge when you resided in Ohio?
Toler: It’s different in every state. In the state of Ohio, you can run for judge, if you are a lawyer in good standing with the Bar Association, and you’ve practiced for at least six years. I had been practicing for ten years. I ran for the Municipal Court seat in Cleveland Heights. There were five of us in the race; I was the only Black and only Republican. It was 70% white, 80% Democratic and I won. I beat the guy whom I was running against. He had been a lawyer in that state 12 years longer than I had been alive, (laughs) and I beat him by six votes.
50BOLD: Some people think the participants on Divorce Court are paid actors, but they aren’t, right?
Toler: We fly them in from all over the country. We have to deal with probation officers; we have to deal with people who had never flown before. We have to get them to the DMV so that they can obtain a state ID to board an airplane.
We arrange for cabs. Once, a couple of guys the night before a taping got into a fight, so we sent a taxi straight to the jail! We told the cab not to take them home because if they went home, we’d lose them and they wouldn’t make it to the show. We just got them in a cab that went straight to the airport.
50BOLD: How long is the taping of Divorce Court?
Toler: I’ll fly in on a Tuesday, then tape ten shows on Wednesday, ten on Thursday, ten on Friday, then I’ll go home. I’m live on tape, so there is minimal editing.
50BOLD: What would you say are the most significant issues facing marriages today? Money?
Toler: I would have told you money was the most prominent issue in marriage five years ago, but now, I think it is social media. It’s killing people! It’s now so easy to cheat; that slippery slope is right there. You used to have to leave your house to cheat, but now, you can do it sitting right next to your spouse! Money used to be the number one issue facing married people; it might still be number one. I think, however, now, social media is a hot mess!
50BOLD: Some of the couples in your courtroom are hilarious, while others are really broken. When you advise them your words are so on point, your wisdom comes from where?
Toler: My mother was very emotionally intelligent and used to say she had a second pair of eyes. She could assess what people were doing, thinking and speaking. She was a running editorial all my life. I came to look at life like she looked at it. If you watch enough people, you can figure out where folks are going.
50BOLD: What should couples do to fuel a healthy marriage?
Toler: Number one, don’t look at marriage counseling as a “Hail Mary” pass. It’s something you should go to once in a while just to get a tune-up. You should have 30 minutes every week when you come together, nobody can scream, nobody can shout, and you can talk about what’s going on.
Talking is important. Typically, when you get into an argument, you ain’t arguing about whatever you are arguing about – there’s something else going on. “I’m feeling abandoned. I’m feeling lonely. I’m feeling like you don’t respect me.” If you can at a certain point every week just say, “You know, this week I felt…” So then him not calling you in the afternoon doesn’t turn into, “he is abandoning me because he didn’t call.” You know it’s all cool because you have talked to him about it already.
50BOLD: You have been on Divorce Court for over ten years. What have you learned about marital relationships?
Toler: I learned that no matter how bad it is over at your house, it’s worse someplace else. I learned that men and women speak vastly different languages. Women believe they are better communicators than they are. We speak woman well, but we don’t speak man very well. We misunderstand each other a lot just because of the manner in which we communicate.
50BOLD: Some people believe that while in a relationship you can change a person. You can’t really change a person, right?
Toler: No, you cannot change a person. It’s going to be the same person that you married. It’s the one you picked. Not the one you had hoped he’d become.
50BOLD: Tell us something about you that folks would be surprised to know?
Toler: I have a black belt in Taekwondo. I like to stay home and I can still do a split. How about that!
50BOLD: So you must exercise every day?
Toler: I exercise all the time.
50BOLD: What kinds of exercises do you do?
Toler: I’m on the treadmill. I do a lot of stretching. I have a lot of flexibility. I used to be in gymnastics. I was always flexible. And I would also do a lot of jazz dancing and ballet. I was in a dance company. At age 36, I received my black belt in Taekwondo. I have always been physical. I try to run or walk 8 to 9 miles a day and I stretch. My mother stretched until she was 85. She was then stricken with ALS, the only thing that stopped her was the disease.
50BOLD: With ALS, you still have your mental faculties, right?
Toler: Yes. It dehumanizes you. She couldn’t do anything but think at the end. One muscle at a time lost control. It was horrifying.
She was living with me at the time. And it was horrifying because she was always a very independent, strong woman. We didn’t know she had ALS for the longest because she did so many things in order to cope. And my sister and I would be trading phone calls, “Have you noticed mom picking up her left leg to put it in the car?”
My sister kind of knew something was wrong with mom because she is a neurologist. You can see the signs. My sister suspected years ago and she said, “Something is neurologically wrong with mom.” And I was like, “No, everything is fine with mom.” The thing that stopped her was that she would compensate so much, that she had a heart attack walking down a hall.
She had to have so much energy to walk, and that’s when I moved her in with me. I think she died, maybe five months later. From that point on, she could not sit up in the bed by herself. She had to be taken to the bathroom. It was hard to watch.
50BOLD: What is perfect happiness to you?
Toler: Perfect happiness is everyone being okay. All the kids and grandkids are fine. I like smooth. So when everybody is feeling fine and no problems to solve and hey, our biggest decision today is “When are we going to go to lunch?” My husband doesn’t work. So we are both home together all day long.
50BOLD: You are such a great speaker. Did you take public speaking in school or anything like that?
Toler: The one thing I haven’t been afraid of is public speaking.
50BOLD: What is it about you that you deplore?
Toler: How fearful I am.
50BOLD: What? You seem like a badass woman!
Toler: Extraordinarily fearful. I don’t like to fly. I don’t like to drive. If I could go through the day without leaving the house, I’m cool. Don’t like to be home alone at night, don’t like the dark. I mean stupid fears. Dumb stuff.
50BOLD: What do you deplore in others?
Toler: Duplicity. People can be whatever you want to be. Don’t tell me you are something other than that. I ain’t going to get mad at you. We all have a right to thump our own drum. Don’t tell me you’re playing a tune other than the one that you are playing.
50BOLD: What do you love about yourself?
Toler: I love my curiosity. I’m always learning something. I’m taking French lessons. I’m trying to learn how to paint. I just do all kinds of nonsense…tennis. I’m always taking a lesson at something. Curiosity keeps me from getting bored.
50BOLD: Do you have any great regrets?
Toler: My greatest regret is that I did not go to class in college. I wish I had gone to class. I would go to the course, get the syllabus, buy the book, but go to the last class that went over what was going to be on the exam. I would then take the exam.
50BOLD: But you passed though, right?
Toler: I did. But I didn’t learn anything. I regret that. And I did the same thing in law school. Although, I didn’t mind not going to class in law school because I didn’t think they taught me anything worthy. I did this throughout my college and law school years.
And I wish I just hadn’t done it in college because I could have learned a lot.
50BOLD: What do you have that you treasure the most?
Toler: I put together for Christmas once, all of the slides and photos from 1958 forward and had them all digitalized. I put them in a series of books that I made for my mother. And I gave her a seven-volume retrospective of her life. I am most proud of that.
50BOLD: What did she say, what did she do?
Toler: It was funny. She couldn’t look at them. It was weird. She opened it up, closed it and started crying and I had never known her to get emotional, but something about those volumes was very hard for her. She didn’t read the book I had written about her either. She went through so much and sometimes just to make it through to the next day, she said, “I’ve got to put that away because I don’t have time to deal with that now.” And I thought, if I pulled the cork out of that bottle, she wouldn’t be able to stop the flood.
50BOLD: Do you have a mantra you live by?
Toler: Don’t believe the lies you tell other people. My mother used to say that.
A lie won’t help. You can’t be offended by anything, anybody tells you, whether it’s true or not true. Either way, there’s nothing to take offense about. You have to be out in front about how you feel all the time. So people get into trouble. She said when they lie, they say, “I feel terrible right now, I deserve to feel better. I need to take this drug, or I need to take this drink, or I need to do this.” They continue to spend money that they don’t have and all because they are lying to themselves.
Now, you can tell other people that you are always feeling okay. You can’t go home and say that and soothe yourself in a manner that sends your life out of control. Are you with me? That’s the one that I’ve always got to say, what did I do today? Was there anything wrong with it? You have to be brutally honest with yourself.