COVER STORY:Judging Julie

By on March 3, 2013
SWM March 2013 Cover

Syracuse’s Julie Cecile Takes the Bench, Takes Community to Heart

When they’re walking together down Montgomery Street in Syracuse and someone calls out, “Hey Judge!” neither Jim nor Julie Cecile know who they’re speaking to.

This has become a regular dilemma since Julie has entered the judiciary system as the newest addition to the Onondaga County Family Court on Jan. 1. Her husband Jim has been serving the 5th Judicial District of the City of Syracuse for 11 years.

Born and raised in the Strathmore area, and now living only miles away from her childhood home, Julie truly is a Syracuse Woman. She knows the challenges of the area, as well as the goodness of this salty city.

For more than 20 years, Julie has never hesitated to get involved and serve her community, especially the children and families in the area. For10 years, Julie ran a private practice and for some time, she fought for indigent defendants as a member of the Onondaga County Assigned Counsel program. By 1999, Julie became an assistant welfare attorney for the Onondaga County Department of Social Services.

Almost a decade later, Julie’s passion for child and family advocacy expanded into a more precise focus when she took the executive director position at the McMahon/Ryan Child Advocacy Center in Syracuse. By this time, Julie says she had already been around hundreds of court cases regarding child and family issues. And through her time at McMahon/Ryan, the number of real life situations concerning the welfare of children only increased.

And while Julie’s longtime dream has been to sit on the Onondaga County Family Court bench, leaving McMahon/Ryan was not a decision she took lightly. “It was the opportunity,” said Julie about a seat on the bench opening up. “I always knew that I wanted to be a family court judge, work with families to find solutions for families.” And without question, her past professional and volunteer work experience all easily lends to her new judiciary position.

“I felt that if I didn’t take this chance (to campaign for the bench) now,” Julie said. “I might not have that chance again for several years.”

On The Bench
Now that Julie is the judge and not standing before one, a day in the courtroom is a different one than she’s accustomed to. “I have to be impartial and that’s obviously very important in judiciary.”

But again Julie says her extensive background in the field of family law was always about that — discovering all the evidence and making an informed decision for her client or a child she was advocating for. Only this time, she’s the one making the ultimate (informed) decision for everyone concerned. “I have that experience,” Julie said, “because I can see all those opinions and the effects on all the lives at hand.”

Because this is a new role, Julie is taking everything one day at a time. “I have a lot to learn,” she said. Despite her many years of experience and her educational background, she admits this truly is a new experience, one she knew was destined for and always wanted. “A lot of it is new, but it’s all good and it’s exciting. I’m glad I made that choice to run.”

Another aspect Julie has been most thrilled about is that she knows many of her fellow Family Court judges very well and feels she is joining an “already-effective team.” One part of this new team has a strong meaning for her as she is now serving alongside her mentor, the Hon. Michele Pirro Bailey. Plus, with Julie’s recent appointment to the bench, the Onondaga County Family Court’s 5th Judicial District now has three out of the four seats filled by women. Julie’s fellow judges besides Bailey are the Hon. Martha E. Mulroy and the Hon. Michael Hanuszczak. And the Hon. Martha Walsh Hood holds the position of District Supervising Family Court Judge.

Julie says it’s refreshing to see the transition the judicial system has endured, especially right here in her community. “When I first started in family or city courts, or courts alone…I think back to when the only women on the bench were Sandra Townes and Minna Buck. They’re the only two judges in this area that I can remember during the last 20 years.” And now? Without hesitation, Julie smiled and said, “It’s great to be in a court with other women judges.”

Because of so many professional and articulate attorneys before her, Julie says she’s thankful to these women for paving a path for her and other women alike. “It’s still, I think, in a lot of ways difficult for women,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of wonderful women attorneys to allow us to get to this point.”

Julie says she hopes her daughters have this same passion as they get older. “I hope that we’re exposing them to experiences so they’ll always have that passion,” she said. “I’m hoping my son sees the strong women in his life and doesn’t have those preconceived biased views. He can think a girl can do anything because she can.”

Julie As A Child
Inside the “big ole house” on Robineau Road in Syracuse’s Strathmore neighborhood lived Julie, her parents and her three siblings…and a total of 20 foster children over the years.

Most of the foster children were from Vietnam and did not speak any English. Julie said her parents were fostering children during a time in which many parents overseas would send their children to the United States alone. These children would be sent on a boat with their parents hoping they would all find one another someday, be united with family that already made the trip or find a group of refugees. “They were survivors,” she said. The foster children would stay as short as a week with her family and the longest stay was more than two years.

“Having that experience really sparked my passion to want to be able to be a part of that judicial system to especially help juveniles.” Because many of the foster children she met were unaccompanied minors (teens), an attorney would make regular visits to make sure the proper steps were taken to advocate for the children. That attorney inspired Julie. She saw this person helping the kids when they first came here and she saw a difference in their life being made right before her eyes.

knew since sixth grade that she wanted to be an attorney. Julie was so certain that she wrote an article about becoming a lawyer when she was attending St. Anne’s Elementary.

And before the Allen Family started having foster children call Strathmore their home, they adopted Julie’s youngest brother, Andrew, from Korea. In addition, they accepted many exchange students too. Overall, Julie says the diversity of culture and language in her childhood home was perfect, she would never trade it for anything. Julie and her two other siblings, Kathleen Allen and Matt Allen, were exposed to different people all the time — an experience that they’re grateful to have had.

The Cecile Family
“I don’t think I would have liked growing up with both parents being judges,” said Jim Cecile.

Family dinner conversation is never dull at the Cecile home. Both Jim and Julie know their children have been exposed to some different life experiences because of their jobs. “They have heard some stories and have visited the court on occasion,” Jim said. “I believe that they will be ready for anything and very little will catch them by surprise.”

The Cecile children, Hannah, 14, Bobby, 10, and Emma, 8, were all on board for this month’s photo shoot. Despite a little shyness once the lights were set and shoot was ready to start, all three kids participated with genuine enthusiasm.

It may be hard to put into words but you could see the excitement they each had for their mother’s accomplishments, and their dad’s too, for that matter. The conversation was lively and they all encouraged one another as we moved around the Cecile home for the cover shoot.

“Our kids have been exposed to a great deal,” Julie said. Jim is a former Assistant District Attorney and now a city court judge, and the kids have an aunt and uncle that are former Syracuse City police officers. And on top of all of that, Julie was the executive director at McMahon/Ryan where she dealt with some very horrifying but real day-to-day situations involving children. “It could be good and bad,” said Julie, but like her husband, she thinks they will be ready for just about anything.

The Cecile kids all attend city schools, an aspect of life the parents feels is very important. In the Syracuse City School District, Julie says the kids are not just exposed to diversity but to an array of situations. “We are conscious about what we talk about [in front of the kids] and never go into detail about cases,” Julie said. “But if there is something in the news that provides a teachable moment, we do talk about it.”

The family also was tested when it came time for Julie to campaign for her seat. Everyone was involved to support Julie. Noting her great success at McMahon/Ryan, Jim knew that Julie’s voice and strength in the community was one that would benefit the 5th district Family Court bench. “Julie helped McMahon/Ryan grow into one of the most modern and child-friendly child advocacy sites in the state,” Jim said. “Through her work, she has raised the level of community awareness about child abuse and helped countless survivors on the road to a better life. The Syracuse community and the folks that appear in Family Court are lucky to have her.”

And since there is no campaign trail to follow at the moment, the kids also have been seen as Julie’s No. 1 fans at local road runs in Central New York. Julie took up running before she began her run for office to relieve stress. She loves being able to step out of her home and run in the neighborhood. And now that her chambers and courtroom are located in Downtown Syracuse, she will take any chance she can get to take a walk outside. “I just go out just to get the fresh air,” Julie said. “Sometimes I just need to breathe.”

Jim and the kids cheered her on at the Strathmore Run last year, one she will repeat this year, and she will count on them when she runs TEAL There’s a Cure this summer in honor of her late friend Maureen O’Hara.

Jim & Julie Cecile
Although they both grew up in the Strathmore neighborhood and lived minutes apart as children, Jim and Julie did not meet until they were both studying the law at Syracuse University.

While there is one husband and wife “judge couple” in the Binghamton area, Jim is positive there has not been such a dynamic in this district…until now. It’s quite the distinction for each Hon. Cecile.

“He has a spark about him,” Julie said. “He was funny, he made me better, encouraged me and gave me the strength to do so many things I never thought I could. He believed in my dreams.” This support came at times when she took on assigned counsel work out of law school or when she owned her own practice and didn’t make much money. “It was great,” Julie said. “He told me it was fine and that I needed to follow my dreams.”

Jim views his wife’s new position as an exciting endeavor. “Julie is truly a good person,” Jim said. “She cares about those around her and always tries to do the right thing. It is easy to be supportive of such a caring and intelligent person. The world is a better place with her in it.” Jim says that having the same career allows for lively conversations and they don’t need to explain the background to each other. Are there any challenges? “So far, with both of us being judges it’s that I receive quite a bit of her email.”

And if you haven’t already noticed, Julie does indeed hold a superior judiciary seat than her husband’s. Now that must create some conflict, right?

“People ask me all the time what how I feel about Julie being superior or a ‘bigger’ judge than me,” Jim said. “She has always been taller than me, so I’m used to her being superior.”


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