Sister Rose Ann Fleming
Cincinnati, OH 

Legal Champion to the Underprivileged: If you are poor and in trouble, Sister Rose Ann Fleming is there to help.

Sometimes what you know depends on the circles you travel in. If you're in education, you know Sister Rose Ann Fleming as the former president of Trinity Washington University in the nation's capital. If you're into sports, you know Sister Rose Ann as the force of nature (a.k.a. former Academic Advisor for Xavier Athletics) ensuring that each Xavier athlete made every class, turned in every assignment, and graduated. Which every one of them, since 1986, has done.

If you're a civic leader, you know her as the recipient of awards such as the Greatest Living Cincinnatian Award presented by the local chamber of commerce, or the Woman of the Year Award presented by the Cincinnati Enquirer.

But if you're poor, and if you're in trouble, the name Rose Ann Fleming has a whole different meaning. Because if you're poor and in trouble, the jailhouse door closing behind you, it's not the former college president you call, or the former Xavier academic advisor, or the award winner. It's Sister Rose Ann Fleming, the lawyer.

Law came late in the life to Sister Rose Ann. Trinity Washington University behind her, back in Cincinnati, she was thinking of an MBA, then thought of a law degree. So she got both, one after the other. This was in the 1980s.

And once armed with the law degree, and as a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur, it's the poor she's decided to champion. Those without connections, those without education, and those most everyone has turned from - including those bearing the scarlet letters of sex offenses.

"You just represent the client, any client, as best you can," she says.

Sometimes it's small things; sometimes it's big things. Sometimes it's small things blown into large ones.

Case in point: a man rolls through a stop sign, and a police officer sees it. Nothing serious for most of us. We apologize, accept the ticket, drive on. But not this man. He throws open the door, makes a run for it. The police officer radios for help, and begins pursuit. The man is caught, arrested, thrown in jail. He has no money for a lawyer. It's an open and shut case. Resisting arrest at a minimum, with a suspicion of things more nefarious.

A call is made to Sister Rose Ann. She accepts the case on a pro bono basis. She talks to the man's wife."The man had suffered intense abuse from his father," Sister Rose Ann says. Now he goes into almost shock when he sees anyone representing authority. He's thinking,"I know what they do to black people. I'm in trouble and I have to get out of here."

It's as simple as that, Sister Rose Ann tells the judge. There was nothing he was trying to hide, no other crime he had committed. The judge and prosecutor listen/ They discuss the human factors. The man is released.

It's a day in the life of Sister Rose Ann.

Some cases she accepts through Legal Aid, which attests to people's ability to afford a lawyer, but this is only for people not already found guilty.

Another case in point: the convicted-to-be is in third grade. For the third time. His father calls, who doesn't have custody. At court-appointed times the father picks up his son from school. He observes his son being left in limbo. He asks Sister Rose Ann, as a lawyer, to intervene. She does, and the son receives attention, and is advanced.

But later, in ninth grade, the son drops out. He moves from job to job, becomes involved with drugs, commits crimes. For some of the crimes, he's represented by Sister Rose Ann, for some, he isn't. He's in and out of jail, in and out of jobs, in and out of treatment for addiction, in and out of doctor's offices for schizoprenia and bipolar disease. For a time, he's homeless. For a time, with the little money he has, he buys drugs - and not the kind a doctor would prescribe.

Sister Rose Ann stays with him. The then-third-grader is now 32. Sister Rose Ann visits him in jail (where he is as of this writing), represents him in court, talks with his father. She's in it for the long haul and the father and son know it. Sometimes, the father is at wits' end. He's worked hard all his life - in the Army, for the Post Office, for General Electric - and has made for himself a comfortable life. Comfortable except when it comes to his son. Because with his son, since middle school, it's been one thing after another. As the non-custodial parent, he could have early-on walked awa, not in terms of legally required child support, but in terms of really caring. But, that's never happened. He's cared whether he wants to or not. And each time his son is in trouble, his father has reached down to pick him up. He even purchased a franchise for his son in the hopes of creating a positive framework of daily activity, and a means throough which the son, on his own terms, could live a constructive life.

But the franchise, through the son's lack of interest, came to naught.

Through all of it, Sister Rose Ann has been present. She reminds the father there have been times - stretching into years - when the son has been stable. She says to the father that one day there will be reason to be proud. And to the son, "I tell him, 'let 'em go," says Sister Rose Ann, 'Let the mistakes go. Those mistakes were in the past. You have a life in front of you." 

And that's a good first step, she says. But he has to get out of jail first. Until then, Sister Rose Ann visits him, talks with his father on the telephone. "She knows a lot of people and she knows how to get things done," says the father. "She meant a lot to me and (my son). She's an outstanding person, and a very good lawyer!"

"If I can make things a little better for them," Sister Rose Ann says, 'that's what an attorney does. You can't take the bad things away. But you can help them get into a better situation." In court, Sister Rose Ann does not go by 'Sister'. She's even been asked - by an opposing attorney - to remove her cross. But at the jail, where visiting times are limited, and those who can visit restricted, Sister Rose Ann is allowed in at all hours. It's not that she's an attorney; it's that she's a Sister. Why, as the former president of a university, as a former academic advisor, as the recipient of every kind of award, does she still do this? "It's part of our mission, part of my mission - to serve the poor," she says.

First published in Cross Currents Magazine, SUMMER 2019, Volume 15th, Issue 2.

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