A bench press on judicial stereotypes

As a powerlifter, Justice Faith Ireland is helping to change the face of America's judiciary.

When you conjure up the picture of a state supreme-court justice, certain images come to mind - and others do not.

Few, if any, would fancy the quintessential high-court jurist bedecked in a suit of stretchy crimson polyester, squatting low with 130 pounds of steel slung across her shoulder blades, grunting and snorting like a draught horse.

Where is the black robe? The august comportment? The white hair of wisdom atop a long lifetime of credible wrinkles?

In outdated imaginations.

Faith Ireland is one of nine justices on the Washington State Supreme Court, and she is one among the hundreds of judges who are changing the face of America's judiciary.

There's Arizona Supreme Court Justice Ruth McGregor, who used to teach high school drama and has been known to film skits with co-workers (and sew their costumes). Illinois appellate court Judge Bob Thomas, best known for his time as a Chicago Bears kicker, is now running for a seat on the state Supreme Court. And John Henry England Jr. was recently named to Alabama's high court, making it one of three with two black judges.

"The last 20 years have seen the most substantial numbers of women and minorities serving as judges. Period. Across the board," says Seth Anderson, of the American Judicature Society in Chicago.

As a result, the past two decades have reshaped not only the tenor and direction of state high courts, but also the perception of what a supreme court justice should be.

Washington State certainly has had no problem adjusting. Though Justice Ireland is not Asian, she once was named "Chinese Man of the Year" in Seattle. Not only that, but before her election to the state's high court, in 1998, Washington State trial lawyers honored her as Judge of the Year.

Judge of steel

While her physique doesn't resemble Arnold Schwarzenegger's in the slightest, Ireland lifts huge weights three days a week (for three hours each workout) and competes nationally in a brute-force sport called powerlifting.

Imagine what happens when she brings the gavel down.

"It evolved," she says of her passion for tossing around plates of iron. "It didn't happen overnight."

In fact, it started as strength training after Ireland was rear-ended by a hit-and-run driver in 1983. She went to Seattle's Gateway Athletic Club, a downtown gym with 14th-floor views of Puget Sound that, unbeknownst to her, was a mecca for champion powerlifters.

"I started small, with 5-pound weights," the justice says, but her regimen of small weights grew slowly in size as she shifted her focus from injury rehabilitation to overall fitness.

"Since I've been working out, I've lost 30 pounds," she says, adding that for most of her life she was chubby and hardly the paragon of health. "Now I'm the most fit that I've ever been."

From fitness, the next logical step was to competition. And last year, Ireland began training with Paula Houston, a four-time national powerlifting champion and 1996 world champion.

"Faith's got the focus, the determination, self-confidence, a good sense of humor, and patience," Ms. Houston says. "All of these qualities are essential."

Powerlifting, like Olympic lifting, involves barbells and heavy weights. But much of the similarity ends there. In Olympic-style events, athletes compete in only two programs: the clean and press, and the snatch. Powerlifting focuses on three different moves: the squat, the bench press, and the deadlift.

Also, powerlifters wear special suits as well as knee and wrist wraps that Olympic lifters do not. Extremely strong yet pliable, the material feels like a hybrid of polyester and titanium, and it takes at least one person to help the competitor into her suit or bench shirt.

Forget the robe

Ostensibly for safety - to protect the arms, shoulders, legs, and lower back - the suits are so powerful that Ireland feels "spring-loaded" once she's inside.

"Actually, I probably would have gotten into the sport sooner," Ireland says, " but when I saw people get into those suits I said, 'No way I'm doing that.' "

Last November, the justice won her age and weight category at the Northwest Women's Powerlifting Championship, and with that, she qualified for the national championships held on Jan. 29.

She flew to Killeen, Texas, with the modest goal of getting "good lifts in each event - and I'd like to lift 500 pounds total."

However, in her opening squat, with 126 pounds on the bar, the judges disqualified her for technique, which eliminated her from the competition.

So, for her years of grunting and snorting, Ireland returned to the Pacific Northwest with a commemorative T-shirt and a memory. Not much in the way of victory - until you remember that 20 years ago, there weren't a lot of women powerlifters, and even fewer women supreme-court justices.

In 1999, 92 women served as supreme court justices across America, and their experiences are changing the path of the judiciary, experts say.

"Will the qualities they bring to the bench change the courts?" asks Colleen Danos of the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Va.

She answers her own question: "In one study of gender in the judiciary, they found that gender was almost as important as [political] party ID."

For Ireland, strength training and her seat on the court in Olympia are inextricably connected.

"The strength training that I was doing helped when I ran for the Supreme Court," she explains. "Campaigning statewide makes powerlifting look easy. There would be days I would start out in Bellingham and end up in Yakima - with sentencing in between."

Beyond that, she says, the two passions support each other: "The focus - the mental activity you get from working out - is very helpful in terms of the stamina you need to sit there on the bench and keep your focus in complex cases.

"The only problem I have now is getting enough sleep."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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