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A Tribute to Marilyn Tobocman


Marilyn Tobocman was a Principal Assistant Attorney General who spearheaded complex civil rights cases and served as a mentor and teacher. In this edition of the “Civil Rights Reporter,” Sharon Tassie, Assistant Chief of the Ohio Attorney General’s Civil Rights Section, pays tribute:  

On a brisk Cleveland winter evening in the early 90s, I was preparing for an employment discrimination case going to hearing the next day. At the eleventh hour, I was told a key witness needed a subpoena to be excused from work to testify. Cleveland’s east and west sides are separated by the mighty Cuyahoga River. As a confirmed westsider, I would happily tell anyone and everyone “I did not do east.” But this was where the witness lived, so to the east side I went, subpoena in hand. 

When I arrived, I searched high and low, sometimes leaving the safety of my car to get close enough to see the addresses on the homes and apartment buildings in the dark. I could not find an address that matched the one I was given. Trembling from the cold, and muttering under my breath, I returned to the office and called the attorney who had provided the information to tell her I was unable to find the address. She checked her file again. “Oh, I am sorry,” she laughed, “It is West 82nd Street.”  

So, still shuddering from my first excursion and still muttering under my breath, I prepared another subpoena, went out a second time and easily found the home on West 82nd. The witness showed up. I won the case. And I resolved to never again cross the Cuyahoga.

About a year later, my section chief informed me that we were getting a new attorney named Marilyn Tobocman. “No,” I thought. She was the eastsider who had sent me on my east side misadventure and had the audacity to laugh about it. This was going to be a problem.

Marilyn Tobocman took the unconventional path to being a public sector attorney. After raising four daughters, she enrolled at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law where she was twice the age of most of her classmates. During law school and for a decade thereafter, Marilyn worked at a nonprofit organization and a small civil rights law firm, helping those with serious legal issues but little financial means.

In 1993, Marilyn joined the Ohio Attorney General’s Office. Soon, she was spearheading the most complex cases in the Civil Rights Section against the largest law firms in the state.  

Marilyn quickly began prying open the doors of equality to minorities and persons with disabilities. She tore down the gender barriers common at country clubs. After years of litigation, and more than a decade before Augusta National invited Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore to be its first female members, Marilyn obtained an order granting women equal access to golf clubs in Ohio.

She was part of a legal team that won a $4.3 million settlement against an insurance company that was accused of offering substandard insurance products to minority families. Due in part to Marilyn’s dogged pursuit of basic equality, drinking water was brought to African-American households deprived of that simple necessity. She also took on the world of internet marketing, compelling major online websites to promote fair and transparent advertising of housing opportunities. 

But Marilyn was more than just a formidable litigator; she was also a patient teacher and a gracious mentor. She served as an adjunct professor of law and trustee at Cleveland-Marshall. She was also one of the principal organizers of the Government Attorney Section of the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association. In 2014, and again in 2016, she was honored by Crain’s Cleveland Business — first with the Outstanding General and In-House Counsel Award, and then, as one of eight people over the age of 80 who were continuing to make significant contributions to Northeast Ohio’s business, civic, and philanthropic community.

On top of being a consummate public service attorney and mentor, Marilyn was adventurous and seemingly fearless. From dune buggy racing with her sister to exploring a cave at Malabar Farm State Park, she was undaunted by the new or the unknown. But, first and foremost, Marilyn was a loving and devoted mother, grandmother, and friend.  

Marilyn once asked me if I had to tell the story of her sending me on a wild goose chase on a dark, cold, east side night to everyone. Yes, I do. Because that is the first chapter of a quarter century story that I cherish. Marilyn Tobocman passed away on January 3, 2018, at the age of 83 after a courageous battle with cancer.

- Sharon Tassie is the Assistant Section Chief of the Ohio Attorney General’s Civil Rights Section.

The Marilyn Tobocman Equal Access to Justice Endowed Fellowship has been established at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, where Marilyn was inducted into the Hall of Fame. The fund aims to assist students to explore careers in the public interest.