Follow your heart

Judge Nicole Colbert-Botchway living the dream

By Vicki Bennington, vbennington@gazellestl.com

Judge Nicole Colbert-Botchway

As an associate circuit judge in the Missouri 22nd Judicial Circuit Court, Division 24, Nicole Colbert-Botchway is at the height of public service. And though she didn’t quite know what form it would take, serving others was always at the top of her career goal list.

Growing up in North St. Louis in the early 1980s in an underserved, inner-city neighborhood, Nicole did not have much exposure to career choices for women. There was no community center; the parks weren’t safe to play in, and she began to notice changes, like an influx of drugs and gang activity. She was determined to take a different path.

Her parents were adamant that the children attend private Catholic school, even at the expense of other things. Now 45, Nicole believes that education and instilling of living life in a Godly manner made a huge difference for her and her siblings.

Another positive outlet came through summer programs at what was then Mathews-Dickey Boys Club. She signed her younger brother up for tennis, and even though she was a girl, she was allowed to stay and play too.

“I felt like we needed an outlet to keep out of trouble,” Nicole said. “It’s not that I was great in sports, but I gained confidence and learned how to get in the game. I embraced Mathews-Dickey’s three ‘R’ values of respect, restraint and responsibility, and never let go of them.”

Nicole has been in the workforce since she was 13 years old – beginning at a Baskin-Robbins. Since then, she’s worked at several banks, for United Parcel Service, in the Mickey Mouse store at Union Station, The Gap and other retailers in management capacities. Each one added to her real-world, life experiences.

In her early teens, she discovered the Upward Bound Summer Program at Saint Louis University, which helps inner-city youth. There she was exposed to possibilities that changed her life when a female African-American lawyer spoke to the group.

With her son, Ismail, having some fun with hats at the Missouri History Museum.

“I was shocked to think that I could be a lawyer,” she said. “I never thought of a woman – especially an African-American woman – becoming a lawyer.”

But Dorothy White-Coleman with the Mound City Bar Association opened her eyes to that option.

“I knew I wanted to be a public servant; a community leader or activist of some kind, because we were taught that your life is a gift and you need to give back and do things for the greater glory of God,” Nicole said.

She brought her mom to “career day,” and at 14, they laid out the course of her education and life’s work, and never looked back.

“It was a huge commitment – financially and otherwise, but I knew we could figure it out,” she said.

Her older sister, Dr. Susan Colbert Threats, was the first person on both sides of the family to graduate college. Nicole and her sister, Lisa, followed suit.

Nicole graduated from Rosati-Kain High School, and earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and a Juris doctorate at Saint Louis University.

Some of her biggest role models, along with her sister, Lisa, who is now deceased, have been Margaret Bush Wilson and Frankie Muse Freeman, both civil rights attorneys; both women; both African-American.

“Meeting them was a dream come true,” Nicole said. “Ms. Freeman just turned 100, and is still my mentor and friend. She went through so many challenges.”

Nicole recently completed an oral history on Freeman for the American Bar Association’s “Women Trailblazers In The Law Project,” which was donated to the Library of Congress, and is currently doing one of her sorority role model, mentor and friend, Johnetta Haley, a relative of Alex Haley, and past regional director of Alpha Kappa Alpha.

“It’s my goal to help preserve the legacy of our St. Louis African-American female legends by sharing information about those who inspired me as a means to inspire inner-city, at-risk youth who may not see role models in their community,” she said.

Nicole made history herself, as the first African-American president of the Women’s Lawyer’s Association, where her biggest challenge was increasing diversity in the organization, particularly in leadership roles.

With her mentor Frankie Muse Freeman, seated, and Freeman’ s daughter, Shelbe, at Freeman’ s 100th birthday celebration in 2016.

“I wanted to bring the women together – as attorneys, we all have struggles,” she said. “I am grateful that I was in that place at that time to help the plight of all women.”

After college, Nicole worked in the Circuit Attorney’s office in the City of St. Louis as a prosecutor in the Child Support Unit. She returned to school, earning an MBA at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, working toward a leadership position.

She later joined the Missouri Attorney General’s office as unit chief in the Financial Services Division, supervising a large staff and litigating on behalf of the State of Missouri, Department of Social Services, and Family Support Division.

Her quest for judgeship began in 2002, when her sister asked her what she would do if she could do anything. Nicole disclosed that becoming a judge had always been her dream; she just never said it out loud. “Go for it,” her sister said.

After countless applications and 13 years of chasing the dream, in July 2015, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon appointed Nicole to the bench. In November 2016 she was retained on the ballot.

“In my opinion, being a judge is the highest form of public service,” she said. “I am thrilled to be in a position that deals in fairness and impartiality.

“I want to be an inspiration to students to pursue their dreams; to not give up if they believe they have found their calling – no matter how long it takes.”

In her off time, Nicole likes to “party with a purpose,” attending, chairing or participating in events that benefit others in one way or another. Her benevolent efforts focus on strategic planning, stopping violence and providing outlets for youth.

To these ends, she is on the board of Better Family Life, Inc., as well as the board of governors of the Missouri Bar Association and the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis, and works with law students at SLU and UMSL. She is a member of the Links Organization, Inc.

After working many years in retail, the “fashion bug” has stuck with Nicole. Black is her favorite color – and she said it comes in so many shades and styles that it’s all she needs. And the robe fits right in. Though she is a fan of high heels, she wears flats these days in order to work toward 10,000 steps a day to stay fit.

She and her husband, Ibrahim, have a 10-year-old son, Ismail.