By James F. Maguire, Editor | Indiana Court Times
This is the fifty-second of our Court Times articles that highlight up close and personal a member of the Indiana Judiciary.
Cristal Brisco is a Magistrate for the St. Joseph Circuit Court, sitting in Mishawaka, Indiana. Before joining the judiciary in July 2018, Brisco served as General Counsel for Saint Mary’s College, in Notre Dame, Indiana. Brisco’s legal career includes over four years of service as Corporation Counsel for the City of South Bend and Chief Legal Counsel for Mayor Pete Buttigieg, as well as seven years in private practice at the law firm of Barnes & Thornburg, LLP.
Brisco serves on the Notre Dame Law School Association Board and the Board of Directors for Centier Bank. She is a graduate of the Indiana State Bar Association’s Leadership Development Academy and a member of the Robert A. Grant Inn of Court.
Brisco’s legal contributions include five years of service (2011-2016) on the Indiana Conference for Legal Education Opportunity Advisory Committee, having been appointed by Indiana Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard (ret.) and reappointed by Indiana Chief Justice Loretta H. Rush. She has also served on the Nominating, Audit, and Finance Committees of the Indiana State Bar Association and as a Merit Selection Committee Member for the Northern District of Indiana.
Brisco graduated cum laude from Valparaiso University with a bachelor’s degree in History. She completed her degree in three and a half years and received the President’s Student-Athlete Academic Achievement Award every academic year.
Brisco earned her law degree from the University of Notre Dame in 2006 and served as captain of the Mock Trial Team (American Trial Lawyers’ Association competition) during her time there.
She has been recognized as
- a “Rising Star” in Indiana Super Lawyers for Business Litigation and Employment Litigation practice (2012, 2013)
- one of fifteen “Up and Coming Lawyers” by Indiana Lawyer as part of the publication’s fifth annual Leadership in Law Awards (2010)
- a Lawyers of Color Magazine 2013 Hot List honoree, which recognizes 100 early to mid-career minority attorneys under age 40 from the Midwest Region
- a member of the 2013 class of “Michiana Forty Under Forty”
- an Honoree of the 2016 Celebrating Michiana Women Leaders exhibit, as presented by the League of Women Voters of the South Bend Area and Michiana Women Leaders Project
- the recipient of the University of Notre Dame Law School – Black Law Student Association’s Alvin J. McKenna Alumnus of the Year Award (2018)
- the recipient of the Valparaiso University Outstanding Alumna of the Year Award (2019)
Brisco lives in Granger, Indiana with her husband and high-school sweetheart, Brian, and two daughters, Brianna 11 and Alexa 7.
What was your childhood like?
I grew up in Gary, Indiana, with my parents and three older siblings. My mother and father are originally from Memphis, Tennessee, and they are the living definition of “Southern hospitality.” Our home was always a place where neighbors could stop for dinner and words of encouragement.
My family was very active in our parish, and I attended Catholic schools from grades K-12, surrounded by messages based on the social justice perspective of helping others and using one’s talents to make the world a better place. At an early age, I was keenly aware of the challenges and disparities that often exist in urban areas as well as the transformative power of high-quality education. I credit my present-day grit and resilience to the invaluable lessons I learned as a child.
What prompted you to study law?
A nun, solo-practitioner, and 1980s sitcom character. I realize this response sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, so let me explain.
During my third-grade, parent-teacher conference, my teacher said, “Cristal should be a lawyer, because she debates everything…even those things that are not up for debate.” I’m pretty sure she wasn’t giving me a compliment, but it sparked my interest in the legal profession.
The Cosby Show was one of the few television series that my parents let me watch, and the female lead character, Mrs. Claire Huxtable, was a lawyer. I loved everything about Mrs. Huxtable but knew nothing about the legal profession, nor had I ever met a lawyer. Having my teacher put me in the same category as one of my favorite characters prompted me to ask (beg) my parents to tell me everything they knew about lawyers.
A few days after the parent-teacher conference, my father introduced me to a local attorney whose office was less than a five-minute drive from our home. I always marveled at the classic car parked outside his office, so that added to the intrigue. The lawyer was kind enough to take time from his busy day to chat with me. He described his work as “helping people” and explained that asking questions and being confident are skills that he uses to help people solve problems. That really resonated with me. Also, because of that kind lawyer, I make every effort to seize opportunities to discuss the legal profession with children, teens, and young adults.
What is the most challenging and most rewarding aspect of being a judicial officer?
I have often been described as someone who “cares until it hurts.” I didn’t fully appreciate the accuracy of that description until I joined the judiciary. The most challenging aspect of being a judicial officer is the revolving door of litigants with mountains of debt, substance abuse issues, acrimonious relationships, and children caught in the middle of feuding parents. I care so deeply that I sometimes literally feel the weight on my shoulders.
The most rewarding aspect of being a judicial officer is receiving confirmation that a litigant felt heard, respected, and treated with dignity even when the ruling was not in his/her favor; this is especially true when the litigant is unrepresented.
What profession would you choose outside of the law?
I would choose a career in academia. Much like the legal profession, there are many challenges and opportunities facing higher education, requiring innovation, collaboration, and strategic leadership. It would be fulfilling to help students discern their purpose in life and achieve their goals, while also planning for and anticipating the needs of future generations. I would also enjoy the emphasis on research and scholarship that is intrinsic to such a career.
Do you have any hobbies or favorite leisure activities?
My family and I are huge Notre Dame fans. We have season football tickets as well as season basketball tickets and enjoy participating in campus, gameday traditions. Some of our best family memories include cheering on the Irish!
My other favorite activities include supporting my kids at their sporting events. My older daughter is on a travel cheerleading team, and my younger daughter plays club basketball. I am reserved and quiet by nature, but I become the loudest superfan when my daughters are on the mat or court.
Who are the people you most admire and why?
Both of my brothers work in law enforcement in Tennessee, and we often discuss their work and the sacrifices inherent to such service. Not only do I admire my brothers, but I admire all law enforcement personnel because of their commitment to maintain civil society and the rule of law—despite the ever-present risk of personal harm.
Do you have a favorite saying or quote?
“Life is tough. Decide to be tougher. If Plan A doesn’t work, the alphabet has 25 more letters.”
—Claire Cook, Seven Year Switch
What books would make your recommended reading list?
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson. The book is narrative nonfiction and chronicles the migration of African Americans from the South to the North during the early and mid-20th century. It is based on more than a thousand interviews and skillfully examines a significant development in our nation’s history. I read this book in the summer of 2013, which was a very transformative time in my career. The book gave me hope, inspiration, strength, and much-needed perspective. It is a riveting and essential read.
Where is your getaway spot, a place where you like to relax?
My preferred getaway spot is spending time with extended family in Memphis, TN. It is my home away from home.
My favorite meal is my husband’s recipe for arrachera (Mexican Skirt Steak tacos), topped with his homemade pico de gallo. It is delicious! I often joke that my husband missed his calling in life and should have been a chef.
What are you most looking forward to in the next 10 years?
I am most looking forward to seeing my two daughters continue to grow into the best version of themselves. I am often awestruck by their compassion, wit, confidence, and propensity to lead. In 10 years, one will be an adult and the other won’t be far behind. Amazing things are in store for them, and I am blessed to have a front row seat as they chart their paths in life.
What question did we not ask?
“Studies have shown that the legal profession tends to rank higher for rates of depression, anxiety, and related health concerns than other professions. How do you prioritize health and wellness?”
While our communities and families deserve our very best, we also owe it to ourselves to reach our full potential and enjoy life. Good health helps us achieve these things. Therefore, it is essential to make health and wellness a priority. I prioritize my health and wellness by maintaining standing appointments to engage in physical activity; specifically, fitness classes and long walks with a friend. I also practice daily mindfulness: deep breathing, prayer and meditation, and stream of conscious journaling.
Judicial officers are leaders in the profession. If judicial officers show we value physical and mental wellness, we can move toward a healthier profession. To that end, I often invite local law students to “walking meetings” around campus to discuss law school, the legal profession, and the importance of self-care. In addition, I make every effort to be approachable and accessible to lawyers and colleagues in need of a listening ear.