Welcome, ladies and gents, to the second official Cuyahoga County Court's People's Choice Awards, where Common Pleas judges are the stars of the show, and lawyers cast the ballots. We surveyed more than 300 attorneys to get their honest opinions on the judges — which, around here, is sort of like asking inmates to rate the jail kitchen's instant mashed potatoes.
When Scene first conducted this survey ["The Verdict Is In," October 29, 2003], it created quite a stir. Apparently, it's not considered professional to call a judge a "brain-dead political hack," to refer to judges as "morons," or to joke about attempts on their lives — even if those attempts were really funny. The Ohio State Bar Association even got involved back then, warning attorneys against participating in our little stunt. "Scene magazine is asking lawyers to characterize judges, officers of the court we are duty bound to respect," OSBA President Keith Ashmus wrote his fellow barristers back then. Lucky for us, lawyers are as sleazy as we are and dished the dirt anyway.
Before we begin, we'd like to take a moment to thank those who made this evening's gala possible. First of all, let's hear it for the voters of Cuyahoga County. Thanks to your willingness to vote for anyone whose name sounds like it was lifted from an Irish bar, we've got more guaranteed joke material than the complete Friends box set, spiced up with consequences that can last a lifetime.
We'd also like to thank the judges whose names won't be mentioned tonight. There were a lot of close races, and not everyone can be a winner. But rest assured: According to the lawyers we asked, most of you suck quite adequately. One attorney referred to the Cuyahoga County bench as "so many who do so little."
Said another: "We all kind of feel like we're in a barnyard, walking around in a daze, wondering what's going to happen."
There seem to be an awful lot of nervous faces in the crowd tonight. But don't worry, lawyers: You get to remain anonymous, which is lucky for you. As one attorney put it, "If any of this information ever got out, we'd all be ruined."
And now, without further ado, Scene brings you . . . the Judges of Cuyahoga County [cue circus music].
Most Likely to Be Gunned Down Like 50 Cent
Kathleen Ann Sutula
For a defendant in Cuyahoga County, drawing Kathleen Sutula as your judge is sort of like getting Leatherface as your barber. It may hurt. "Your teeth chatter sometimes, you're so afraid for your client," says one attorney. "She's mean and proud of it." Another lawyer says simply, "Yikes!"
In her more than 15 years on the bench, Sutula's worked hard to gain a reputation for eye-for-an-eye justice. A November 1993 story in Cleveland Magazine called her "a criminal's worst nightmare," a distinction Sutula carries like a straight-A report card from Satan.
In 2004, she sentenced a Cleveland woman to 20 years in prison for a drunk-driving accident that killed two people, though the woman had no prior DUIs. To put the sentence in perspective, just a day earlier a Cleveland man with a previous DUI was sentenced by Judge Tim McGinty on the same charges to just six years behind bars. "She's hard-core," says one lawyer. "On the side, she's really nice, but [on the bench] she's really not."
But enacting the harshest punishment possible in every case is soooo 18th-century France. Yawwwwnnnn! Hence Sutula's infamous probation conditions. The judge's favorite condition, says one lawyer, is to prohibit a defendant from attending any event where alcohol is served.
"She makes no exceptions," says the lawyer. "That means you can't go to Jacobs Field, you can't go to your sister's wedding, you can't go to your father's wake . . . What she does is to guarantee failure."
Defendants aren't the only ones who shudder when Sutula takes the bench. The judge's pretrial orders (sort of like homework assignments that lawyers must complete before a trial) are infamous around the courthouse for being lengthier than Nicole Richie's shopping lists. "I've actually seen people cry when they file a lawsuit and they draw her," says one lawyer.
Another says he's seen Sutula dress down lawyers like Jane Fonda in Monster-in-Law. "She's very difficult to be in front of," he says. "She's rotten — just brutal and rotten."
Not surprisingly, the judge has made plenty of enemies. She's had enough bullets fired at her to guarantee a rap career. In 2001, someone blasted five holes through the side of Sutula's Seven Hills home. A man whom Sutula had sentenced to 33 months on a drug offense was convicted of hiring a pair of Hells Angels to do the job. Unfortunately for local criminals, Sutula escaped.
So if you thought she was in a bad mood before . . .
Most Likely to Be on LSD
Shirley Strickland Saffold
Think of Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold as the Casey Blake of the Cuyahoga County bench — she can play any position. Some lawyers say she's the laziest judge, pointing to a foreclosure case that famously languished on her docket for eight years.
Others insist it's the judge's offensive nature that really distinguishes her. In 1996 she made national news when she told a female defendant to turn her life around by running over to the nearest medical school and trying to pick up a doctor (Saffold happens to have married one).
Still others swear she's really Beelzebub in the body of a 56-year-old mother from Bratenahl. "Just look in her eyes," says one lawyer, with a shudder. "She looks . . . Aaaaaahhhhh!!"
But most attorneys agree on one basic principle: "She's just different than anyone else in that courthouse," says one lawyer. "She definitely marches to her own drummer."
Unfortunately, it sometimes seems as if her drummer is that one-armed dude from Def Leppard — if his Corvette overturned again, causing him to lose his other arm. "Judge Saffold either ignores the law or makes it up as she goes along," says one lawyer.
Exhibit A: the Ray Williams case.
Williams was a Benedictine High football star before he and some friends decided to go on a crime spree in 2004. They beat and robbed a teenager in East Cleveland, then used fake guns to rob Rodney Roberts. Unfortunately, Roberts had a real gun, and he shot and killed one of Williams' friends.
Prosecutors had an airtight manslaughter case against Williams and his accomplice — a charge that could have landed them 20 years each in the pen. But in a head-scratching decision, Saffold gave them probation. "I don't find a mean spirit in these kids," she said during sentencing.
Yet this was just the beginning. Last May, Williams' drug screen, a condition of his probation, turned up positive for weed. Saffold immediately ordered him to serve out his suspended three-year term. But a week later, Williams' lawyers came back to court with the results of a new, "independent" drug test, showing Williams was clean.
So Saffold made her decision the Cuyahoga County way — by believing the party with the most incentive to rig a test. Williams was free to go.
Her handling of the case was so bizarre it caused her to lose the endorsement of The Plain Dealer, which had been giving her glowing praise since she took the bench in 1995. "She has a troubling inability to take responsibility for her errors or shortcomings," read a 2006 editorial.
Yet the criticism didn't matter; Saffold won re-election. "She's electorally indestructible," says one lawyer. "I don't think she gets embarrassed."
After all, in Saffold's place of employment, obliviousness to one's shortcomings might be the most important qualification.
Most Likely to Party With North Korean Dictator Kim Jong-Il
In a place with as many colorful characters as the Cuyahoga County courthouse, being named the biggest ego is sort of like being named the drunkest guy in a waffle house at 4 a.m. But among lawyers we surveyed, one name stood out as Megalomaniac of the Year: David Matia.
"Dave thinks he's smarter than any lawyer on the bench," says one attorney. In fact, if Judge Matia's opinion of himself got any bigger, it might need its own bailiff.
"Matia is arrogant, just arrogant," says another lawyer. "He thinks he is really something special."
Matia lets nothing stand in the way of his gavel — even that comic book we mortals like to call the U.S. Constitution. Last February, Matia shocked constitutional scholars everywhere when he blocked Channel 5 from airing a newscast about a shady Westlake spa that state inspectors had investigated for performing illegal medical services.
The spa sued the station after the first in a series of segments ran, claiming that to allow the second segment to run would cause irreparable harm to the business. Matia agreed, despite that whole First Amendment thing. Even after the spa dropped its lawsuit, allowing Channel 5 to air the second segment a day late, Matia refused to admit his bad judgment.
"They only missed two newscasts," he told The Plain Dealer, sparking perhaps the most biting criticism of a judge ever to grace the paper.
"Simply breathtaking," The PD wrote. "This is yet another horror story from a Cuyahoga County court, arguing for either a change in the way we select our judges or a law requiring would-be judges to pass a test before being allowed to appear on the ballot."
A third option was proposed by a Mentor man by the name of Ronald Dudas, who in 2005 was sentenced by Matia to 17 months for theft. Dudas was caught on tape discussing with fellow inmates his plan to put a hit on Matia. Obviously shaken, the judge brought along four armed guards when he testified against Dudas. When you have hair this perfect, you can't take any chances.
Most Likely to Be Scouted by Daytime Television
It's a wonder Judge Timothy McGinty hasn't been stolen away by WB producers. His antics should make Judge Judy fear for her job. But he's having too much fun right where he is.
Think of McGinty as the class clown — only he gets to impose life sentences. "He makes fun of clients. He makes fun of attorneys," says one lawyer. "He thinks he's a comedian."
Attorneys often find themselves acting the straight man in McGinty's routines. That's what happened to Patrick Leneghan when he showed up late for court one day, after getting a flat tire. McGinty scolded Leneghan, then demanded that he go to his car, remove the tire, and bring it back to the 21st floor of the Justice Center as proof. When Leneghan returned, McGinty snapped a photo of tire and attorney that he hung on his door as a souvenir of his own sadistic sense of humor.
Yet sometimes McGinty's colorful comments go over about as well as a Prius crashing into a UAW rally. In 2002, after a part-Cherokee woman drunkenly attacked two cops outside Browns Stadium, he managed to outrank Chief Wahoo as the Cleveland personality most offensive to Native Americans by sentencing the woman to write a 10-page essay on alcoholism among her ancestors.
"Do you know anything about genetic disposition to alcoholism?" McGinty asked her in court. "Have you ever been on an Indian reservation?" (Keep in mind these comments were coming from an Irishman with a drunk-driving conviction.)
"I'm not sure he thinks before he speaks sometimes," says one attorney. "Frankly, I don't think that he thought he was being racist."
An appeals court later threw out McGinty's bizarre sentence, but voters didn't seem to care. When he ran again in 2004, no one bothered to challenge him. That didn't stop the judge from talkin' trash, inviting anyone to take him on. "I'll pay the filing fee," he told a reporter.
Most Likely to Appear as an Exhibit in the Natural History Museum
Judith Kilbane Koch
There was a time when Judge Judith Kilbane Koch was considered a master jurist — fair, intelligent, compassionate. Then electricity was invented [cue cymbal crash].
At age 69, she's not exactly ready for the nursing home yet. But nearly every lawyer surveyed says it's way past time to take this old dog to the farm. "She's a nice lady," says one lawyer. "She's just getting a little dotty."
That became apparent back in 2004, when Koch was presiding over the trial of Biswanath Halder, who killed a man and injured two others during a shooting spree at Case. The judge was supposed to hear testimony from psychiatrists to determine whether Halder was mentally competent to stand trial. Instead, she decided such testimony was way overrated.
"We all know he's crazy," she said during a pretrial meeting, according to a letter sent to the judge by Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason.
When one psychiatrist ruled Halder competent, Mason said in his letter, Koch demeaned the shrink by saying, "What kind of doctor is she, that she would find this guy competent?" Mason took his complaints to the Ohio Supreme Court, but the high court ruled Koch could stay on the case. "I don't even know where to start," says one lawyer, when asked about Koch. "Something's not right. It's disconnected."
Even more bizarre was Koch's behavior in the case of Traci Heath, who pleaded guilty in 2005 to paying $12,000 to a hit man (actually an undercover cop) to kill her husband, Joe. Sentencing guidelines required Koch to send Heath to prison for at least three years. But after her lawyers presented a report portraying her as a battered wife, driven to desperate measures by an abusive husband, Koch let Heath walk with probation.
When a shocked Joe Heath asked that he at least be repaid the $12,000 his wife spent planning his murder — he wanted to help pay his daughter's college tuition — Koch called him "selfish" and ordered the money returned to his wife.
She's "irrational," says one lawyer. "Both sides walk out of her courtroom with their hands in the air, like 'What just happened?'" Not surprisingly, an appeals court later overturned the judge's wacky sentence.
Yet despite her tendency to eat pages out of the phone book and refer to lawyers as "Dorothy? Dorothy? Is that you?," Koch is holding onto her job as tightly as a winning bingo ticket. When her six-year term expires next year, she'll be past the legal age to run again. But that didn't stop Koch from trying to pull a fast one. In 2006 she tried to switch seats, running for one whose term expires in 2012.
"Just as I'm getting good, they tell me I can't serve anymore," she told The Plain Dealer. Luckily for us all, Koch lost in the primary — which came as a relief to her bailiff, who was starting to tire of receiving his annual Christmas bonus in the form of two crinkled dollars and a pair of new socks.
In peewee football, winning the Most Improved award isn't something to celebrate at Baskin-Robbins. It probably means the coach was just happy little Timmy quit barfing during the huddle. That's kind of how lawyers feel about Judge Bridget McCafferty.
"She tries hard," says one lawyer, yet she's "often totally ignorant of the law."
When she first ran in 1998, McCafferty had the legal knowledge of your stoned college roommate who'd just spent a few nights watching Law & Order. She was only seven years out of law school and had just been fired as a juvenile court magistrate after only months on the job. (Court officials said she had poor work habits.) The Cleveland Bar Association rated her "adequate," which is the legal version of saying, "She probably shouldn't be a judge, but at least she doesn't eat crayons."
Yet McCafferty had one thing going that would trump all else: an Irish name. That earned her the endorsement of the AFL-CIO and the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party — and an eventual victory over her more qualified opponent, Kathleen Craig, a former assistant prosecutor, who, unfortunately, couldn't get her name changed to O'Craig in time for the election.
Once McCafferty donned the robe, she proved to be even dumber than people had originally thought. In 2001 and 2002, 16 of her decisions were reversed on appeal. In one case, a black couple sued their landlord for racial harassment and won $80,000. Then appeals judges discovered that McCafferty had allowed the defense to show the jury reenacted pictures of the landlord's friend showing up on the couple's porch wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood. The jury had been hopelessly tainted, the appellate court ruled. Thanks to McCafferty's gaffe, the couple lost all of the money they'd already been awarded.
It's no wonder that two different lawyers described McCafferty as a "box of rocks" on our survey. "She can't spell 'lawyer,'" postulated a third.
McCafferty also seems to have a problem separating politics from the job. No sooner had she picked up her gavel than she was admonished by County Prosecutor Bill Mason for mailing out 495 campaign letters with county money.
Just a few years later, she was back on the hot seat. A Plain Dealer investigation uncovered that she'd handed out $26,000 worth of indigent-client cases to lawyers Thomas and Ralph DeFranco, who had donated generously to her campaign.
But lawyers say McCafferty has actually learned a thing or two over the years. A review of cases by The Plain Dealer in 2004 found her to be the most efficient judge on the bench, with a turnover time half that of some of her peers.
"She used to be the dumbest person to ever have a law degree," says one lawyer. "I think she has gotten better." We're pretty sure that was supposed to be a compliment.
Most Likely to Get Past Saint Peter
If you're standing trial before Judge Stuart Friedman, thank the angels. In the parallel universe of Cuyahoga County justice, you've just performed the equivalent of walking blindfolded across a 33-lane highway and coming out unscathed.
Lawyers polled by Scene overwhelmingly rated Friedman as the most compassionate. "He really cares about people and problems," says one.
Says another: "I think he really tries to listen. He's very attentive."
Unlike some judges, Friedman doesn't seem to take joy in locking people up. Last July, when a drug-addicted man stole two historic bronze busts from the Cleveland Cultural Gardens, Friedman sent him to treatment instead of prison. He also created controversy when he chose probation for Karen Zemba, an unlicensed day-care provider who accidentally killed a child in her care in 2001 with a high dose of Benadryl. "I think he bends over backwards to be compassionate," says one lawyer.
And the judge isn't afraid to go toe-to-toe with the often overzealous Prosecutor's Office, which would indict a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich if the crust wasn't cut off. In 2003, Friedman threw out the involuntary manslaughter case of Thomas Feckler, who prosecutors claimed had beaten his elderly mother to death. Witnesses testified that accidental falls had caused her injuries.
Yet the decision that earned Friedman the most respect was the case of Lou Telerico, a millionaire ex-stockbroker standing trial for supposedly making a death threat against his wife's divorce lawyer, Vince Stafford.
Vince and his brother Joe have worked hard to earn twin reputations as the biggest A-holes this side of South Beach ["Monsters of Misery Court," April 26, 2006]. This time, it appeared Vince had pushed a bit too hard, teasing and taunting Telerico at a divorce settlement conference until the former stockbroker snapped, threatening to shoot Vince in the head.
Friedman's courtroom was packed with lawyers, judges, and court staffers eagerly awaiting the verdict. The judge's decision: Telerico committed no crime.
"Vince Stafford knew what buttons to push to incite Lou Telerico into overreacting," said the judge. For anyone who'd ever faced Vince in court, Friedman's decision was the equivalent of Grady Sizemore popping one over the Green Monster.
Most Likely to Be Ruled Incompetent to Stand Trial
Nancy Margaret Russo
No name sends more chills around the courthouse than Nancy Margaret Russo, Cleveland's own Queen of Scream. A sign tacked to her door reads, "The Wicked Witch Is In," and it's no Halloween decoration. Lawyers say her moods swing like a wrecking ball.
One described her as "judicial temperament in wolf's clothing." Another lawyer says he once experienced Russo's wrath when the judge accused him of badgering a witness. "She was in my face," he says. The lawyer was understandably a bit nervous the next day, when he had to approach Russo again to ask her for an appeal bond in the case. But the woman he encountered in her chambers now seemed like a pod person. "Oh sure, that's not a problem," Russo said cheerily.
No one could forget the verbal beatdown Russo delivered to assistant prosecutor Larry Floyd during the closing arguments in the capital murder case of Fernando Newcomb. Floyd made a mistake when he told jurors to take into account the fact that Newcomb, on trial for the brutal murder of a friend, refused to testify on his own behalf, a blatant violation of Newcomb's right to a fair trial.
Russo stopped the trial immediately and told the jury to leave the courtroom — the judicial equivalent of getting the door barred shut behind you in John Gotti's social club. "How dare you?" Russo barked at Floyd before declaring a mistrial. "That is so bush-league, so amateur. I can't believe you did it!"
Russo later allowed the trial to continue, but fined the prosecutor's office more than $26,000. "She's crazy," says one attorney. "One day she's the sweetest lady. The next day she's an animal."
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