Laughter scatters down the marble hall outside, but in here the tone is muted. A man and a woman stand before a judge, their cadre of lawyers between them. One of the lawyers hands the judge a glossy photo. It's a shot of today's disputed objects: two jugs filled with pennies.
In the grand tradition of spending more on lawyers than the value of the pot, fighting over loose change might be a new low. But for a room used to dysfunction, this sort of squabbling is hardly noteworthy. That's life in Cuyahoga County's divorce court, a place where dirty laundry is aired, recorded, and filed away for posterity. Where top-of-your-lungs screamfests in backyards and living rooms get dressed up, toned down, and charged by the hour.
And in this palace of regression, where grown-ups huff and pout like toddlers, there is one case that lies lower than them all. It's the case of Julie Luft.
Luft, a 45-year-old Case Western Reserve Law grad, was once a bankruptcy attorney with powerhouse firm Jones Day. But a serious car accident in 1991 permanently derailed her career. She suffered a brain injury and never fully recovered: She tires easily, has trouble concentrating, and has been diagnosed with a host of personality disorders that make simple tasks, like keeping appointments, a struggle.
Luft met her husband, a radiologist named Ben Signer, at a Jewish Federation conference in 1999. After a whirlwind romance, they had a daughter and married. But after only two years of marriage, she filed for divorce in 2002 — the first step in a process that would have Judge Anthony Russo, a veteran of divorce court, counting the days until he could finally divorce his job.
Luft took a common divorce-court tack, lodging an overwhelming number of damning claims against her ex-husband. Among them: He armed himself with Glocks and Uzis. (He didn't.) He wired a spy cam in their home. (He didn't.) And worst of all, she said, he had child porn on his computer — a claim that, like the others, would be proved untrue over the seemingly never-ending life of their case.
At the time, though, Luft got the benefit of the doubt. Russo granted her temporary custody of the couple's daughter and issued a restraining order against Signer. It's an agreement, Russo would later admit, that wasn't in the girl's best interest.
While blessed with the legal acumen to go toe-to-toe with Cleveland's finest pressed suits, Luft was also self-medicating for a host of physical ailments with painkillers and booze, court documents show. The combination of courtroom competency and mental fragility led to surreal moments better fit for Law & Order than Court TV. Luft could, at the drop of an inter alia, transition from formal, legal-wise arguments to hysterics, sobbing and screaming at the judge.
"Russo bent over backwards to help this lady," says lawyer John Heutsche, who was forced to try Luft's case even after begging to be withdrawn. "She just won't do anything he'll ask her to do."
"I realized very early on that Julie had problems," adds heavy-hitting divorce attorney Marshall Wolf, the first of more than 15 lawyers to represent Luft. "Mostly of her own making."
Soon, Luft's courtroom appearances were being treated as theater. When her name appeared on the docket, former attorneys — Wolf admits to being among them — would sneak into the back and sit on the creaking wooden benches to watch. For those no longer forced to defend her, Luft's case became a spectator sport.
It rarely disappointed. Russo responded to her outbursts by holding her in contempt and keeping her in jail for up to three days. Once, like a teacher punishing a student with a time-out, Russo ordered Luft to be locked up for 30 minutes when she refused to answer a question.
By the time Luft's case came to trial in 2005, experts had found no evidence to support her shotgun blast of accusations against her ex. She'd also refused to comply with the court's visitation orders, keeping Signer from seeing his daughter for months. Reversing the original decision, Russo stripped Luft of custody.
But in Russo's moment of clarity, Luft saw conspiracy. She lobbied the Ohio Supreme Court to have the judge thrown off the case. She called America's Most Wanted to report Signer for kidnapping. And after an independent forensics expert found nothing illegal in her ex-husband's hard drive, she sent it for additional testing to the FBI, Customs, and, for good measure, NASA.
At every turn, Luft was denied. And as the evidence mounted against her, her actions only turned more desperate.
Last summer, Signer and his daughter took a planned vacation to California. According to court documents, Signer was talking with a hostess at his hotel's restaurant when he felt a tug at his pant leg. "Daddy," his daughter said. "Mommy is here."
He turned around to find Luft standing in the doorway. Then he saw the cops.
Luft had trailed her ex to California, tracked down local authorities, and handed them a copy of the five-year-old court document that accused him of domestic abuse and pedophilia. She'd asked them to arrest Signer for kidnapping. But Signer had grown accustomed to lugging around a box of documents as one of his carry-ons. Back in his hotel room, he showed the officers Russo's most recent custody order. (Signer and his lawyers declined to comment.)
Although it technically ended in 2005, Luft's spectacular violations of court order have helped maintain her case's status as the center-ring show in Cuyahoga County's biggest, most bizarre circus of jurisprudence. Mention Luft's name to divorce lawyers or courthouse employees, and they mark their recognition with a chuckle or a sigh. Ask for the case's file, and its keeper wheels it out on a dolly. "Hope you packed a lunch," he says.
Even Russo's judgment — a novel-length decision he handed down in Signer's favor — noted the case's standing as the worst of the worst.
"In 13 years as a judge and 17 years as an attorney," Russo wrote of Luft, "I have never witnessed a more combative, recalcitrant, evasive, argumentative, disrespectful, self-centered, and obstructive litigant."
But no matter how harshly Judge Russo rules against Luft, she isn't likely to back down. She owes thousands of dollars to almost everyone involved in the case. And she continues to assault Russo's fax machine with new motions. The judge's only solace is that it'll all be over in January — at least for him. By then, he will have moved downstairs to the first floor, into a seat in probate court. But Luft will almost assuredly keep going.
"[Judge Russo's] decisions are horrific, and they're blatant lies," she tells Scene before hanging up the phone abruptly. "The only thing I have is my credibility."