The Verdict Is In

From big minds to blowhards: Lawyers rate Cuyahoga County's judges, and it ain't pretty.

One relishes her reputation as a black-robed Terminator. Another comes off as a camera-loving blowhard. A third is the judicial equivalent of the Homecoming Queen.

We wanted the inside dirt on Cuyahoga County's Court of Common Pleas judges, so we went to the people who deal with them every day: lawyers. We mailed questionnaires to more than 550 attorneys. Knowing that professional courtesy and common sense might prevent honest appraisals, we granted respondents anonymity. "All of us are terrified," one attorney later confessed. "If they found out who we were, we'd all be ruined."

Predictably, the Ohio State Bar Association got its panties in a knot. "Scene magazine is asking lawyers to characterize judges, officers of the courts we are duty bound to respect . . . in highly prejudicial ways," OSBA President Keith Ashmus blustered in an e-mail to lawyers, advising them not to participate in our catty little story.

Which only prompted more attorneys to ask for the survey. The final tally exposed deep dissatisfaction with the current crop of Common Pleas judges.

"Universal belief [is] that current bench is least talented and deserving of the past 25 years," one attorney wrote.

"The bench is at an all-time low based on their experience, intelligence and maturity," wrote another. "Most of the judges are political slime and lack the necessary practical experience to ever become good judges."

A third wrote: "Thank you for doing this. You have no idea what it's like to practice law in front of these morons."

The Hanging Judge:
Kathleen Sutula
Pity the defendant who lands on the docket of Kathleen Sutula, Cleveland's own Queen of Mean. "She thinks she's got to be Miss Law-And-Order and doesn't really have much compassion in her entire being, even on cases that merit a little consideration," said one defense lawyer. "I think it's just part of her whole persona. She's not a very happy human being."

Since joining the Common Pleas bench in 1991, Sutula has become known for meting out harsh sentences. A November 1993 cover story in Cleveland Magazine dubbed her "a criminal's worst nightmare" -- a designation she was only too happy to accept. "I'm proud to serve in that capacity," she said. "Crime victims have enough nightmares."

Whether ignoring a plea deal worked out by prosecutors, so that she could give a molester the maximum, or promising to lobby the parole board to ensure that a murderer never sees freedom, Sutula lives up to her harsh reputation. In 1996, she sentenced a woman who'd extorted money from her child's sexual abuser to 43 to 85 years -- a sentence many times longer than the abuser's 5 to 25 years.

Sutula has stuck by her lock-'em-up-and-throw-away-the-key approach, even at the risk of personal safety. In April 2001, someone shot up her Seven Hills home. "I've been on the bench for 10 years," Sutula said. "You think some people don't hate me for putting their brothers or their husbands away?"

Some scoffed that she was using a random act of violence to enhance her reputation, but last week sheriff's deputies arrested a man who stands accused of paying a pair of Hell's Angels $35,000 to kill Sutula. Two months before the shooting, Sutula had sentenced the man to 33 months in prison for a drug crime. Now, if he's convicted, he's likely to be in prison for much, much longer.

The Bleeding Heart:
Thomas Pokorny
If the Statue of Liberty ever needs a day off, she might call Thomas Pokorny. Lawyers say he has a soft spot for the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses yearning not to get life sentences.

Take the case of Cynthia Kline. She fought a six-year battle with Parma after a ticket for evading a police roadblock. Other judges might have wearied of her extended legal tantrum. Not Pokorny, who said the system should share the blame. "It's a situation where it's extremely difficult for a lay person to get through the quagmire here," he said.

Attorneys say Pokorny is one of "the real gentleman of the bench." He's "fair to all" and "truly understands human weakness and tries to help."

Pokorny staunchly advocated for drug court, laid into police and prosecutors for bungling a 1984 murder inquiry, and was among two judges who rescinded approval for the County Prosecutor's budget in 2002, when William Mason tried to finagle $2.6 million more than the $18.8 million he had been promised by county commisioners.

"A lot of the judges will sometime side with the county prosecutor office," says one lawyer. "But he'll demand, as [judges] should, that [prosecutors] do prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. Period. And he has the cojones if they don't to call it like it is. He's judicial integrity personified."

Least Efficient:
Jose Villanueva
Lawyers must have the memories of elephants, because Villanueva can't shake his reputation as the judicial equivalent of Zydrunas Ilgauskas on a fast break.

In 1994, The Plain Dealer exposed Villanueva for taking four years to rule on a seemingly routine property case. "It fell through the cracks," an embarrassed Villanueva explained. A week later, The PD found three other cases that had languished on Villanueva's to-do list for years, suggesting that his docket has more cracks than a sidewalk.

The cases even became fodder for parody. One article imagined what it would be like if Villanueva replaced Judge Wapner on The People's Court: "If you get into a dispute with someone, don't take the law into your own hands. Take 'em to court," a somber Doug Llewellen intones. "Then relax. If Villanueva draws the case, that's the last you'll ever hear of it."

Villanueva has since brought himself up to speed -- last year, his docket was about average for efficiency -- but lawyers still think of him as ruling in slow motion. Says one, "What you're hearing from people might date back to that story and may be perceptions that really aren't founded in reality."

The Media Grandstander:
Timothy McGinty
Voters knew what they were getting when they elected Timothy McGinty in 1992. His campaign against Judge Sam Zingale was one of the ugliest in recent memory. McGinty accused Zingale of keeping short work hours, while Zingale claimed McGinty was dishonest on his bar exam application. Ultimately, the Cleveland Bar Association stepped in to stop the mudslinging.

Getting elected did little to quiet McGinty's loud mouth. In 1998, he complained that Judge Daniel Corrigan had recruited an opponent to face him in the upcoming election because, in a Plain Dealer article, McGinty had criticized Corrigan's work habits and those of other judges. Judge Corrigan responded by calling McGinty a "cheap-shot artist." And McGinty proved himself something of a hypocrite by admitting that he would have put up an opponent to challenge Corrigan, if he could have found a qualified candidate.

McGinty doesn't save his bizarre personal attacks for political opponents. Last year, he made headlines when he sentenced a part-Cherokee woman to write a 10-page paper about alcoholism and Native Americans after she pleaded guilty to a drunken attack on two cops outside Browns Stadium. An appeals court later threw out McGinty's weirdly race-conscious sentence.

"He's just off the cuff, shoots from the hip," one defense lawyer says of McGinty. "On a civil case, he'd probably settle a lot more of his cases if he didn't indicate where he was coming from right out front, making some snide comment like a Mr. Know-It-All."

But perhaps McGinty's most hilarious case of bloviating came in 1999, when he told The Plain Dealer that the bench should be more diverse: "Who in their right mind is going to say they want more Irishmen and less blacks on the bench?" As a letter writer pointed out, McGinty was in the perfect position to make his dream of equality come true: He could simply resign his seat and ask that a black judge be appointed in his stead. Last time we checked, McGinty's seat was still occupied by an Irishman.

Most Charming:
Christine McMonagle
When she was serving as a domestic relations judge, Christine McMonagle gave fair warning to couples in her court. "No one will get what they deserve, few will get what they think they need," she wrote in a handout. "The result of any divorce trial is a great expenditure of money, an intensification of conflict and anger, and a loss of your ability to have a say in your own future."

It's refreshing to hear such candor on the damage caused by collisions of love and the law -- from a judge, no less.

Lawyers, too, admire McMonagle for her frankness -- and for other qualities as well. They say she is "beautiful physically and spiritually" and "a true pleasure to do business with." In fact, lawyers' remarks were so gushing, you'd have thought that they were suitors vying for her hand on The Bachelorette 2. (Sorry, boys, she's already taken -- by Court of Appeals Judge Timothy McMonagle.)

"Christine McMonagle is a little sweetheart," says one defense attorney. "Very charming. She doesn't give the courthouse away, but she's very respectful. She practiced law like everybody else, didn't come up through all the government stuff, and knows what it's like."

Most Annoying:
Nancy Russo
If the Court of Common Pleas were middle school, Nancy Russo would be the last picked and the first out in dodgeball. And everybody would be aiming for her head.

"She's just flat-out not nice," says one lawyer. "She's extremely disrespectful to everybody, like the attorneys are a pile of garbage."

"She's angry all the time," says another. "She flies off the handle. She makes accusations. She's just mean."

Apparently Russo makes lawyers work harder than they'd like to. They say she demands that they show up for a 10-minute matter that she doesn't bother to attend herself. That she holds court on Saturdays. That she requires them to write pretrial orders up to eight pages long, when other judges require just two pages.

"She doesn't treat a lawyer with any respect whatsoever," says one.

Russo's presence is said to be so distasteful that even fellow outcasts shun her company. Her courtroom is next to Shirley Strickland Saffold's, a strong runner-up in the Most Annoying category. "They don't even talk to each other," says one lawyer. "And I know there have been meetings in an attempt to have somebody switch [rooms] so they wouldn't be together, but nobody wants to switch, because nobody wants to be with either of them."

Most Likely to Go to the Bar After Work:
Tim McCormick
Don't bother sending invites to county judges for your next kegger. Few of them are great partyers, if the responses to our survey are to be believed. But among a field of wallflowers, Timothy McCormick sticks out as the guy with whom lawyers are most likely to share a pitcher.

"He does socialize," one attorney says, "but it doesn't affect his performance. We could use more guys like him on the bench."

Most Intelligent:
Burt Griffin
Burt Griffin is the wise old man of the bench -- Gandalf to Nancy Russo's Gollum.

He was admitted to the bar before some of his fellow Common Pleas jurists were even born. By 1963, he was serving as assistant counsel on the President's Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy (also known as the Warren Commission). That more than qualifies him to sort out the average Cleveland domestic dispute -- a job Griffin apparently takes just as seriously.

"Sometimes [judges] may not read the cases or may not do homework, so [they] may make less reasoned decisions or choices," one lawyer says. "And I think by and large [Griffin's] are very well-reasoned and fair."

Being "tough on crime" is a sure ticket to reelection, but Griffin more often jabs at Prosecutor Bill Mason, whom defense lawyers accuse of overzealousness. In 2000, Griffin ruled that county prosecutors intimidated a colleague to keep him from helping in the defense of his brother, accused of raping a 15-year-old girl. Griffin also refused to hold hearings to label certain criminals sexual predators until an appeals court ordered him to do so.

Griffin's desire to serve as a counterweight to Mason sometimes leads him astray. Earlier this year, Mason called for Griffin's ouster from his role as supervisor of one of the county's four grand juries, because Griffin instructed the panel to indict only if prosecutors proved their case "beyond a reasonable doubt." As Mason correctly noted, a grand jury's burden of proof is the easier-to-meet standard of "probable cause."

Still, on the whole, Griffin seems determined to make the justice system live up to his high standards, even if it means lending a hand to a defense attorney who is bungling her case. "He knew I didn't know what I was doing, because I'm not a criminal lawyer," confesses one lawyer who had a case before Griffin. "And he helped me along and made sure that justice was served and it wasn't just [about] who's the better lawyer."

Least Intelligent:
Bridget McCafferty
No judge dominated a category the way McCafferty did this one. No fewer than 23 lawyers nominated McCafferty as the dumbest judge. Runner-up Shirley Strickland Saffold got just five.

"She is the dumbest legal person I have ever met," one defense attorney says of McCafferty. "Outside of the courtroom, she's nice and she's pleasant. And if you interviewed her she'd seem intelligent. But once she gets into the courtroom she has no idea what she's doing."

"She's just not bright, especially in criminal cases," says another. "You almost think she acts reflexively, especially in sentencing."

McCafferty's résumé notes that she graduated summa cum laude from Miami University and cum laude from Cleveland-Marshall College of Law School. ("Cum laude" is Latin for "smarter than you.") But she also got shit-canned from her job as a magistrate within a matter of months, because court officials found her work habits to be poor, according to media accounts. When she ran for the bench, she barely met the minimum requirement of six years of legal experience -- a bar so low that it could be used for the pole-vault competition at the Special Olympics. One lawyer says McCafferty is "not qualified to be a dog catcher."

But voters, never ones to let incompetence stand in the way of a good last name, picked her anyway.

McCafferty's term on the bench has also provided plenty of "D'oh!" moments. In 2001 and 2002, 16 of her decisions were reversed on appeal -- the judicial equivalent of someone saying, "You fucked up." In one of the more egregious cases, an appeals court ruled that McCafferty shouldn't have allowed a Ku Klux Klan video to be shown to a jury deciding whether a landlord was guilty of racial harassment.

"She'll say, 'Let the court of appeals do what they want with it,'" says one lawyer. "She says stuff like that all the time. She's absolutely clueless."

Still, McCafferty's got one thing figured out: how to keep a cushy job in a down economy.

Most Political:
Bridget McCafferty
As in the last judicial election, McCafferty had no trouble garnering a majority in this category. "She doesn't miss one thing on the rubber chicken circuit," says a lawyer.

When she ran in 1998, McCafferty had little going for her, other than an Irish name. (The county court's roster reads like an Ancient Order of Hibernians membership list.) She had just been fired from her magistrate's job, and the Cleveland Bar Association rated her as merely "adequate," which is a little like advertising a car as coming equipped with all four tires.

Yet McCafferty beat the better-qualified Kathleen Craig, a former assistant county prosecutor, through politicking that was less about savviness than a willingness to wear out shoe leather. One lawyer remembers McCafferty's reaction when she saw then-Rep. Patrick Sweeney at a public event. "She was cozying up to him immediately," says the lawyer. "When he walked in, she was gladhanding and talking to him."

McCafferty didn't slow down, once she got into office. She went postal and mailed 495 kiss-up letters to politicians who'd won municipal elections, as well as 125 congratulatory notes to people who'd been honored by Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

"She just really pays attention to the political aspect and that you want to get re-elected," says one lawyer.

Perhaps too much attention. Prosecutor William Mason scolded her in 1999 for using county resources to mail some letters, saying she "showed a disregard for the court as an institution and the trust placed in [her] by the taxpayers of this county." Presiding Judge Richard McMonagle also laid the smackdown on her. McCafferty was required to pay back $363.35 for the mailings.

One attorney describes McCafferty as a "brain-dead political hack," but if she manages to win reelection, she'll have the last laugh.

Most Attractive:
Peggy Foley Jones
Peggy Foley Jones is one of the few judges who didn't post a photo of herself on the County Court's website. A shame, considering she is one of the few actually worth ogling.

Many lawyers left the category blank, and others scribbled "none" or "not applicable." But among the smattering of lawyers who chose a favorite, Peggy Foley Jones emerged as the clear winner.

"She's just a good looking woman," says one male lawyer. "She's reached middle age, but she keeps herself fit and dresses well. She's not gaudy or anything. She's just good looking."

And boy, she sure can swing a gavel!

Least Trustworthy:
Shirley Strickland Saffold
Professional courtesy usually keeps judges from interfering in each others' cases, but Saffold didn't let that stand in her way. In 2001, the judge in the Audrey Iacona case accused Saffold of "prodding" him to badmouth the defendant, so that Saffold could later use his words against him in an affidavit alleging he was biased. "I believe I was set up," he said.

Confronted with the accusation, Saffold practiced a positively Clintonian technique: Deny, deny, deny. It is a strategy that has served her well through the years and has earned her a bad rep among lawyers. They gave her three times as many votes in this category as any other judge. One lawyer says that he "wouldn't trust her as far as you could throw her."

In 2000, the Cleveland Bar Association rated Saffold as "adequate" in an unopposed primary, but gave her eventual challenger, a white guy, a "recommended" rating. Rather than taking it as a sign that she needs to work harder to make friends in the legal community, Saffold instead chose to invoke images of white sheets and burning crosses.

"The attitude toward African-Americans that existed in the 19th century remains in the Cleveland Bar judicial committee," Saffold sputtered histrionically.

As evidence, Saffold claimed that she had a better track record with the Court of Appeals than most of her colleagues. But an industrious Plain Dealer reporter's spot-check of the records revealed that in fact, Saffold was one of the most overturned judges on the bench.

So when it comes to determining whether Saffold is the most untrustworthy judge, it all depends on what your definition of "is" is.

Needs to Retire:
Judith Kilbane Koch
At 63, Judith Kilbane Koch is the third-oldest judge on Cuyahoga County's Common Pleas bench. But Koch's personality and habits vaulted her ahead of her elders when lawyers were asked which judges have passed their expiration dates.

One lawyer joked that Koch is so slow that "she tries to persuade the parties to iron out their differences with her delays." Another lawyer added a "mean and dumb" category to the survey and listed Koch fourth, behind perpetual punching bags Bridget McCafferty, Shirley Strickland Saffold, and Kathleen Sutula.

One man's saga speaks volumes about her style. In 1992, police got a tip about a huge supply of crack supposedly being stored in a duplex owned by a blind 82-year-old, Dusan Brkic. A raid turned up little crack and a squatter, who was busted on drug charges. Three days later, the Drug Task Force cited the property for violating housing codes and boarded it up. Brkic complained that police had caused most of the damage and filed a lawsuit.

An open-and-shut case, right? Not with Koch running the show.

First she dismissed the case, saying that the city was immune. An appeals court reinstated the case. Next Brkic's lawyer asked for a postponement, because the man's son was scheduled for hip surgery. Koch refused, so Brkic temporarily withdrew the suit. When he refiled, Koch tossed it out again.

Brkic's lawyers asked the Ohio Supreme Court to remove Koch from the case, because she "demonstrated a lack of impartiality." The Supreme Court rarely grants such motions, but the chief justice signaled that he would do so in this instance. Koch took the hint and removed herself. Jurors ultimately awarded Brkic $20,000 -- five months after his death.

Koch turned 63 on Election Day last year, and voters gave her further reason to celebrate by electing her a third time. To the chagrin of some lawyers, it doesn't look as if she'll be retiring anytime soon.

Most Likely to Go Golfing at Noon on a Weekday:
Shirley Strickland Saffold
If Saffold plays golf half as much as attorneys say she does, she should turn pro. "She loves the golf," says one attorney. "She's actually a golf freak."

But lawyers nominated Saffold in this category not to praise her, but to bury her. They say she knocks off early to head for the links. Saffold "works one hour a week," mocks one lawyer.

"She's bad at keeping hours," says a defense attorney. "And her bailiff does a hell of a job of protecting her. You have pretrials there and you don't even know she's not there. It gets continued two or three times . . . and then you realize she's not there."

Most Likely to Say Something Offensive:
Shirley Strickland Saffold, Kathleen Sutula
Shirley Strickland Saffold and Kathleen Sutula were tied for the lead in this category. With this race too close to call, we're resorting to our version of a photo finish:

· In 1994, an attorney representing a woman jailed for violating parole on a drug conviction argued that the defendant should be released early because she was seven months pregnant. That didn't wash with "Maximum" Sutula. No way, she snapped, arguing that the woman might go back to using drugs. "My only alternative is to keep her in jail to protect the baby."

· In 1996, Saffold, who is married to a doctor, offered one defendant unsolicited advice on how to turn her life around: Go to a medical school and pretend to read a book. "When one of [the med students] walks by, say, 'Excuse me, could you tell me what this means?'

"Men are easy," Saffold continued. "You can go sit at the bus stop, put on a short skirt, cross your legs and pick up 25. Ten of them will give you their money. It's the truth . . . If you don't pick up the first 10, then all you got to do is open your legs a little bit and cross them at the bottom and then they'll stop."