Bench Warmer

Judge Daniel O. Corrigan may be old, tired, and pummeled by critics, but he's not leaving.

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Though he's the county's senior judge, Corrigan - remains an outsider at the Justice Center. - Walter  Novak
Though he's the county's senior judge, Corrigan remains an outsider at the Justice Center.
The old lady's trembling hand clutches a cane. As she stands at the podium in Judge Daniel O. Corrigan's courtroom, the ancient magistrate glares down at her.

The woman's appearance stems from a domestic row turned nasty. Her wheelchair-bound husband was chasing her around their apartment, swinging a cane at her. Cornered, the old lady whipped out a pistol and plugged him in the leg. He felt nothing and made a full recovery.

In her 63 years, this is her first crime. Her husband has forgiven her. Now it's up to Judge Corrigan. He has just one question: "Where's the gun?" He is hunched and squinting over the top of thick glasses, looking like an ill-tempered owl.

"Your honor, I have no idea," she says.

"Where's the gun?" Corrigan repeats the question about 10 times -- and keeps getting the same answer. The woman's attorney interrupts to say that, in the chaos that followed the shooting, police figure a neighbor kid swiped it. But Corrigan shakes his head. "I think she's lying to me. Where's the gun?"

The dozen or so people in the courtroom are shifting nervously in their seats. "I don't know, your honor," the woman continues to reply.

He scowls at her. "The court sentences you to eight years in prison."

The crowd shudders. All seem to stare at the judge with the same thought: Has the old coot lost it? The lady's attorney is frantic. This was supposed to be a slam-dunk probation sentence. Now her client is going to spend her golden years in the can. She reminds Corrigan that the woman has a clean record. Nobody knows where the gun went. The old lady is frozen with terror.

After 10 minutes of pleading -- during which Corrigan shuffles papers -- he looks up, as if lifting from a daydream. "Okay, I'll give you probation."

The audience heaves a sigh of relief. The old lady's eyes drip with gratitude.

Corrigan betrays a wry grin as the woman shuffles away from the podium. "Say hi to Annie Oakley for me," he tells her.

Three months later, Corrigan sits on a couch in his chambers, doubled over in laughter, a spell brought on by recollections of that day. He wheezes and slaps his knee, takes off his glasses, and wipes his eyes. "Ohhh," he says, "I have fun out there."

Unfortunately, neither his colleagues nor the county's political elite are laughing with him.

Over the past decade, Corrigan has missed literally years of work due to various illnesses. The county has spent almost $200,000 on substitute judges. And even when he does show, Corrigan moves methodically through cases, making his the most clogged docket of any county judge. The press has drilled him for everything from his absences to his personal debts to his failure to submit ethics forms. In many eyes, he's the poster child for abuse of public office.

Colleagues wonder aloud whether there's a legal way to oust him. Republicans salivate over the chance to run against him, and even his own party refuses to endorse him.

But Corrigan isn't the type -- even at age 68 -- to retire to a life of lawn care and Perry Mason reruns. Last month, he announced his bid for another six-year term. Either he likes his job too much, or he's really bad about taking a hint.

Corrigan recalls the day in the seventh grade when his homeroom teacher appointed him to hear the case of a class bully caught extorting dimes from students. Probation contingent on payment of restitution was the sentence 13-year-old Corrigan handed down. To a runt who was a victim of the bully himself, doling out justice made Corrigan feel powerful and important.

It would prove to be his life's calling, though he would take a circuitous route to get there, working as a factory shop assistant, a stocker, a sales clerk, an assembly line worker, and a gunner's mate aboard a Navy destroyer before enrolling at Cleveland Marshall Law.

After seven years in private practice, Corrigan rode his familiar Irish name to the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court. It was 1970, and he was just 37 years old.

Today, Corrigan grimaces as he steps up to his bench. His once dark hair is wispy white, and attorneys address him in slow, soothing tones, as if he were their great-aunt.

None of this detracts from Corrigan's job enjoyment. The cases before him provide a generous wellspring of stories. He tells about the Muslim man whose beliefs forbade him from staining his hands with the ink used for fingerprinting. Corrigan closed his eyes, stretched out his arms, and looked heavenward. "Son, Allah is speaking through me," he told the man. "Just this one time, Allah has said you can get your hands dirty." It put the man at ease.

When he feels he's being lenient with defendants, he tells them to "Get out of my courtroom, before I change my mind." He cracks a smile as they sprint out the door.

When someone confesses to recreational drug use, Corrigan asks, "Recreational? What does that mean? You take drugs before you play badminton?"

The audience snickers, and Corrigan winks back. Public ridicule is part of the sentencing.

"I have a lot of fun out there, but I don't want to do it to the point of humiliating someone," he says. "Unless they have it coming."

"He likes to yell at people in a sort of fatherly way," says defense attorney Jerry Emoff. "Actually, those are the people that are best off. It's when he doesn't yell at you that you have a problem."

In such cases, the defendant will usually hear a grave recitation of Corrigan's view on human nature: "Everybody has good and bad in them," he says. "The difference in people is the degrees of good and bad that they allow to permeate their life." With that, he will level a sentence of 25 years.

The process appeals to Corrigan's sense of theater, and he unapologetically states that his job is as entertaining as it is fulfilling. But not everyone is smiling.

It is too much to expect perfect justice, but in Cuyahoga County, a judge is expected to at least be fast. The most revered blaze through trials, steamroll attorneys' dilatory tactics, and skip lunch to keep the docket moving. All scorn the judge who falls behind.

Since 1991, when Corrigan had his first heart attack, he's been lagging. He convalesced from double bypass surgery most of that year. He missed most of 1993 after breaking a heel and 16 foot bones in a fall from a porch. There were chest pains in 1998 that kept him out seven months, then another heart attack that kept him out nearly all of 2000. Corrigan also missed months of work while he cared for his wife, who suffered a stroke. Around the same time, she was diagnosed with cancer, and Corrigan stayed home to nurse her through months of chemotherapy.

The absences forced the county to hire replacement judges, and Corrigan took a pounding in The Plain Dealer. A 1998 article noted that Corrigan presided over just one criminal trial in an 11-month stretch, and that he was well below average in settling civil suits and getting criminal plea agreements. It also found that Corrigan had nearly 800 pending cases -- more than double the backlog of the most expeditious judges.

A blistering article in 1999 reported that his financial disclosure forms were late for the third year in a row. It went on to highlight some 15 years of debts, including the foreclosure on his home, tax liens against his Ashtabula County farm, and creditors who were garnisheeing his paychecks.

Last year, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Thomas J. Moyer fingered Corrigan for "taking advantage of the system," by which a judge can call in sick yet still collect his paycheck, while a visiting judge does the work. Corrigan's absences were reported to have cost taxpayers $190,000. He also failed to keep up with his legal training. Moyer suggested that Corrigan might be forced to resign if he doesn't do so voluntarily.

Corrigan tends to deflect the criticism as backstabbing. After all, the county doesn't keep an attendance log for justices. To Corrigan, this can only mean that someone inside is planting the stories. He is loath to utter the man's name, but it's plain that Corrigan sees Judge Timothy McGinty as the villain.

"This kind of guy," says Corrigan, "is an enemy."

The two have butted heads since McGinty's days as a prosecutor. Corrigan does not consider it a coincidence that in Plain Dealer stories where Corrigan is the scoundrel, McGinty is covered as the hero. In the article castigating Corrigan for his large caseload, McGinty is celebrated for having the smallest -- and quoted on his distaste for judges who don't keep dockets current.

When the article came out in February 1998, McGinty was running unopposed for reelection. A week later, he not only had a challenger, but one who enjoyed the unabashed support of Corrigan -- a rarity for a judge, since the code of judicial conduct forbids them from taking sides in another's campaign.

McGinty declined an interview, saying, "He can say whatever he wants to about me." Moyer and Administrative Judge Richard J. McMonagle, who has also been critical of Corrigan's attendance, refused to talk as well. Still, there's little secret they're pulling for Corrigan's ouster.

"I feel like a teacher," says McMonagle. "If I got that one kid out of the class, it would be perfect."

Among prosecutors, it's common knowledge that a case assigned to Corrigan may live in perpetuity. No one will say so publicly, since they'll inevitably find themselves at Corrigan's mercy. Assistant Prosecutor Mark Mahoney offers a typical response when asked about the judge's reputation. "I can't answer that," he laughs.

"He is an outsider," says Gerald Gold, a veteran defense attorney. "He is the senior guy, and he's viewed by some of these young guys as over the hill." While Gold considers Corrigan bright and fair-minded, he admits it's "vexing" for lawyers to have their cases delayed by Corrigan's absences.

Neither the Cuyahoga County nor the Cleveland Bar Association would offer a critique of Corrigan. But it doesn't bode well that, in the 1996 race where Corrigan ran unopposed, the Cleveland Bar still recommended against voting for him. And this time around, his follies have emboldened challengers. Eight Democrats threw their names into the race. Two have dropped out, but it's clear the rest don't fear the 32-year incumbent. "For the record, I would've beaten him," says Cleveland Councilman Michael Dolan, who decided to stay in city politics.

Democratic challenger Ellen McCarthy talks about the "erosion of respect" for the bench Corrigan has wrought. Even Republicans, usually trounced in county elections, display no apprehension. "We're rooting for him, because we think we can take him out in the fall," says county Republican Party Chairman Jim Trakas.

Though Corrigan says he detests the Bar Association, he desperately wanted the party's endorsement. That showed during his meandering speech before the party's Executive Committee in February. "He was trying to appeal to their sympathy and compassion for his health and his wife's health, but the leadership felt compelled to not endorse him," says party Chairman Jimmy Dimora.

With this decision, Corrigan was completely isolated. He was supposed to take his cue and retire.

"If you're an incumbent, you're pretty much rubber-stamped in Cuyahoga County," says Dimora. "When you don't get it, you know there's something very wrong."

Corrigan's chambers are on the top floor of the Justice Center, 23 stories above Lake Erie -- high enough to look into the bowl of Cleveland Browns Stadium. It is a testament to Corrigan's position as the county's elder statesman.

But he does not comport himself as a man of stature. He wears hiking boots and white tube socks with his suit. While the other judges take lunch at Blue Point Grille, he's waiting in line at Sokolowski's. They drive luxury cars and SUVs. He has a pickup and still hangs drywall. Thirty-two years in the company of lawyers haven't removed his blue-collar roots.

Which partly explains why Corrigan remains an outsider. When George McMonagle Sr. was the eldest judge, he was treated like an oracle by younger judges and attorneys. Corrigan himself used to consult McMonagle.

Yet few in the Justice Center now seek Corrigan's wisdom. While McMonagle was allowed to serve till he was 91, Corrigan will turn 69 in July, and they've been showing him the door for five years.

It would be too much to say that Corrigan seeks reelection out of spite. But he's firmly resolved to end things on his terms: "Nobody's going to press me into doing anything," he snaps.

When voters pick up the ballot, they still recognize the Corrigan name. Other judges only wish they could act with his independence, he says, "but they can't, because they don't have my strength at the polls."

Corrigan rejects the assumption that a judge can be measured by his caseload. He tends to hand out five-year probation sentences where another judge might hand out a year. Thus, when probation is violated, the case stays with Corrigan. "This causes your statistics to balloon, but I've always taken the position that I don't care," he says. "I feel like I'm a pretty good guy, and I've got the hell kicked out of me."

He finds it unfair that caring for his wife -- as he did for much of his 2000 absence -- would earn him public censure. Ohio law allows a judge to be absent when he is ill or when he has "a personal or family emergency."

The tardy financial disclosures and poor record of keeping up with his legal training can both be traced to illnesses, he adds. Nearly all of his past debts have been settled, he says, and financial pressures didn't motivate his decision to run once more, as foes have whispered. He knows he can appear senile on the bench, but protests, "I'm an actor up there." Even Corrigan's critics find little fault with his legal skills.

In the end, voters are left with a simple decision of whether they can count on him every day. As McMonagle says, "You get elected to show up."

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