Bench Warmers

How some "retired" judges make an awfully nice living.

The Station Agent Cedar Lee Theatre
Retired judges are unelected and largely - unaccountable. - Thom  Zahler
Retired judges are unelected and largely unaccountable.
On a recent morning, Judge Thomas Patrick Curran welcomed 30 prospective jurors into a Summit County courtroom. They looked pained by the inconvenience, so Curran tried to lighten the mood. "Thank you for coming to court," he said. "You all volunteered, right?"

Curran was not trying to charm a room of registered voters, for no ballot will carry his name. He is a retired judge, the courts' equivalent of a grandparent who watches the kids while their parents cruise the Caribbean. Retired judges fill vacancies, relieve sitting judges who may have a conflicting interest, and help reduce the backlog. In Cuyahoga County, two of them spend all their time chopping away at the forest of asbestos cases.

The Ohio Supreme Court keeps a list of 127 retired judges who are willing to serve. The unpretentious Curran, who is 73 and lives in Shaker Heights, seems ideal for the job. After years in private practice, he served a term on the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas, but came up short in re-election bids, even after being described in a Plain Dealer endorsement as a "first-rate jurist."

But retired judges' services don't come cheap: $400 to $465 a day, depending on the court visited. Last year the program cost the state $2.2 million.

To save money, chief Justice Thomas Moyer, who makes the assignments, has asked sitting judges to swap more cases. Still, a handful of retired judges work full-time. Few punch the clock like William F. Chinnock, a former Lakewood city councilman and juvenile court judge. According to financial disclosure statements, Chinnock earned $101,500 in 2002, nearly matching the salary of a common pleas judge, $106,500.

"I'm one of the more active visiting judges, and that's the way I like it," Chinnock, 65, says. "Work is my life. My children are grown and gone, and I'm proud to serve."

Funny thing about Chinnock is, the voters never asked him to serve.

In 1996, Juvenile Court Judge Kenneth Rocco won a court of appeals race. The Republican party, by virtue of its control of the governor's house, was entitled to name Rocco's replacement. Chinnock got the job, although he was the lowest-rated of five possible candidates. The Cleveland Bar Association deemed Chinnock only an "adequate" choice; the other four names came "recommended" or "highly recommended."

The Cuyahoga County party chairman said at the time that Chinnock was chosen with the next election in mind. It was thought that his days on Lakewood council would make him familiar to voters.

Chinnock's 16 years on council had been colorful. Ostensibly a Democrat, he voted often with the Republicans on council and shared a law practice with the Republican mayor, Anthony Sinagra. Longtime Lakewood Councilman Tom George says it became difficult for Democrats to strategize with Chinnock in the room. "He found himself more and more ostracized," George says.

Cleveland police popped Chinnock for drunken driving in 1983. His most ignominious act while a councilman, though, might have been an occasion six years later, when he tricked the Boy Scouts into passing out campaign literature.

Chinnock summoned the neckerchiefed youths to his home by billing the event as a litter cleanup. When the scouts arrived, they were handed plastic bags and told to distribute them throughout the city. The bags carried two messages: Keep America beautiful -- and reelect William F. Chinnock.

Two months later, Chinnock finished fourth in a primary election. A run for municipal court judge in 1991 ended also in defeat.

Unappreciated by Lakewood voters, Chinnock found warmth in the arms of the Republican Party. Then-Governor George Voinovich named him to the regional Workers' Compensation Review Board, a job that in 1991 paid about $35,000 a year. It was also Voinovich who later appointed him to juvenile court.

Chinnock's supposed electability in a county race was never tested, however. After a year on the bench, he announced that an undisclosed medical condition made campaigning too difficult. Chinnock says today that he suffered from a heart ailment, subsequently alleviated by alternative medicine. He credits chelation therapy, a detoxification procedure that the American Heart Association happens to reject.

Of course, if Chinnock had not taken ill and had stood for election, he would have run the risk of losing his eligibility to work as a retired judge. Retired judges must have left the bench on their own terms, not the voters'. There are ways around this rule. Curran, for instance, was appointed by Governor Bob Taft to the Eighth District Court of Appeals for a term that lasted four days.

Whatever the circumstances of Chinnock's retirement, as a visiting judge, he displays the energy of a man half his age. In 1999, for instance, he reported working 29 of July's 31 days. All but two of those days, he toiled on behalf of Harrison County, which is 130 miles from Westlake, Chinnock's then-city of residence. (He now lives in Avon.)

July 4, 1999, was a rare day of recorded rest for Chinnock. He's been known to work on Independence Day. And Memorial Day. And Labor Day. And Thanksgiving Day. Chinnock's past reimbursement forms show several entries for days the courts were closed, according to the research of David Palmer, a self-appointed judicial watchdog in Columbus. Palmer found that in 1999 and 2000, Chinnock was paid $24,000 in per diems for work he supposedly performed on weekends and government holidays.

"Somebody ought to sue the Supreme Court for working these guys so hard," Palmer says in jest. "Maybe I'll contact the AARP."

Chinnock, of course, could have read briefs and written opinions on all those Saturdays. Law librarians attest to his diligence. He wrote an opinion in a contempt case that takes up 40 pages in a law review. "I am a very intensive researcher of the law," Chinnock says. "When I research a case, I dig out all the facts and all the law."

Still, Chinnock and his ilk so infuriated Palmer that in 2001 he filed criminal theft-in-office complaints against nine retired judges. The charges were thrown out, but not before several judges returned more than $7,000 in daily stipends. (Chinnock's contribution totaled $800.) Also, Chief Justice Moyer asked the auditor to review the way retired judges were paid. Now, retired judges can no longer collect a full day's pay for 10 minutes of work. "You don't want to work eight hours? They're hiring greeters at Sam's Club," Palmer sniffs.

Chinnock ranks No. 2 on Palmer's list of abusers, with the highest dishonors going to Stephen Yarbrough, a retired judge from the Toledo area. Palmer claims he caught Yarbrough billing 34 hours in one day. Yarbrough eventually returned nearly $4,000, though his attorney insisted, "He was the busiest judge in the state."

Chinnock visits mainly in Lake, Medina, Summit, and Pike counties. Seldom has he worked in Cuyahoga County, a fact Chinnock attributes to "political problems." It figures that the county bureaucracy would not go out of its way to employ a Republican convert. But one local attorney guesses that more than partisanship keeps Chinnock from the Justice Center. "My suspicion would be the judges here know that he would be too flamboyant," says the attorney, who asked not to be named.

Chinnock is certainly not timid. He twice made national headlines while subbing in Franklin County. In a custody matter, he forbade anyone from smoking around an eight-year-old girl -- even though smoking hadn't been an issue between the estranged parents. Chinnock made it so, citing evidence of the harm posed by second-hand smoke.

In another case, he jailed a divorced man for contempt of court. Dennis Caron had withheld support of a child he insisted he did not father. Caron and his ex-wife eventually settled. Days later, however, Chinnock ruled that the agreement did not satisfy the interests of the child or the state, and jailed Caron "to send an unequivocal message" to fathers who do not abide court orders.

Chinnock is proud of the ruling. He notes that the putative father had filed numerous lawsuits, and his case had bounced from judge to judge. "I made lemonade out of a lemon," he says.

Not everyone in Columbus proclaims Chinnock a hero, however. Attorneys there say Chinnock is bright and personable, but his lax approach to procedure (neglecting to swear in witnesses, for example) made for occasional appeals. Attorneys describe instances when he rushed to proceed, despite all parties not being present.

Once a frequent sight in Franklin County, Chinnock now takes no new cases there ("Mutual decision," says Cinda Nichols, the commissioner of domestic and juvenile courts). He is welcome in other places. Chinnock earned more than $50,000 in the first seven months of this year. Indeed, flamboyance has its rewards. Chinnock is known for a willingness to take dreaded cases, such as the ones where judges are asked to revoke parental custody. "He does a good job," says Cheryl Goldstein, Summit County's civil administrator. "All the visiting judges do."

Voters and taxpayers will have to take her word for it. Until he turns 80, the age of mandatory retirement, Chinnock is free to work, unelected and accountable only to a few court administrators. "We kind of play the cards we're dealt," says Douglas Stephens, the Supreme Court's director of judicial services. "He was made a judge by appointment; so as far as we're concerned, he's a judge in good standing until somebody tells us otherwise."

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