In Cuyahoga County, deciding which judge to vote for is a lot like buying a pair of jeans -- it's all about the name on the ass. With so many Russos and Corrigans on the ballot, it's hard to tell the genuine article from the real McCoy. And since the Common Pleas bench has never been confused with the Oxford faculty, the right choice may mean the difference between electing a true legal mind, or getting some guy who won his law license in the 50-50 raffle at a CYO basketball game.
"People really guess," says Jim Robenalt of the Judicial Candidate Rating Coalition, which offers rankings of our robes with help from the county's five bar associations.
The Plain Dealer also tries hard to break the confusion, spending considerable time and ink on its endorsements. But it has to worry about political considerations well, of appearing too biased to its readers for one party, creed, or color. So Punch wasn't at all surprised to see the paper endorse two of the county's worst judges.
For the last five years, Kathleen Ann Sutula and Shirley Strickland Saffold have kept appellate courts busy. They've had to review 247 from Sutula's court, and 233 from Saffold's, good for first and third, respectively, among the county's 34 Common Pleasers — and each suckingly close to double the average of their colleagues.
Saffold, meanwhile, is the gold standard for having her decisions reversed. The second-term Democrat is first with 46, twice the number of any other judge.
More than half came from criminal cases. In a 2003 drug case, Saffold pressured a defendant into representing himself at trial when he hadn't been officially assigned a lawyer, had never waived his right to one, and was still considering a plea.
That same year she allowed unauthenticated medical records to be admitted as evidence in a domestic-violence case. And last year, in another drug case, a defendant was linked to the crime only because Saffold permitted the testimony of a detective who spoke for his alleged accomplice.
All three convictions, of course, were reversed.
"She has her own mind," says Robinalt. "Lawyers think she can be arbitrary."
Sutula's racked up 29 reversals. "She has a temper," says Robinalt, "and that interferes with fairness."
Just last month, over repeated objections from the lawyer of a man on trial for assault, she allowed prosecutors to grill the man for details of a previous similar conviction. The case is going back for a new trial.
Though he defends Sutula's work ethic, PD editorial-page chief Brent Larkin concedes her temperament. "Does she perhaps need a personality transplant? Yes."
He admits neither was an easy pick, especially since Saffold is being challenged by Republican Mike Blumenthal, who has no criminal experience.
Still, it could have been worse. Even after all five bar associations dissed Democratic candidate Christine Russo, and Larkin called her "an unqualified candidate with a ton of baggage," Russo won endorsement from The Call & Post. "We are horrified by that," says Robenalt. -- Jason Nedley