Tony Clarke was a young attorney in Bradford, McKean County, when he first stood before Judge John Cleland.
Clarke started practicing law in 1991, and in his own words, was full of “vim and vigor” and probably “a little overbearing.”
The young lawyer, who argued both criminal and civil cases Cleland’s courtroom in Smethport, the county seat, said the judge called him into his chambers and gave him advice on handling himself. Clarke said he was encouraged by what the judge said: to tone things down.
Clarke was glad he wasn’t called out or humiliated in open court, as he has seen happen to other attorneys.
“I’ll never forget that,” he said. “I took that seriously and appreciated that he took it in that fashion.”
Cleland’s courteousness, his attention to detail, watchful eye for the law, and his handling of court cases have drawn praise from those who have presented cases in front of him or have worked beside him.
The judge was chosen to hear the biggest case in Centre County history and the one that’s grabbed the nation’s attention — the child sex abuse case against former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. The trial is scheduled to begin June 5.
“They don’t come fairer or more open-minded,” said Fred Gallup, an attorney from Bradford, the largest town in McKean County, and someone who said he has known Cleland since the early 1970s.
“You got the best judge in the state to hear the Sandusky case,” Gallup said.
Clarke remembers Cleland for how he crafts his orders on motions and spells out his decisions, no matter the complexities of a case.
“His rulings on them were always clear and considerate and well-reasoned and related to the facts of the law,” Clarke said.
He added: “I think Jerry Sandusky is going to get the fairest trial he could have gotten.” ‘Honor and privilege’
Cleland graduated from Denison University in Ohio with a bachelor’s degree in history in 1969. He graduated from George Washington University’s National Law Center in 1972.
He was a law clerk right out of school then went into private practice for 10 years at a firm in Kane, McKean County, from 1974 to 1984.
Cleland took the bench in McKean County in 1984 when he was appointed by then-Gov. Dick Thornburgh. He was elected full time in 1985 and re-elected twice before retiring in 2008.
From there, he was appointed to the state’s Superior Court in 2008 to 2010.
He’s had his current senior judge status since 2011.
Cleland hired current McKean County Court Administrator Joanne Bly almost 20 years ago. She was quick to say how much she’s enjoyed working with Cleland.
“It’s been an honor and privilege to work with Judge Cleland,” she said. Stacy Wallace worked for Cleland, too, as a law clerk after she graduated from law school in 2001 and then clerked for him while he was on the Superior Court.
She’s also argued cases in front of him in the civil arena.
“In various child custody trials, I’ve seen Judge Cleland put children at ease in what would be an uncomfortable setting,” said Wallace, a McKean County attorney. “He’d win the children over by talking with them about his experiences in a variety of things in which they could relate whether it be cleaning out horse stalls or resolving conflicts with siblings.”
Cleland declined to be interviewed for this report. Some who have worked with him in McKean County declined to do so as well or didn’t return messages seeking comment.
‘Respect is earned’
Before taking the bench for the Sandusky case, Cleland was perhaps most known as the man selected to lead a panel investigating the Luzerne County cash-for-kids corruption scandal. There, he investigated how two former judges took money in exchange for imposing harsh sentences on juveniles and sending them to for-profit detention facilities.
He told the Bradford Era newspaper in January 2010: “Two judges stand criminally charged for conduct that had the unmistakable effect of harming children. Whether they are guilty or innocent of any specific criminal charge brought by the United States Attorney is not for this Commission to decide. But, there is little doubt that their conduct, whether criminal or not, had disastrous consequences for the juvenile justice system that must be understood and prevented from happening again.
“Our focus is on developing recommendations to improve Pennsylvania’s juvenile justice system. That is the task the (l)egislature defined for us.”
The final report was made in May 2010.
Two years prior, Cleland had been appointed to fill a vacancy on the state’s Superior Court and served a two-year term. The recommendation came from a northwestern Pennsylvania state senator from nearby Jefferson County, Joe Scarnati, the Senate president pro tempore.
“Judge Cleland is an outstanding individual who I have known and respected for many years,” Scarnati said in a statement to the CDT. “Judge Cleland believes respect is earned and because of his intellect and even-handed approach, he has earned the respect of just about every individual that has appeared before him.”
‘Authentic, fair trial’
Judge Maureen Lally-Green was Cleland’s colleague on the Superior Court. She described him as a judge who will dig deep into the meaning of the law when weighing a decision.
“He’s careful about what he does,” said Lally-Green, who’s known Cleland in a professional capacity since the late 1990s. “As a colleague on the bench, I saw it.”
Lally-Green said Cleland allows both sides to articulate their arguments. “Everyone will get a truly authentic, fair trial governed by a man who is honest, humble, of integrity, and even-tempered,” said Lally-Green, now with the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh as its director of church relations.
Chris Mattie, an attorney in Eldred, McKean County, remembered an civil suit that resulted from a car crash death perhaps 15 years ago. Mattie said he and the other attorneys in the case filed a slew of motions and Cleland heard oral arguments all afternoon, working well after the Smethport courthouse closed for the night.
“I stayed around Smethport, don’t ask me why, and I finally saw him leaving at 8 o’clock that night,” Mattie said. “He had entered orders on every motion.”
‘Rule of law’
Cleland’s even-tempered and deliberate demeanor has already been on display in short bursts in Centre County court.
Most recently, on May 9, Cleland presided over a hearing to determine the legality of subpoenas issued by the defense seeking records such as psychological evaluations and school records.
When Cleland sat down on the bench, he explained his conclusions about the law to frame the dozen or so attorneys’ arguments on why they shouldn’t have to turn over records to the defense.
The hearing went smoothly — each attorney had 10 minutes to argue, and Cleland organized them into groups according to the similarities of their arguments. As Cleland shepherded the first round of arguments from school districts’ attorneys, he wanted more clarity.
He sat back in his chair, and with a friendly smile as though he were a counselor seeking to get to the bottom of a problem, said to Amendola: “What do you really want?” Cleland saw through Amendola’s explanation, which centered around his quest to see if the records would show the boys had behavior problems before they met Sandusky.
“Do you care if they went to school every day in kindergarten?” Cleland said to Amendola. Amendola said no.
Before adjourning that day, an attorney from Washington stood up and asked Cleland why he denied a “friend of the court” motion from the National Center for Victims of Crime asking him to throw out the subpoenas. Cleland had denied it earlier without explanation.
He looked at the attorney, seemingly careful to choose his words as not to insult or dismiss her while still relying on the letter of the law.
The request was premature, he said.
“I don’t feel your perspective has been lost,” he told her. “It’s not as though there are uncounseled parties here. The important other principle goes to the rule of law, which is that although we have loosely referred to victims, until the prosecution proves a crime has occurred, there are no victims.”
Cleland showed his fairness in February during a hearing on several matters, one of which was modifying Sandusky’s bail to allow him visits with his grandkids. Prosecutor Jonelle Eshbach capitalized on the emotion running through the community at the time, when Sandusky was seen on his porch by neighbors. Eshbach argued Sandusky had the privilege of being on house arrest and should be in jail. She wanted him confined to the walls of his home. But Cleland stopped her before she could finish.
“Why is that a privilege?” he asked.
Cleland didn’t agree. He asked if Sandusky got special treatment, if he posed a danger to the schoolchildren or showed signs of trying to contact them.
He later denied the prosecution’s motion for stricter confinement and granted Sandusky visits with his grandkids.
A short time later in that hearing, Cleland weighed one of the most crucial decisions so far — whether to pick a jury from Centre County, as the defense vehemently wanted, or to go outside the county, as the prosecution lobbied for.
Cleland heard arguments from the attorneys and turned to Sandusky, who took the stand to testify.
“The law is clear in cases like this,” Cleland started to explain, as a parent might do when advising a teen child about driving for the first time.
Cleland made sure Sandusky knew the defendant is the one who usually calls for an out-of-county jury. He made sure Sandusky had talked it over with Amendola, and made sure Sandusky knew it would not be grounds for a post-conviction appeal.
“If you oppose the commonwealth’s notion, and I agree with you, you will not be permitted to argue later on that I made a mistake and that I agreed with you,” Cleland told him. The next work day, Cleland ruled in Sandusky’s favor.
‘Servant to the people’
Jury selection for the Sandusky case is set for June 5. It will be up to Cleland to manage the process.
People here are skeptical an impartial jury can be found.
Bethany Blood, a former law clerk for Cleland, remembers him taking the time to talk to prospective jurors. She said she could figure out which ones didn’t want to be there.
Cleland took command.
“He took a few minutes to explain to the jury pool how important their job was,” said Blood, now an attorney in Erie. “I think that that really helped the jurors look at serving on a jury in a different light.”
When the trial was over, Cleland’s job wasn’t: he answered any questions the jurors had, Blood said.
Lally Green, the former Superior Court judge, said Cleland sees his job “in the context of being a servant to the people.” She’s sure he’ll make justice the top priority.
“I think you in Centre County are very blessed to have Judge Cleland be the judge in this case,” she said.