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Wanda C. Jones for Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court, Jan. 6 term: endorsement editorial

September 20, 2018

Wanda C. Jones for Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court, Jan. 6 term: endorsement editorial

As a son of the late Cuyahoga County Treasurer Frank Gaul, Daniel Gaul -- a county Common Pleas Court judge for nearly 28 years -- has a deep pedigree in Cleveland Democratic politics and could be said to come honestly by his sometimes sharp tongue and elevated sense of outrage about those who threaten public safety. 

Gaul, 64, originally appointed to the bench in 1991 by then-Democratic Gov. Dick Celeste and elected in 1992 to complete the final years of that term, is now seeking his fifth, and final, full six-year term. Because of Ohio’s age limits for judges, he won’t be eligible to run again.

He estimates he’s presided over more than 40,000 cases in his decades on the bench, and says because of his efficiency in disposing of cases and efforts to provide defendants with second chances through probation, that he gets more than his share of assigned criminal cases.

Of his controversial utterances and actions in a 2007 criminal case that landed him in disciplinary hot water with the Ohio Supreme Court, drawing a stayed suspension in 2010 – allowing him to stay on the bench -- Gaul says, “I am not a potted plant.”

No, he’s not.

In that case, he threatened to have the defendant “bound and gagged;” summoned the media to his chambers for an “Amber Alert” he said he was issuing for a missing 83-year-old assault victim; and said to the defendant that he’d “bet my life ... that you have been involved in a technical kidnapping” of the woman. The missing victim later said she was just “visiting” with her caregiver but jailhouse recordings led to obstruction charges in an alleged plot to keep her from testifying.

An Ohio Supreme Court panel, however, determined that Gaul, in acting without sufficient legal and evidentiary basis and exhibiting bias, undermined public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary, and violated two canons of judicial conduct and a rule of professional conduct.

Gaul argued then and now that his goals are noble -- to save innocent lives, to protect victims and witnesses from reprisals, to do the hard work to watchdog justice in his courtroom. And four prominent local lawyers testified to his generally temperate judicial behavior in that disciplinary case. 

Six years ago, our editorial board accepted that framing of the matter in endorsing Gaul for re-election. This year, in a very narrow call, we can’t reach that same conclusion, in part influenced by a recent case where Gaul cast doubt on a jury verdict acquitting a defendant of murder, called the African-American defendant “a brother” and said he’d have “busted a cap in you” -- street slang for shooting him – while comparing him to Las Vegas mass murderer Stephen Paddock. That’s not being noble. That’s being prejudicial, and wrong.

Gaul is being challenged for re-election by Wanda C. Jones, 46, a graduate of Cleveland’s Glenville High School and Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, who’s been a lawyer barely seven years, who also works as a guardian ad litem.and previously worked as a bank analyst 

Jones’ legal experience appears limited and her knowledge of Common Pleas Court even more restricted. She’s practiced primarily civil and family law. 

But she is calm, measured, and ardent about the need for change and for bringing new perspectives to the bench. She seconds Gaul in arguing a major role of a Common Pleas judge is to protect the public from bad actors, but she says the law and the judicial process also must be protected. She is 100 percent correct in that. 

Wanda C. Jones appears to have the strength of character, judicial temperament and life knowledge to be an effective and maybe even an excellent judge, with the intellectual ability to get up to speed on criminal law, where she has little current experience. Voters in Cuyahoga County should pass over the familiar and popular name and choose Wanda C. Jones in the Nov. 6 election. 

Early in-person and absentee voting for the Nov. 6 election begins Oct. 10. For more resources on judicial races in Cuyahoga County, consult Judge4Yourself judicial ratings from four local bar associations, Judicial Votes Count at the University of Akron and the League of Women Voters’ voters’ guide. 

Longtime Democratic Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge Daniel Gaul faces a re-election challenge from Republican Wanda C. Jones, of the local law firm Axner & Jones. The two candidates were interviewed by the editorial board of cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer on Aug. 22, 2018, as part of its endorsement process. Listen to full audio of this interview below: 

About our editorials: Editorials express the view of the editorial board of cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer -- the senior leadership and editorial-writing staff. As is traditional, editorials are unsigned and intended to be seen as the voice of the news organization. 

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