Pa. high court tags small town judge for tough high profile jobs

August 12, 2018

McKean County Senior Judge John Cleland tackles court’s toughest, high profile jobs

When Thomas Saylor, chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, needed a steady hand to oversee challenges to an edited version of a grand jury report on sexual abuse and cover-ups in six Catholic dioceses, he looked to a retired jurist from one of Pennsylvania’s smallest judicial districts.

It wasn’t the first time the high court turned to Judge John Cleland.

Over the last decade, Cleland has emerged as the court’s go-to judge for tough, high-profile assignments. Colleagues say he’s performed admirably in that capacity, first steering a panel that investigated the Kids for Cash scandal in which a pair of Luzerne County judges sent juveniles to private prisons for kickbacks and later presiding in the highly publicized child sexual abuse trial of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.

Both cast the state’s judiciary into the national limelight and left Cleland to keep order in complex, emotionally charged proceedings.

Cleland, 70, lives in Kane, a picturesque McKean County town of 3,500 in the Allegheny National Forest where he grew up. The son of two physicians, he left the community for college and law school but returned to practice law and raise two daughters with his wife, Julie.

In 1984, he was appointed to the bench and became president judge in the county seat of Smethport. He was elected then reelected twice. In 2009, he was appointed to a two-year interim post on the state Superior Court.

Though he retired in 2011, Cleland still fills in occasionally on the bench in Smethport and in the surrounding counties when the call goes out for a senior judge. He also remains on a list of senior judges who preside by special appointment of the chief justice of the state Supreme Court.

Those who know Cleland’s work weren’t surprised when Saylor tabbed him to oversee edits to the long-awaited grand jury report that details allegations of sexual abuse and cover-ups involving more than 300 clergy members described as predator priests in the Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton dioceses.

Asked about this new role, Cleland was reluctant to talk about it or himself, pending the completion of his assigned task.

“Until that’s done, it’s best that I maintain a low profile and do what I’ve been asked to do,” Cleland said, politely offering to talk about his work another time.

Former Gov. Tom Corbett, a one-time assistant U.S. attorney and former Pennsylvania attorney general who now teaches at Duquesne University’s law school, kept a close watch on the Sandusky case, which had begun under his watch as state attorney general.

Corbett said Cleland strikes him as an independent choice for this latest task.

“They know him, and they apparently trust him. He’s had to make some pretty big calls and I think (the Supreme Court) has confidence in his judgment. He’s been calling balls and strikes for so long and in this he’s got to call it as he sees it,” Corbett said.

Kane lawyer Erik Ross, who has known Cleland for three decades, said the judge known for his work ethic approaches each case calmly by applying the law and studying the facts.

“He certainly is well known for his judicial temperament. I’ve litigated a lot of cases in front of him where emotions ran high and he was always a very steady hand,” Ross said. “My experience with him has been he’s a perfect judge for tough cases.”

Allegheny County Judge Dwayne Woodruff was several years into his first term on the bench when he served on Kids for Cash panel with Cleland.

“It was amazing how much I learned from him,” Woodruff said of the trim, silver-haired judge who led the panel.

“He’s very passionate about his work and very experienced in such high profile, highly emotional cases. At the same time, he’s one of those unique individuals who can handle that kind of testimony, that kind of tragedy -- we heard about families and children whose lives were torn apart -- and keep his cool. He not only cared about the families and the report, but he cared about the committee and how it affected us,” Woodruff said.

“He’s the perfect judge to be part of this,” he said of Cleland’s latest assignment.

If work on the current grand jury report is proceeding according to the schedule the high court dictated, Cleland is now in the midst of weighing any challenges to Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s edit of the 900-page document. Shapiro was given until Aug. 3 to black out the names and any identifying descriptions involving 14 individuals named, but not charged, in the grand jury probe.

The 14 who filed objections have until Aug. 7 to request additional changes to Shapiro’s edit. The court left the ultimate edit to Cleland. If there are no challenges, he could release the document as early as Aug. 8. If there are challenges, he has until Aug. 14 to review them, make any additional edits and release it to the public.

The Supreme Court in September will hear arguments on objections to the full report being released.

Corbett, who has run his share of state and federal grand juries, said there is a delicate balancing act involved when an investigative grand jury issues a report.

“In a trial, you’ve got to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But that’s not the standard for a grand jury report. And the twist here is the Pennsylvania Constitution guarantees your right to a good name, and if your reputation is harmed when you’re named in a grand jury report that raises issues,” he said.

Cleland, he said, could have a tough job if there are objections to Shapiro’s edit.

“It’s a tricky situation and having the guts to make the right call in a tricky situation is important,” Corbett said. “This guy is going to come in for criticism regardless of how he rules.”

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