Retired Cuyahoga Common Please Judge Carl Character dies at 88

August 27, 2018

Retired Cuyahoga Common Please Judge Carl Character dies at 88

SHAKER HEIGHTS, Ohio—Retired Judge Carl Character, who died Friday, meted out some creative sentences at the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas.

When a defendant claimed to have stolen a turkey and a steak for his family’s Thanksgiving dinner, Character sentenced him to earn a high school equivalency diploma and write a book report on “Les Miserables,” a novel about a desperate thief.

Character, 88, survived an unusual 24 years after a diagnosis of lateral scleroris and five years after admission to the Stokes Veterans Administration Medical Center, named for his former law partner, Congressman Louis Stokes.

Friends say Character lived up to his name. “He was a straight arrow,” said retired Common Pleas Judge C. Ellen Connally, who clerked for him. “Everything was by the book. We called him the Boy Scout.”

Character was an early African-American Eagle Scout. He attended a jamboree in Paris in 1947, a year before graduating from Glenville High.

He was president of the National Bar Association for black lawyers, a Democratic member of the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections and a resident since the 1960s of the Shaker Heights side of the racially pioneering Ludlow neighborhood.

Character was also outgoing and fun-loving. He led a couples club on many junkets in town or abroad. He had season tickets for years on the Browns’ 50-yard line. He gave friends nicknames, calling one named Joseph “Josephy.”

Born in Cleveland, Character became both a Buckeye and a Wolverine. He earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Ohio State University with highest honors and a law degree at the archrival University of Michigan. During later football showdowns, he’d wear a T-shirt from one alma mater and a cap from the other.

He belonged to the Alpha Phi Alpha and Tau Epsilon Rho fraternities. He also served with the Army in Korea and Japan during the Korean War.

Character practiced downtown with future Congressman Stokes and future Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes. He represented welfare recipients, Fortune 500 companies and criminal defendants. He handled wills, workers’ compensation and more.

“Carl Character epitomized excellence in the courtroom,” Louis Stokes later said on the floor of Congress.

James Haynes of Cleveland became president of the National Association of Real Estate Brokers and brought in Character as counsel. “He had a brilliant mind,” said Haynes. “Everybody seemed to rely on him.”

In 1984, overcoming a rival with help from Lou Stokes and others, Character was named to the elections board. In 1987, Governor Richard Celeste gave him a vacant seat on Common Pleas. He lost the election, filled another vacancy in 1989 and won elections after that.

Character’s docket sometimes backed up. “My room isn’t, and it never will be, a widget factory,” he told The Plain Dealer in 1992. “My bailiff tells me I take too much time with people, but that’s what my job is.... I would rather have the numbers high but have everyone who leaves this courtroom say, ’I had a fair trial.”

He encouraged civil adversaries to settle. “I’ve gotten a great deal of satisfaction out of negotiation between parties,” he told The Plain Dealer in 1997.

Because of his scleroris, Character retired in 1997.

Over the years, he earned many community awards and served on the boards of many nonprofits, from University Hospitals to the Cleveland Bar Association. He was vice president of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association and a member of the Ohio Commission on Racial Fairness, a collaboration of the Ohio Supreme Court and the Ohio Bar Association.

“People may think it only benefits minorities,” he said, “but the elimination of bias will benefit everyone.”

As president of the National Bar Association, he helped open a California chapter.

He also belonged to Emmanuel Baptist Church and the Interchurch Council.

“Whenever his community needed him, Carl Character was there,” Stokes told Congress.

Survivors include his wife, Dee Ann, two daughters (both lawyers), eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. Strowder’s Funeral Home will host calling hours from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Friday. A wake will take place at 10 a.m. and a funeral at 11 a.m., both Saturday at Mt. Sinai Baptist Church.

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