John M. Cleland 'was born to be a judge'
John M. Cleland
Interior of Courtroom 1 of the Centre County Courthouse where the Jerry Sandusky trial will be held.
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When friends and colleagues of McKean County Senior Judge John M. Cleland learned that he had been assigned to preside over the criminal trial of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky, they agreed that the Supreme Court could not have chosen a better person.
"He's one of those people who was born to be a judge," said Art Stroyd, a Pittsburgh attorney who served with Judge Cleland as a law clerk on the federal bench in the early 1970s. "Central casting could not do a better job in scripting him."
Mr. Stroyd, who has remained good friends with the judge for 40 years, described him as smart, measured, wise and an imposing presence.
"He has the kind of temperament everyone would hope a judge would have," he said.
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Throughout the six months of preparation for the Sandusky case, scheduled to start on Tuesday, Judge Cleland has shown that personality.
He issues his opinions in the case quickly, and with well-thought-out explanation. When the attorneys in the case spoke to the media after one hearing and repeatedly took shots at one another -- the prosecutor called Mr. Sandusky's charity "a victim factory" -- Judge Cleland quickly entered a gag order.
When an attorney representing a victims' rights group not involved in the case stood up at the conclusion of another hearing to speak, the judge allowed her to make her case -- she had asked to file a brief on behalf of the alleged victims -- then fully explained why he believed what she proposed was improper.
"You might not like his decisions, but you never would object to his reasoning," Mr. Stroyd said.
Judge Cleland is described as modest and self-effacing, a "gentleman," said his lifetime friend, Marilyn Blackmore.
"He's always stood out as being the calmest person in the room," Mr. Stroyd said.
In fact, Judge Cleland, 64, met his wife, Julie, during a horse show when she became pinned under a horse.
"He had the presence and control to help her out," Mr. Stroyd said. "That's so typical of him."
Judge Cleland has so earned the respect of his colleagues and fellow jurists that he was selected by the state Supreme Court to chair the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice in 2009 tasked with investigating the Kids for Cash scandal in Luzerne County.
"It was such an emotional process," said Mr. Stroyd, who was the commission's solicitor. "He never wavered from the mission of the court: To find out what happened and make sure it never happens again."
At the conclusion of months of work and multiple public hearings, Judge Cleland and the commission issued a "focused and principled, exhaustive, probing and insightful report," Mr. Stroyd said.
Pennsylvania state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille described Judge Cleland as "an excellent judge."
"He's got the wisdom of ages," he said. "He's always been one of the top respected judges in the juvenile system in Pennsylvania."
Justice Castille and the court appointed Judge Cleland to the Sandusky case after Centre County's judges recused themselves because of connections with Penn State University.
"I know him to be a level-headed, good judge, who's going to be facing a lot of pressure from outside forces," the justice said. "It's going to be a closely watched trial. Nothing seems to fluster him."
Judge Cleland, who serves as an elder and a trustee for his church in Kane, McKean County, is active in his community, as part of the Rotary Club, and has also been involved in the area's industrial development group, and on the University of Pittsburgh board of trustees.
"Everyone knows the judge, and everyone likes the judge," Mr. Stroyd said. "He's really very much one of those all-American people."
He lives on a farm outside of Kane, where he and his wife keep three horses. He's an avid rider and earned himself the nickname, "Jocko."
The son of two physicians, Judge Cleland has taken an interest in public health law and has served on various state committees regarding emergency preparedness.
He has two daughters and two grandsons.
Judge Cleland enjoys cross-country skiing, and six years ago created with his wife and friends an annual event known as Art in the Wild, a juried art show in a park that showcases local artists, Ms. Blackmore said.
He graduated with a bachelor's degree in history from Denison University and earned his law degree in 1972 from George Washington University.
The judge practiced law for 10 years in McKean County after serving his federal clerkship under U.S. District Judge Barron P. McCune in Pittsburgh.
Judge Cleland was appointed to the McKean County bench by Gov. Richard Thornburgh in 1984, and won election in 1985. For many years, he served as the only judge in McKean, which has a population of about 43,000.
"He brought a lot of new ways of doing things and looking for efficient ways to engage in the administration of justice," said Erik Ross, who clerked under Judge Cleland and now serves as the president of the McKean County Bar Association.
Judge Cleland was nominated to fill a vacancy on the state Superior Court in 2008, and served in that role through 2010, when he became a senior Common Pleas judge.
Mr. Ross described the judge as studious, well-prepared and straightforward.
"There's nothing quirky or eccentric at all in his approach," Mr. Ross said. "Maybe that's what's unusual. He's all business. He's nice about it. He's very accommodating to all the parties involved. He wants people to walk away thinking they had a fair trial and have been heard."
First Published June 3, 2012 12:00 am