Sunday, May 2, 2010

Was the judge a rogue?

Sunday, May 2, 2010
Youngstown Vindicator

Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold has been disqualified from presiding over the trial of alleged serial killer Anthony Sowell. The disqualification was recently handed down by Acting Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Pfeiffer.

Why didn’t Judge Saffold remove herself from the case? Ohio law provides for a judge’s removal where “the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned.” A closer look at this case provides a disturbing glimpse into either a rogue judge or a system run amok.

Judge Saffold became embroiled in a controversy regarding some comments posted on a newspaper website from an account registered by the judge. The comments related to Sowell’s case and one of the lawyers representing Sowell.


The pending trial of Sowell was sensational enough. He was charged with multiple counts of murder, rape and kidnapping after human remains were found in his Cleveland home last fall. There have been additional charges filed as recently as last month. There are 11 women dead and another five that were allegedly abducted and assaulted. Sowell entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity.

In late March, the Cleveland Plain Dealer published an article suggesting that about 80 comments made on the paper’s Web site concerning the Sowell case originated from an account used by Judge Saffold. The comments were under the username “lawmiss” a name that Judge Saffold used in the past.

Judge Saffold denied posting the comments, some of which were disparaging to one of Sowell’s attorneys Rufus Sims. Her daughter a 23-year-old former law student took responsibility for posting the comments. Judge Saffold and her daughter filed a $50 million lawsuit against the Plain Dealer alleging a breach of privacy.

Sowell’s attorneys filed legal papers on three separate occasions requesting that Judge Saffold disqualify or recuse herself from presiding over the case. Sowell’s attorneys raised the following three issues. First, the posted comments showed bias on the part of the judge; second, there were ex parte, out of court, communications between the Judge Saffold and Judge Timothy McGinty, who had previously presided over the Sowell case; and third, the judge had a financial interest in the case due to the $50 million lawsuit. Judge Saffold refused all three requests.

Four canons

The Ohio Code of Judicial Conduct consists of four canons, a numbered set of rules and comments establishing standards for the ethical conduct of judges. The canons are clear and Judge Saffold should have removed herself before the intervention of the Ohio Supreme Court.

Rule 2.3 provides that a judge should perform her duty impartially and without bias that “impairs the fairness of the proceeding and brings the judiciary into disrepute.” With regard to ex parte contact, Rule 2.9 specifically prohibits contact with a judge who had previously been removed from a case as was Judge McGinty. Rule 3.1 prohibits expressions of bias, even outside of judicial action; if they are likely to call into question a judge’s integrity or impartiality.

Sowell’s attorneys raised the issue of disqualification with the Ohio Supreme Court. The Supreme Court wasted no time in issuing its order of disqualification. Within three days, Judge Saffold was removed and Judge Dick Ambrose, a former Cleveland Brown linebacker, was appointed.

Judge Saffold’s arrogance and defiance in the face of clear ethical canons is troubling. Her claim that her daughter used her account to make untoward comments is only part of the problem. How could she ignore that the controversy might cause some to question her impartiality, or that her ex parte communications with Judge McGinty violated clear ethical standards?

Even her lawsuit appears to conflict with the common sense of the Code of Judicial Conduct, “A judge should expect to be the subject of public scrutiny that might be viewed as burdensome if applied to other citizens.”

Is this conduct pervasive? Would we have known about Judge Saffold’s conduct if it did not involve a high profile case? The rules of conduct are enforceable and discipline is an option. The Ohio Supreme Court should closely evaluate its options or the entire system may be tainted.

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