KANE, Pa. — Two days after impaneling a jury in the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse trial, Judge John M. Cleland returned to his high school alma mater in this rural stretch of northwest Pennsylvania to address the graduating class.
“It’s an honor every time you’re asked. I’m not going to miss it,” he told his hometown newspaper, the Kane Republican.
The last-minute trip — mere days before the scheduled start Monday of one of Pennsylvania’s most closely watched legal proceedings — struck some awaiting developments in Centre County as an odd choice.
But among friends and colleagues, his appearance Friday at Kane Area High School demonstrated the plainspoken modesty and the commitment to his community that have come to define the 64-year-old jurist during his decades-long career on the bench.
The son of backcountry physicians, Cleland still lives on a horse farm in the town of 4,000 where he grew up. And colleagues say he has consistently shown a level head and an unwavering fairness — from his days handling small local disputes in his McKean County court to his role, years later, heading an investigative panel into the Luzerne County cash-for-kids scandal that eventually sent two fellow judges to jail.
“He’s really doing nothing more than he’s always done, whether it was as a law clerk, a neighbor, a lawyer, or a judge,” said Pittsburgh lawyer Art Stroyd, who worked as a law clerk alongside Cleland when both were launching their legal careers in the ‘70s. “He’s always been the same calm, deliberate, and studied individual. Just now, there are a whole lot of people watching.”
In the coming weeks, Cleland faces the challenge of maintaining decorum in a trial that has become a lightning rod for conflicting emotions. Jerry Sandusky’s arrest last year on 52 counts of child sexual abuse tore rifts in the Penn State community that have yet to fully heal.
Victim advocates, political candidates, and even a few people critical of what they see as a rush to judge Sandusky have all seized on the case in hopes of advancing their own causes.
Cleland entered the fray two weeks after Sandusky’s arrest, appointed to oversee the trial after all of Centre County’s judges recused themselves because of ties to Penn State, Sandusky, or the charity through which he met his accusers. At the time, the state office that administers Pennsylvania’s courts said he had no known connections to the defendant or Penn State — which isn’t entirely true.
His wife, Julie, served for 15 years on a board that advised the university on its use of its public radio and television stations. Court officials later deemed those ties inconsequential.
In the six months since, Cleland has managed to balance the case’s conflicting interests while keeping the proceedings moving, the tone light, and the focus on the charges at hand.
“I am a judge up in Kane in McKean County,” he told potential jurors at the start of jury selection last week. “It is the icebox of Pennsylvania, and the local wolves are no longer there.”
Early on, Cleland rebuffed prosecutors’ claims that Sandusky, under home confinement, violated his bail and endangered children by taking his dogs on the back deck of his home yards from an elementary school.
“No evidence whatsoever” existed to justify their concern, he said in a February order.
He turned down repeated requests from Sandusky’s defense for delays.
And as attorney rhetoric on both sides reached the histrionic — with references to Sandusky’s Second Mile charity as a “victim factory” and three-hour news conferences on the courthouse steps — he issued a gag order to stanch the flow of pretrial publicity.
Even in rulings that have drawn criticism, such as an order last month barring reporters from filing electronic updates from the courtroom or one denying a request from Sandusky’s accusers to testify under assumed names, Cleland has taken pains to carefully spell out his reasoning.
The judge at first allowed tweeting, blogging, and Internet updates from Sandusky proceedings but explained in his five-page ruling banning such communications that he felt, upon reflection, that he had misinterpreted existing state law prohibiting verbatim electronic transmission from a courtroom.
Detailing his decision on victim anonymity, he told Sandusky’s accusers that while he remained sensitive to their concerns about media exposure, the overwhelming heft of court precedent would require them to take the stand under their own names.
“I could rule on the motions ... without any reasoned statement to support the order,” he wrote. “It seems unwise to do so in this case, however, because ... to dismiss them without any explanation might lead to confusion and misunderstanding.”
It all could have unfolded very differently, said James A. Gibbons, a Common Pleas Court judge in Lackawanna County.
Judges presiding over high-profile trials have occasionally been known to showboat or use the case to advance their political careers, he said.
Cleland is “not one of those people who basks in the limelight, but he doesn’t run from it, either,” Gibbons said. “He doesn’t let it change his approach.”
The two served together in 2009 on a panel of lawyers, judges, victims advocates, and elected officials assigned to investigate another highly charged incident involving young victims — the Luzerne County cash-for-kids scandal.
The scandal resulted in the conviction of two county judges who prosecutors said took kickbacks in exchange for sending young offenders to particular for-profit juvenile detention facilities.
And at the time, Cleland’s appointment to lead the investigative group struck Gibbons as an odd choice.
Though Cleland had already had a long career on the bench and served a two-year stint as a Superior Court justice, he had maintained a relatively low profile around the state. His selection seemed to come out of nowhere for such a politically charged investigation.
But in hindsight, Gibbons said in an interview last week, Cleland was absolutely the right man for the job.
“He stayed focused on the task at hand despite the media attention,” Gibbons said. “In our hearings, it didn’t matter whether the person testifying was one of the juveniles, a probation officer, or the district attorney. Everybody got the same treatment.”
Stroyd, who served as the commission’s solicitor, suspects Cleland’s performance in that closely watched proceeding led to his selection to preside over the Sandusky trial.
“I’ve never seen a set of hearings that was so high-profile, so emotional, and with so many conflicting positions,” he said. “It required someone with the sensitivity to allow these individuals to vent their anger but also keep the hearing room under control and maintain the proper decorum.”
But here in Kane, where residents still refer to Cleland by his childhood nickname, “Jocko,” that quiet calm has been on display since his days mediating schoolyard disputes, longtime friend Marilyn Blackmore said.
“He’s an all-around gentleman — always has been,” she said, hours before Cleland’s Friday commencement speech. “I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have represent our community to the wider world.”