Challenging times for Judge Daniel Gaul

It has been a challenging term for Judge Daniel Gaul of the Court of Common Pleas—the first in a very long time.

In 2010, Gaul was sanctioned by the Supreme Court of Ohio for violating the Code of Judicial Conduct during a trial he presided over in 2007. He was given a six-month license suspension, which was stayed, meaning he was able to remain on the bench.

Gaul has been criticized repeatedly on the Internet for his rulings in a number of controversial cases. One involved sending the mother of a four-month-old baby to jail last March.  

Now, after running unopposed in 1994, 2000 and 2006 for the seat he has held since 1991, Gaul is facing a strong challenge from Republican attorney Edele Passalacqua.

Gaul, a longtime Democrat, has a great deal of solid experience behind him and will not be easy to unseat. The Plain Dealer, in its endorsement of the longtime magistrate, said that experience outweighs the negatives in Gaul’s recent past. 

The four local bar associations that run the judge-rating website agree. They give Gaul a rating of 3.5 out of a possible 4, compared to Passalacqua’s 2.5 rating. Two of the four bar associations, in their individual ratings, gave Gaul the highest possible rating of Excellent, which means, according to the website, “The candidate is outstanding, based on the Judge4Yourself criteria, and is a superior choice for this judicial office.” His opponent did not receive Excellent from any of the four bar associations.

So who is this judge, whom Plain Dealer reporter Leila Atassi has called a “maverick”? And what was the incident that caused the disciplinary action by the Supreme Court of Ohio?

Gaul, 58, was born in Cleveland and now lives in North Olmstead. He graduated from Cleveland State University in 1977 and earned his law degree from Capital University Law School in Columbus in 1981. After 10 years of private practice as a civil and criminal trial lawyer, Gaul was appointed to the bench by Gov. Richard Celeste in 1991 to fill a vacancy. He ran in the fall of 1992 and was elected to serve out the remaining two years of that term. He then won three consecutive six-year terms, the last of which expires at the end of this year. 

At his disciplinary hearing in the fall of 2009, the Board of Commissioners on Grievance and Discipline for the Supreme Court of Ohio heard from a number of witnesses. In its report, the board found that Gaul “has a generally good reputation as a jurist” and “a reputation for thoroughness, decisiveness, fairness and preparedness.” His behavior was normally “professional, respectful and courteous toward those who appear before him.” He also, the board report said, “has a reputation for being brutally honest; he is not a person to mince words or to ‘pull punches.’”

The incident that led to the hearing occurred during the 2007 trial of Jeffrey Robinson for assault and burglary. The details presented here come from the report of the board of commissioners. Gaul told the court during the Robinson trial that he believed that the victim—an 83-year-old woman—was being prevented from coming to court to testify. When she did not show up on Nov. 29, the day she was supposed to testify, and could not be found at home, Gaul called the lawyers into his chambers and told them that if the witness did not show up the next day, he would call a mistrial and issue a warrant for the arrest of the woman’s caregiver, whom Gaul said he suspected of working with the accused to try to prevent the victim from testifying.

After adjourning the trial that day, he issued an “Amber Alert” for the victim and notified the media, because he said he was worried that she had been kidnapped. When the victim did not show up again the next day, Gaul spoke in open court about what he suspected had happened, saying, eventually, that “I have to step out of my role now of being a fair and impartial judge and indicate that I have become an advocate in this case. Because justice may be blind, but justice has a heart and it has a soul and it has common sense.” He then accused Robinson of a “technical kidnapping” and “obstruction of justice” and recused himself from the case.

Although the board of commissioners found that Gaul had committed misconduct in this case, Gaul himself told the board, “I felt it important to step out of my role as a judge and to become an advocate to protect the well-being of an 83-year-old woman who has no one else in this world.”

In a news release after the Supreme Court’s ruling accepting the board of commissioners' decision in 2010, Gaul defended his actions, saying: “After nearly 20 years of distinguished judicial service, this sanction is disappointing. However, I would rather live with this disappointment than the knowledge that I abandoned the victim, Mrs. Ingram, when she desperately needed protection only the court could provide."

He continued, “On four separate occasions, I have sworn an oath to uphold the peace and dignity of the state of Ohio. As my actions in this case clearly demonstrate, I will meet this solemn duty as long as the citizens of Cuyahoga County entrust me with the privilege to serve.”

Carrie Buchanan

Carrie Buchanan teaches journalism and related courses in the Tim Russert Department of Communication and Theatre Arts at John Carroll University. 

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Volume 5, Issue 12, Posted 9:02 AM, 10.30.2012