Senior Judge John Cleland is again being called upon by the state Supreme Court, this time to lead an inquiry into the cash bail system in Philadelphia.
Cleland is a Kane resident and former longtime president judge of the McKean County Court of Common Pleas. He served as a gubernatorial appointee on the state Superior Court from 2008 to 2009. He retired — sort of — to senior judge status after that, but his journey in the criminal justice system was far from over.
He was tapped to chair the Intrabranch Commission on Juvenile Justice in 2009, investigating the Luzerne County “kids for cash” scandal. He served as judge in the 2012 Jerry Sandusky sex abuse case, which involved the former Penn State football coach. He presided over the libel case brought in 2014 by state Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery and his wife against a Philadelphia newspaper, The Inquirer.
And, in 2018, Cleland was named to determine what could be made public in the investigative grand jury report into clergy sexual abuse in Pennsylvania.
The Era asked Cleland on Tuesday why he is the go-to judge for difficult assignments from the state Superior Court. With characteristic modesty, and a bit of laughter, he responded, “I don’t know the answer to that one.
“I have had some interesting assignments,” Cleland agreed. “I have to admit, it’s an honor to be asked to take these things on. It’s nice to stay involved.”
Bail reform is a national issue, and the judge said, “It’s an interesting challenge.”
At issue is a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union representing Philadelphia Community Bail Fund and 10 jail inmates in Philadelphia who allege they are being held with unaffordable cash bail, resulting in the loss of jobs, housing and separation from their families.
The state Supreme Court issued an order Monday saying it would conduct an inquiry into the “allegations regarding systemic failures of the (Philadelphia court system) to properly conduct cash-bail matters pursuant to current law,” as well as any suggested actions for the court to consider in response. The order appointed Cleland as the special master for the inquiry, and said that it will not entertain “any attempt to advocate for the abolition of cash bail.”
The inquiry is to begin immediately, and any hearings are to be held within 90 days of the order. After that, Cleland will have 60 days in which to submit a report and recommendation.
Cleland said he had been setting up meetings for next week in Harrisburg regarding the matter. “I’ll meet with the lawyers and get the lay of the land and figure out what the issues are,” he said.
And what about after this matter concludes?
Cleland said his senior judge status is up at the end of this year.
“Then the Supreme Court could ask me to continue on,” or, at the age of 72, he could opt to truly retire.
“I would have to think about that,” he said.
The judge’s decision might be impacted by what he would be doing should he be asked to continue.
“I don’t want to run all over the state handling the DUI cases,” Cleland said.
Senior judges fill in for sitting judges when they are off work for whatever reason, or if extra help is needed in a county for a lengthy trial.
However, another legal issue such as this might be one that could convince him to work a bit longer.
“The opportunity to do things like this, I might consider,” Cleland said.
Cleland received his undergraduate degree from Denison University and in 1972, his juris doctorate from The National Law Center of The George Washington University.
He began his legal career as a law clerk for U.S. District Judge Barron P. McCune, after which he went into private practice in McKean County. He was appointed to the McKean County Court of Common Pleas in 1984 upon the death of sitting Judge Richard Brandow.
He served as McKean County President Judge from 1984 until 2008, when Gov. Ed Rendell appointed him to the state Superior Court.