In two of the uglier moments in recent history for the state of Pennsylvania, the Luzerne County judicial scandal and the Penn State child sex-abuse scandal, there has been a common theme: The failure to protect children rises to the level of institutional crisis and Senior Judge John M. Cleland is called in to preside.
First, in what has since been described as a "court gone rogue," when two Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas judges accepted millions in kickbacks in exchange for sending juveniles to two private detention centers, Cleland was called to chair a commission tasked with re-evaluating the state’s juvenile justice system.
The result was a 66-page report from the state’s Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice, recommending scores of new procedures to protect juveniles who appear in Pennsylvania delinquency courts and to increase judicial accountability.
Then, when a once-beloved member of the state’s most heralded collegiate football program was charged with dozens of child sex-abuse crimes, Cleland’s number was called again, this time to preside over the trial proceedings.
The stakes were high. A national spotlight was bearing in on Bellefonte, Pa., and Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State defensive coordinator facing charges, was a key figure whose fate in criminal court would prove essential in other legal proceedings triggered by the scandal. A guilty verdict for Sandusky would likely be Exhibit A in the prosecutions of three former high-ranking Penn State administrators and in dozens of claims made by Sandusky’s accusers against the university.
The result in Commonwealth v. Sandusky was what legal observers have called a watertight conviction on 45 of 48 counts against the serial child molester, a judgment that is awaiting word from a panel of the state Superior Court.
Cleland, of McKean County, handled both of the assignments with the calm demeanor, measured decision-making and consummate judicial temperament the judge has become known for in nearly three decades on the bench.
For example, when it came time to sentence the infamous pedophile, Cleland opted not to hand down an abstract, hundred-plus-year sentence, which he could have done. Instead, Cleland told Sandusky that his minimum of 30 years in state prison would have the "unmistakable impact of saying very clearly: for the rest of your life."
Following the sentencing, one of the final trial proceedings for Sandusky, attorneys representing the victims lauded Cleland for his rulings, both before and during Sandusky’s eight-day trial.
"I think [Cleland] showed a good, healthy deal of sympathy for the victims," said Bala Cynwyd, Pa., attorney Michael Boni, who represents Aaron Fisher, a victim formerly known as Victim 1. "I think he said the right things from the bench. I think he dispensed a wise sentence and I think when you look back over things, his decisions were designed to build a bulletproof conviction."
In the last five years, Cleland has proven himself a trusted reserve in the protection of Pennsylvania’s children, when, unfortunately demonstrated by the Sandusky case and Luzerne County scandal, having a position in a large institution or a high government post does not equate to a badge of child protection.
But that is not to say Cleland’s decisions, whether from the bench in the Sandusky case or as head of the Interbranch Commission, have been obscured by the delicate nature of the victims involved.
More than once during Sandusky’s trial last June, Cleland took a stern posture when one of Sandusky’s accusers was on the witness stand.
And, despite being an oft-recited and highly publicized idea following the Luzerne scandal, Cleland and the commission declined to make the recommendation of making juvenile delinquency proceedings open to the public.
Explaining the commission’s thought process, Cleland said the problems exposed by the now-infamous "kids-for-cash" scandal could be fixed in ways other than making the judicial adjudication process entirely transparent in Pennsylvania. As Cleland then explained it, improvements to the juvenile appeals process, near-mandatory right to counsel for juveniles and other changes to the juvenile delinquency system would better serve Pennsylvania’s kids than a process that could lead to a permanent record for youngsters often guilty of no more than youthful peccadillos.
It was a decision that fits the bill for Cleland — it might not be universally popular, but it comes after measuring all the important factors.
Cleland graduated from Denison University in 1969 and then from George Washington University Law School in 1972.
He practiced law for 10 years before being appointed to the McKean County Court of Common Pleas in 1984. He was later appointed to the Superior Court before returning to McKean County, where he currently sits as a senior judge.