Recognizing A Standout Public Servant


One of our family’s favorite children’s books across two generations is A Regular Flood Of Mishap,by Tom Birdseye.  It is an entertaining and clever tale of compounding catastrophes, which are not enough to undo the love and forgiveness of her family.

That book title came to mind the other day when the headline appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer: “Pa. Supreme Court to probe bail system.”  The subhead read: “This comes after an ACLU lawsuit alleging the ‘systemic failure’ of Phila.’s cash-bail system.”  It seems hard to find an aspect of Philadelphia governance – whether city or courts or school district – not infected by questionable practices that warrant investigation and often result in prosecution.  A volume about this target-rich environment might well be titled A Regular Flood Of Misdeed.

Deeper in the article an encouraging piece of information caught my eye.  Although the state Supreme Court turned down the ACLU’s petition, they did determine to conduct an inquiry.  To do that, they appointed a special master, Judge John Cleland.

Judicial elections mean people see names on the ballot as well as in occasional news reports, yet few outside the legal system will likely recognize his name.  Happily, relative anonymity does not equate to mediocrity.

If you want a judge with judicial temperament and demeanor, with integrity and backbone, with principle and fairness in their DNA, with thoughtful approach and measured words as their calling card, then John Cleland is your guy.  You have to be paying close attention to judicial matters to know that.  He is congenitally unable to indulge in self-congratulations or grandiloquence.

He is a real-life Jim Phelps, taking on assignments that qualify as Mission Impossible in the justice realm.  This is his fourth major extra-judicial assignment in a little over ten years.  The salient similarity in the first three was the positively Olympian degree of difficulty.

Number one remains a case study on how to respond to chilling and callous corruption.  I watched most of the public proceedings by the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice, which he chaired.  Formed after revelations of the Kids for Cash scandal, this commission was truly an all-star collection of ability.  Its success in sorting through all the excuses and denials to isolate the problems, to uncover their root causes, and to fashion dozens of recommendations requiring reforms by all three branches of state government, was a remarkable example of skillful and determined leadership.

Number two was presiding over the Jerry Sandusky trial. In a highly charged emotional climate, with appalled child advocates on one side and fired-up Penn State nation on the other, his controlled countenance prevented the proceedings from devolving into a circus.

Number three was overseeing challenges to the edited grand jury report on the abuses in six Catholic dioceses.  This ran the same tough gauntlet, only substituting church faith for collegiate faith.

Now comes number four.  If there is a publicly acceptable and accountable way to repair the Philadelphia bail system, we can trust that Judge Cleland will divine it.

Most admirable is that this burst of greatness comes in the overtime of a stellar career.  There are ongoing debates over a mandatory retirement age to open things up for younger folks.  There is also a suspicion of those who hang on after their productive years are far in the rearview mirror.  John Cleland is a senior judge, which means he could just as easily be off by a babbling brook on the business end of a fishing pole.  But his value as a wise and experienced troubleshooter remains top of the market.  For that, all who believe in the precepts and possibilities of good government should be thankful.

Singling out an individual for praise is not meant to suggest a shortage of capable and publicly spirited men and women in state service.  Even in much maligned Philadelphia, there is an extensive roster of conscientious workers and administrators and excellent teachers.  The frequent headlines exposing wrongdoing and scandals lead some to assume there is preponderance of crooks, hacks, flunkies, relatives, and ne’er do wells holding elected and appointed positions.  Thus, the merit in spotlighting those who serve well and do right.

Harry Truman, who had a knack for sizing up people and policies, said: “A statesman is a politician who has been dead for at least ten years.”  Of course, even Harry might be surprised at how his reputation has revived and soared posthumously.

The statesmanship of Judge Cleland shines through even as he actively adds to a lustrous legal record.  If Pennsylvania ever puts together a Hall of Fame to honor outstanding public servants, Judge John M. Cleland should be in the first class of inductees.

David A. Atkinson is an Associate with The Susquehanna Valley Center.

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center.

Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation.