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For a Handful of Lawyers in Cuyahoga County, Juvenile Cases Are Big Business

Judges steered two-thirds of cases involving kids accused of crimes to just 10 lawyers in one year, according to a Marshall Project - Cleveland analysis.

A diptych photo shows Judge Jennifer O'Malley, left, a White woman, and Judge Thomas F. O'Malley, right, a White man, in judge's robes and seated in a courtroom.
Three attorneys collectively received more assignments from Judge Jennifer O’Malley, left, or her magistrates than the Juvenile Court’s other five judges combined. Judge Thomas F. O’Malley, left, has defended the use of appointed attorneys in public meetings.

The juvenile court system is supposed to ensure that young people accused of crimes have legal representation, even if their families can’t afford a lawyer.

But in Cuyahoga County, some courtrooms resemble hiring halls for favored attorneys who get hundreds of assignments yearly, while others get none.

In one year, the juvenile court paid at least 60 attorneys to represent hundreds of children accused of crimes. Of those, judges steered more than two-thirds of the work to just 10 of the lawyers, according to a Marshall Project - Cleveland analysis of the most recent case data and state reimbursement filings.

Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court’s system of handpicking attorneys to represent children and parents appears to flout national best practices, state guidelines and the court’s own rules.

For more than a year, community advocates have worried that the lop-sided appointments contribute to the high number of mostly Black children from Cuyahoga County ending up in adult prisons.

Attorneys who sign up to take cases say there’s often no rhyme or reason to assignments or that favoritism has created a self-reinforcing system that advantages a select few attorneys.

“Across the state, in too many places, the judiciary is more involved than they should be,” said Amy Borror, an expert in youth defense with The Gault Center, a national advocacy organization formerly known as the National Juvenile Defender Center. “And it sounds like Cuyahoga is kind of a shining example of that.”

The Marshall Project - Cleveland examined the juvenile court’s appointment system and found that a single attorney, William Beck, handled one of every eight assignments given to private lawyers who represent kids accused of crimes.

Beck, a lawyer in private practice, collected over $123,000 in one year on more than 150 cases defending kids accused of crimes. On top of that, judges put Beck on about 250 more assignments for other types of cases, bringing his total annual earnings to more than $292,000.

Although state rules require county courts to regularly review their appointment systems, Cuyahoga County’s Juvenile Court does not. The Marshall Project - Cleveland matched local court data with thousands of state invoices that detailed payments over one year to private attorneys who represented children accused of crimes or adults in cases of child abuse, dependency or neglect.

The analysis found that two judges fed Beck and some other top attorneys most of their assignments.

Some attorneys made more in a year than the roughly $160,000 salary of the judges.

Just four attorneys handled a third of the court’s abuse, dependency and neglect case assignments.

“In the day-to-day operations of a court our size — one with 500 employees and that hears thousands of cases each year — sometimes elements get overlooked or missed until they are discovered,” the court’s administrator, Tim McDevitt, said in response to The Marshall Project - Cleveland’s findings.

“Though we stand behind our appointments, we understand how it may appear, and appearances matter.”

McDevitt responded to The Marshall Project - Cleveland on behalf of the court’s six judges.

Court administrators said attorney quality and availability matter more than evenly distributing assignments. The officials maintain that there are too few qualified, experienced attorneys willing to take complex juvenile court cases and spend every day in court. By leaning on a small group of reliable attorneys, the court says it keeps cases moving, reducing the time children spend locked up or in the county’s custody.

However, in response to questions from The Marshall Project - Cleveland, the court said that it now plans to modify how cases are assigned by the end of the year and create a new position to implement and monitor the new process. The court did not detail the planned changes.

How the appointment process works

Each year, private attorneys apply to take cases of children accused of crimes and parents at risk of losing custody of their kids, or assignments as guardians representing the best interests of children in both types of cases.

Court officials said that judges, magistrates, bailiffs and court staff all can pick attorneys — it varies in each of the six courtrooms — but the judges sign off.

The court’s rules say attorneys should be picked in alphabetical order from a list of trained and qualified attorneys except under unique circumstances — or to keep cases moving.

But ultimately, court officials said the choice boils down to one thing: judicial discretion.

“Docket speed is incredibly important,” the court said in its explanation of why some attorneys are called on routinely.

For example, three of the highest-earning attorneys — Beck, Paul Daher and Mark Schneider — collectively received more appointments on cases handled by Judge Jennifer O’Malley or her magistrates than the court’s other five judges combined.

Relying on the availability of attorneys who are already assigned to cases “means fewer continuances, which decreases time in detention and custody, and reduces ‘wasted’ docket time, which allows all cases to be resolved faster,” McDevitt, the court’s administrator, said.

And the pool of available attorneys is shrinking. When asked to re-submit their qualifications this year, only 57 of 95 lawyers reapplied.

Looking for clear answers

Greater Cleveland Congregations began scrutinizing the juvenile court’s appointed counsel system more than a year ago.

The non-partisan group of more than 30 congregations and organizations grew concerned about Cuyahoga County leading Ohio in sending kids to adult court — a process called a bindover. More than 90% of the children were Black.

In community listening sessions with parents and teens, two concerns surfaced: potential overcharging by prosecutors and poor legal representation by “public pretenders” — slang for free attorneys who don’t put up much of a fight.

“This was an issue nobody was looking at,” Keisha Krumm, lead organizer and executive director said. The group learned that Cuyahoga County was unique among bigger courts in Ohio. Instead of giving most cases to a local public defender’s office, the judges relied a lot on private attorneys.

“We were like: ‘Why is that?’” Krumm said. “And we could not get any clear answers.”

Krumm said the group didn’t jump to conclusions on outcomes in bindover cases. But they did learn that some assigned attorneys weren’t qualified, and that county-employed public defenders seemed to have a better record of keeping children out of the adult system. In December, a report by a criminal justice reform group detailed these flaws. At the time, the court refuted the findings.

“There’s harm that is happening. It is hard to pinpoint,” Krumm said. “We are calling attention to something that has long been like this, and we are trying to call attention to it and chip away at it. There’s a reason they are fighting to keep it the way it is … There are clear winners and losers. The assigned counsel are winning and the kids are losing.”

Judges should not be making the appointments

For more than four decades, the American Bar Association has said court appointments should not be made by judges to ensure attorneys are loyal to their clients and not the people giving them work.

The Gault Center’s National Youth Defense Standards released in February disapproves of appointing lawyers “merely because they happen to be present in court at the time the assignment is made.”

Court officials called the best practices non-binding and only advisory.

“The way it works right now is if you’re a lawyer and I (as the judge) know you, all you have to do is be at the door, and I’m just going to keep feeding you cases,” said Richard Gibson, a Case Western Reserve University law professor and senior pastor at Elizabeth Baptist Church in Slavic Village. “And that begs the question of whether the system is fair, because at some point you’re not going to press against me (the judge) because I’m feeding you cases.”

County courts have latitude but rules to follow

The Ohio Supreme Court does give local courts “a good bit of discretion over its operations, and appointment of counsel is a local decision,” a spokesperson wrote in an email.

Some counties have created taxpayer-funded public defender offices or hired non-profit legal aid groups. Cuyahoga County uses a mix of public defenders and private attorneys who sign up to take cases.

Last year, the court agreed to assign public defenders to more delinquency cases after the county public defender argued his office was underutilized and pointed out “wildly inconsistent” practices by the different judges and magistrates.

For a county to be reimbursed for paying private attorneys, the juvenile court must follow state rules that adhere to the Ohio Supreme Court standard of distributing assignments “as widely as possible.”

Those rules include:

In the year ending October 2023, Ohio reimbursed Cuyahoga County about $3.7 million for private attorneys assigned to juvenile cases. The payments come through the state public defender’s office, which also reimburses the county for local public defenders. The state covered an unprecedented 100% of costs for indigent defense during the pandemic and currently covers 85%.

“The current rates are unimaginably huge,” said Borror, who worked 13 years as legislative liaison and deputy director at the state defender’s office. “And that gives the state, I think, a whole lot of leverage to encourage counties to meet state standards.”

The Public Defender Commission is set to discuss the local court’s use of assigned counsel at its March 22 meeting. If the commission decides the court broke the rules, it would have at least 90 days to fix violations before losing reimbursements.

Assignments flow to a handful of attorneys

The Marshall Project - Cleveland heard from more than a dozen attorneys eligible to take juvenile cases in Cuyahoga County.

In general, most attorneys are aware that the court, for the most part, doesn’t use the list it keeps to pick attorneys for assignments.

The busiest attorneys said that they roam the halls or wait outside the courtrooms for a bailiff or clerk in desperate need of an attorney to represent a child in the detention center arrested hours earlier. Others said staff from certain courtrooms send out text message blasts or emails to groups of attorneys looking for assignments.

Beck earns more than any attorney on the appointed counsel list. He regularly bills the court for six-day work weeks, and sometimes Sundays, too. That’s in addition to his work as the regional vice president and chief legal counsel for a local title agency.

Attorney Bill Beck, a Black man wearing a dark suit and glasses, stands in the halls of the Juvenile Justice Center in Cleveland.

Attorney Bill Beck, center, at the Cleveland’s Juvenile Justice Center. Cuyahoga County’s Juvenile Court judges assign private attorneys to children, and Beck’s earnings are in the top tier of lawyers under this system.

“Honored” by the amount of work he receives, the former juvenile prosecuting attorney and probation officer would not directly answer questions about how he juggles so many cases or why 70% of his assignments come from just two of the court’s six judges.

“Credit must be given to the thoughtful Judges that remain focused on assessing the needs of each case and ensuring that the most skilled professionals are called upon to protect the rights of all those in need,” he said in an email.

In response to The Marshall Project - Cleveland’s questions, court officials said that Beck is experienced, competent, reliable and, unlike most private attorneys and all of the public defender’s juvenile defense lawyers, African American. “For some cases and some families, his race is not a trivial consideration,” the court said.

Cuyahoga County’s process deviates from Ohio’s other juvenile courts

The process for picking attorneys for juvenile court cases in two other large Ohio counties differs from Cuyahoga County in two ways: judges and magistrates rarely directly appoint attorneys and courts stick to a rotation.

In Franklin County, juvenile court cases are first assigned to the public defender’s office. If there’s a conflict, a court assignment clerk distributes the cases to vetted private attorneys. Several attorneys sign up to sit in court for half of a day, ready to take cases and quickly meet clients.

Only under rare circumstances, like a client needing a Spanish-speaking attorney, would a judge or magistrate get directly involved.

“We are committed to not having attorney steering,” Rebecca Steele, chief of the office’s juvenile unit. “It’s a fair system …Fair to the attorneys and fair to the clients.”

When there are conflicts or all its attorneys are at capacity, the Public Defender’s office in Hamilton County assigns delinquency cases to the next name on a list of private lawyers qualified to handle the criminal charges.

Attorneys aren’t “beholden to judges” if the public defender’s office manages the appointments, said Angela Chang, who directs the office’s youth division.

“Granting case assignment responsibility to the Public Defender does not make the process less political — it just shifts it to an unelected office that is not answerable to the voters,” administrator McDevitt said. “Additionally, judges are ultimately responsible for ensuring that youth and families have the best representation available.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t other places where best practices and state rules aren’t followed. In Summit County, children with delinquency cases are mostly represented by nonprofit legal defenders. But in cases where there are conflicts, there’s “no set rotating system” and bailiffs assign the private attorneys, a court spokesperson said.

Other attorneys see a political process

Many attorneys say no matter how much you hustle, case assignments boil down to friendships, politics, campaign donations — or even sharing an alma mater. When asked by reporters, attorneys could easily name the attorneys who got the most cases.

“It could be any number of things, but favoritism, nepotism and cronyism come to mind,” said one attorney who had received only a few appointments after a year on the list.

In Ohio, it is legal and common for attorneys to donate politically to a judge’s campaign, even judges who assign them cases. Some — but not all — of the attorneys who get a high number of appointments donated.

When Judge Jennifer O’Malley first ran for election in 2018, two top-earning attorneys — Mark Schneider and Christopher Lenahan — donated the maximum amount of $600 and later got a significant number of assignments from her.

At a fundraiser that year, Administrative Judge Thomas F. O’Malley got maximum contributions from only four donors — Paul Daher, Schneider, Lenahan and his wife. The three lawyers got nearly a third of appointments approved by the judge, who has defended the court’s assignment process in public meetings.

Other judges got top-dollar contributions from either Lenahan, Daher, Schneider, Mattes or Beck, who gives less frequently.

Floyd, the only judge to give more cases to public defenders than private attorneys, got nothing from the top five attorneys, except for $200 from Daher.

Daniel Margolis, a seasoned attorney who practiced in juvenile court for years, rejoined the appointed counsel list last year after a hiatus for health reasons. In that time, Margolis said he hasn’t gotten a single call about a case. That could be because he hasn’t gone down to the court to schmooze, he said. Or because some judges and magistrates prefer to appoint attorneys who aren’t aggressive and don’t file as many motions and “can be counted on to move the docket and not make a fuss.”

Funneling cases to a few attorneys deprives others of gaining experience, several attorneys said. Some questioned how attorneys who get hundreds of cases could possibly give each the attention it deserves.

“In too many instances, I visit youth (in the detention center) who have almost no contact with counsel until a few days before the hearing,” said Pastor Gibson, who has served as president of the juvenile court’s advisory board, “and even that contact was, well, limited.”

Uncomplicated cases — an unruly case or probation violation — shouldn’t take long to resolve, most attorneys agreed. But serious crimes should take more time, and a defense attorney who is willing to do whatever is necessary. That is particularly true with cases where children can be transferred to adult court and face prison time.

“If they know that they have to stay in the good graces of the judge… their job isn’t to make the court’s job easy,” Borror said. “And often, when defense attorneys do a really good job as far as zealously representing their client, as far as zealously investigating cases, they muddy things up and they make judges and prosecutors and everybody else’s jobs harder, but that’s actually what they’re supposed to do.”

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How we analyzed juvenile court data

In order to study how private attorneys are assigned cases in Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court, the Marshall Project - Cleveland collected data from three sources.

The Office of the Ohio Public Defender, which reimburses counties for court-appointed lawyers, provided data through September 2023 about invoices, also called fee bills, which detail what attorneys billed the county and the type of cases they took.

The fee bills identify lawyers by their registration numbers, which we merged with an Ohio Supreme Court database of attorney licensures. Judges are identified on the handwritten fee bills, but it took state officials weeks to physically scan them for just a handful of the top attorneys.

So, we requested from the court a simple list of case numbers and the judges assigned to them. Using unique case numbers, we matched the attorneys to the judges who appointed them.

We limited our analysis to cases of delinquency — or kids accused of crimes — and child abuse, dependency or neglect. Almost 13,000 fee bills from 2020 through 2023 were matched with case assignments listing judges. We took a closer look at roughly 5,655 fee bills reimbursed in the 12-month period ending September 2023, the most recent data available.

The totals we captured are a modest undercount. Less than 4% of cases could not be matched to an assigned judge and were excluded from the analysis out of an abundance of caution.

Doug Livingston Email is a staff writer for The Marshall Project - Cleveland. Livingston joined The Marshall Project after 12 years as a reporter with the Akron Beacon Journal. As a beat and investigations reporter, he’s covered everything from city government, education and politics to criminal justice and policing. His reporting, consistently supported with data and community engagement, has covered systemic issues of insecure housing and rising evictions, lax state laws for charter schools, poverty, gun violence, police accountability, homelessness and more. Livingston has earned multiple awards, including Best Ohio Staff Reporter, from the Press Club of Cleveland, The Associated Press, Education Writers Association and others.

Rachel Dissell Twitter Email is a Cleveland-based journalist with more than two decades of experience reporting on the justice system. She is a two-time winner of the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma.