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Court News Ohio

Cuyahoga County Judge Suspended From Office for One Year

The Supreme Court of Ohio suspended Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Daniel Gaul from the practice of law in Ohio for one year, resulting in his suspension from office for the same period without pay.

Judge Gaul was suspended after he was found to have committed 29 ethical violations, including coercing two criminal defendants to take plea deals he crafted.

Writing for the Supreme Court majority, Chief Justice Sharon L. Kennedy stated that “rather than promoting confidence in the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary, Gaul’s conduct has called those essential elements of our justice system into question while harming multiple litigants.”

Judge Gaul has been a common pleas court judge since 1991. The suspension is based on a complaint by the Office of the Disciplinary Counsel concerning Judge Gaul’s conduct over a five-year period that began in 2014. The Court found that Judge Gaul’s misconduct was widespread during eight cases that the Board of Professional Conduct considered. The decision stated that among his violations, Judge Gaul:

  • Coerced two no contest pleas.
  • Abandoned his role as an impartial arbiter.
  • Demeaned litigants and spectators in his courtroom.
  • Abused his contempt power to avenge a minor slight against him by a defendant.
  • Abused the prestige of his judicial office to advance the interests of a defendant.

Justices R. Patrick DeWine and Joseph T. Deters joined Chief Justice Kennedy’s opinion. Also joining the majority opinion were Seventh District Court of Appeals Judge David A. D’Apolito, sitting for Justice Michael P. Donnelly, and Tenth District Court of Appeals Judge Terri Jamison, sitting for Justice Melody Stewart.

In a separate opinion, Justice Patrick F. Fischer wrote that the suspension imposed by the majority was too lenient and that Judge Gaul should be suspended for two years, with one year stayed. He would also impose one year of monitored probation upon Judge Gaul’s reinstatement to the practice of law.

Justice Jennifer Brunner did not participate in the case.

Plea Agreement Highlighted Misconduct
Among the cases drawing multiple infractions of the Code of Judicial Conduct and the Rules of Professional Conduct was Judge Gaul’s arrangement of a no contest plea by Carleton Heard in 2015.

Heard had been indicted for attempted murder and other crimes. Judge Gaul gave Heard an ultimatum. He told Heard that if he pleaded no contest, he would serve 14 years in prison, with credit for time served. If Heard decided to go to trial and was convicted on all counts, Judge Gaul stated that he would run all of Heard’s convictions consecutively for a total of 42 years in prison. He also told Heard the trial would begin immediately and that jurors were on their way to the courtroom.

A hearing transcript reflected that neither the prosecutor nor Heard’s attorney participated in the plea offer discussions. Heard accepted the offer. He then appealed his conviction to the Eighth District Court of Appeals. The Eighth District found that Judge Gaul’s participation in the plea process could have led Heard to believe he could not get a fair trial or a fair sentence after the trial.

The Eighth District vacated the pleas and remanded the case to the common pleas court, where it was assigned to another judge. Heard’s case was tried before a jury, and he was acquitted of all charges.

Chief Justice Kennedy wrote that Judge Gaul crafted the deal himself and used his judicial authority to coerce Heard into accepting the deal. Judge Gaul also threatened to impose a lengthier sentence if Heard went to trial, which was prejudicial to the administration of justice, the opinion stated.

“Gaul essentially predetermined the sentences he would impose on Heard if Heard were to be convicted following a jury trial, which means that Gaul was no longer acting as an impartial and objective fact-finder and that he should have disqualified himself from the matter,” the opinion stated.

The Court found Judge Gaul violated six ethics rules in the Heard case based on him coercing Heard into taking a plea deal and his conduct surrounding that coercion.

The Court stated that during his disciplinary hearing, Judge Gaul denied that he attempted to force Heard to avoid a trial and expressed regret for giving “the impression” that he had committed misconduct.

“But Gaul never expressed any appreciation – let alone remorse – for the fact that his conduct in coercing a plea deprived Heard of his liberty for nearly two years,” the opinion stated.

Second Coerced Plea Cited
The Court noted that at the time Judge Gaul issued an ultimatum to De’Ontay Byas to accept a plea in 2019, the Eighth District had already handed down its decision on Heard. The Court opinion stated that Judge Gaul was undeterred by the appeals court decision admonishing him for coercing a plea.

In 2018, Byas pleaded guilty to multiple criminal charges in cases before Judge Gaul. For those charges, Judge Gaul sentenced Byas to time served and released him on community control. In 2019, while on community control, Byas was arrested and charged with another offense. The arrest led to criminal cases in both state court and federal court.

Byas initially had separate attorneys representing him for the state and federal cases. In the state court matter, Judge Gaul explained to Byas that he could be convicted for probation violations because he was arrested while on community control for the 2018 convictions. Judge Gaul proposed that if Byas were to plead no contest, he would be sentenced to two years in prison for the probation violations and the 2109 charges he faced in state court.

The judge told Byas and his family members in court that Byas faced up to 7.5 years in prison for the probation violations and seven more years for the 2019 convictions. The attorney representing Byas in the federal case asked Judge Gaul for time to consult with Byas. After the meeting, the attorney representing Byas in the state court matter informed Judge Gaul that Byas no longer wanted his legal representation.

Judge Gual responded by telling Byas, “You either are going to resolve this case today with two years, or you’re going to be, in two minutes, a probation violator, and you’re going to be sent down for three years on the first probation violation.” Judge Gual then presented Byas with a scenario in which he would impose six years in prison for the probation violation and send the case to another judge where another six years in prison was possible for the new charges.

Byas interjected by stating, “I plead guilty, your Honor.” After instructing Byas to plead no contest, Judge Gaul sentenced him to two years in prison. Byas appealed to the Eighth District, which found Judge Gaul coerced a plea from Byas. The appeals court vacated his sentence and remanded the case to the common pleas court, where it was reassigned to another judge.

The Court emphasized that the issue was not about any good faith legal errors made by Judge Gaul, but rather, Judge Gaul coercing the pleas and establishing the terms for the pleas.

The opinion noted that Judge Gaul had previously received a six-month, fully stayed suspension in 2010. The Court stated the new charges warranted an actual suspension. Judge Gaul was also ordered to pay the costs of the disciplinary proceedings.

2022-1515. Disciplinary Counsel v. Gaul, Slip Opinion No. 2023-Ohio-4751.

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