TRAFICANT CASE Colleagues: Judge is fair, calm, earthy
By PATRICIA MEADE
VINDICATOR CRIME REPORTER
CLEVELAND -- Flower child. Laid-back. No-nonsense.
Those descriptive words, some lawyers say, apply to U.S. District Judge Lesley B. Wells, selected by draw to preside over U.S. Rep. James A. Traficant Jr.'s trial in February.
The 60-year-old 17th District congressman from Poland faces 10 counts, including bribery, racketeering and tax evasion.
At 63, Judge Wells, who once hung quilts to decorate her courtroom, has 18 years' experience -- 11 as a Cuyahoga County Common Pleas judge and seven on the federal bench. She has four grown children, 10 grandchildren and is married to a lawyer, Charles Clarke.
She smiles easily and, under her robe, often wears oversized flowing tops and slacks. Spotted as she was coming out of court a few days ago, her silver hair, fixed in a bun, glistened in the sun, and she had on the latest fad in footwear -- red and green bowling shoes.
Calm presence: Terry H. Gilbert, a Cleveland lawyer who knows her well, had this to say: "She's a bright and compassionate judge who tries to demystify the law. She talks to people as humans, not defendants or subjects or suspects. She runs a very comfortable courtroom for parties to handle their disputes, as far as I'm concerned. I've always found her demeanor to be exemplary."
When asked how Judge Wells would fare against Traficant's aggressive manner, Gilbert didn't hesitate with his response.
"I don't think Judge Wells is easily wrangled. She has a very calm presence. When she gets on the bench she becomes what a judge should become -- a model of patience and analysis of issues," Gilbert said. "I think she will allow Traficant some latitude if he's going to be his own lawyer, but she won't tolerate any shenanigans."
Gilbert said there's absolutely no question in his mind who will win if a contest of wits presents itself between Traficant and Judge Wells: the judge.
"She's seems very low-key in court, controlled, evenhanded and thorough," said Boardman lawyer J. Gerald Ingram. "I believe she is a tough sentencer."
When a plea agreement calls for a sentencing range, she leans more toward the middle, not the bottom, Ingram said. When a presentence report suggests the lower end of the range, she wants specific reasons before going along with the recommendation, he said.
First meeting: Traficant's first encounter with Judge Wells was last Friday, a week after a grand jury indicted him
In what one court observer called the mountain going to Mohammed, Judge Wells traveled to Youngstown's federal court -- which houses one of Traficant's district offices. She conducted a hearing to determine if he truly understood the pitfalls of representing himself.
The ninth-term congressman, who never attended law school, was agitated by her insistent inquiries and said -- over and over again -- that he wanted to represent himself. His voice dripped exasperation and sarcasm.
"I think Jim went overboard just a little bit," said veteran Youngstown lawyer Don L. Hanni Jr., who has urged Traficant to hire a legal team and offered to help out. "No, she wasn't tough, but she understands that he doesn't understand how he should conduct himself. She'll be no-nonsense when it comes to trial."
When the judge asked the congressman if he'd considered the seriousness of the charges and penalties, he rolled his eyes, threw up his hands and said that he found the answer of what he should do inside a Cracker Jack box. "That is an asinine question," he added.
Hanni, who sat through the hearing, said he cringed when he heard "asinine."
Different atmosphere: Gilbert said things will be different when the case shifts to Cleveland.
"His behavior will be different in her courtroom in Cleveland than it was in Youngstown -- he was in his own stomping ground there," Gilbert said. "When he walks into that awesome, spectacular, ornamented courtroom ... You're humbled when you walk in there and I suspect that once they settle down to business in this trial, it'll be business."
Although Judge Wells' spacious courtroom can be described as spectacular, Gilbert, as others, can recall a time when quilts served as part of the decor of her smaller federal courtroom.
"She's extremely laid-back, very earthy. In another day and age she might have been classified as a hippie, but she's not necessarily overly liberal. She's been very tough in criminal cases," Gilbert said. "I don't think she bends over backward to either side."
Even though a Clinton appointee, whatever her politics are, she doesn't let it come out in court, she follows the law, Gilbert said. He's seen her take stands that would please conservatives and stands that would please liberals.
Not all who know Judge Wells believe she would necessarily outmatch Traficant.
"She may have a hard time, to tell you the truth," said one lawyer who practices in her court and asked not to be named. "There's the contrast in style -- she's very calm, he's very aggressive. She may have to sit on him -- if she is up for that."