For 23 (and a half) years, Judge Michael A. Cicconetti has served on the bench. Today, he presides over the Painesville Municipal Court where he has made a name for himself with his unique sentences. We have the honor of sitting down with the judge to discuss his career as well as his outlook on the judicial system.
AALM: Describe your style in the courtroom.
Cicconetti: My style in the courtroom changes with each individual appearing before me. One constant is my attire. Several years ago, for whatever reason, I didn’t have on a neck tie, threw on my robe and went in the courtroom to handle domestic violence cases. Something became very noticeable. The victims were more relaxed and less frightened when conversing with me. I went tie-less the following day. Same reaction. I have not worn a tie since, except when presiding over a jury trial.
AALM: Describe your relationship with your staff.
Cicconetti: The Painesville Municipal Court is a professional team. I am one member of the team. Everyone in the court works together to operate an efficient and well-oiled machine. We take pride in the manner we treat people, fairly and respectfully. From the attorney to the defendant, we realize time is important and we strive to move the court’s business with as little waiting time as possible.
AALM: What do you love about your job?
Cicconetti: What I love most about my job is having a former defendant or their family member, approaching me months or years later and thanking me for saving their life or helping turn their life around. Often, they will talk to me about their job, family or academic achievement. The smile on their face, the pride in their voice is most gratifying.
AALM: What do you believe is the biggest difference between practicing law and presiding as a judge?
Cicconetti: There is a list of differences between being a lawyer and being a judge. If I were to pick only one it would be that my day is over after finishing the last case and walking to my car. I am not going back to an office to return phone calls and messages. I’m not concerned with being in two places at once the next day or being late and facing the wrath of some judge. I don’t wake up in the middle of the night worried I may have missed a statute of limitations, an answer or motion deadline. There is far less stress on the bench. I jokingly tell people, I don’t have stress, I give stress. And, of course, a judge’s jokes are always funnier!
AALM: Tell us about your unique sentencing. How do you believe it is more effective?
Cicconetti: People often ask, “Are these creative sentences really effective?” My response is “Most of the time.” I say that because there have been hundreds of alternative or creative sentences that do not receive media attention. These are not headline grabbing sentences but nonetheless designed to fit the crime.
A violation of a school bus law might find the offender acting as a school crossing guard for the day, a repeat dog-at-large offender cleaning kennels for the dog warden, a shoplifter providing canned food to a food bank, a litterer picking up trash during the county fair or along the shores of Lake Erie, or other non-violent offenders tending to the court garden to feed those in need. In actuality, jail and fines are really the alternate sentences in my court.
AALM: Tell us about how one of your sentences worked effectively in the long run.
Cicconetti: My most unique sentence never made the news. As best as I recall it was a mother and her 18-year-old son each on trial, to the bench, on a “dueling domestic.” The lazy foul-mouthed son was berating and screaming at his mother, causing her to backhand him across the face. He responded by grabbing and throwing her to the floor.
After trial, “Not Guilty” on mom, “Guilty” on the son. Fortunately for him, he was a first offender and received the following sentence: After a stern lecture and admonishment, 10 days jail and 60 days suspended OR he could avoid jail, if he washed his mouth and swallowed soap (which I had previously purchased, was 100% natural, humanly safe, awful tasting, and personally tested by me), and apologized to his mom.
He chose the second option. The soap swallowing was hilarious but when he turned to apologize to mom, the tears flowed heavily. He was placed on probation, with his mom appointed as his probation officer and given a list of weekly chores and no further disrespect to his mom who was to report any violations to me. I ran into mom a couple years later (she had to remind me of the case) and was delighted the sentence turned her son around who was successfully employed, continued to help her, and has never violated the law since.
AALM: How are you involved with the local community?
Cicconetti: After the last 24 years on the bench, 14 years as township trustee and four years on the Riverside School Board, I’ve made the decision to slow down. I’ve served on various boards, participated in parades, assisted with golf outings, children’s Christmas parties, fundraisers for church, charity and youth football and baseball, coaching baseball for over 25 years, and speaking engagements several times a month. It’s time for the younger people to step up, but it’s been disappointing and difficult to find volunteers within the millennial generation. Seems they don’t have time for extracurricular activities. I am a strong advocate of “pay it back” and “pay it forward” but my generation of oldies has not been successful convincing and recruiting those in the age groups behind us. It seems we have failed to instill our work ethic in the generation following us.
AALM: Do you have any mentors? What are some of the most important lessons they taught you?
Cicconetti: During my first days on the bench, I had just heard testimony and arguments on an OVI motion to suppress regarding probable cause for stopping the defendant. It was a tough decision based on the hearing and case law. I decided to seek advice from a former municipal, but then juvenile court judge – the late Judge Dick Hoose. I started to explain the situation to him before asking his opinion when the good judge abruptly interrupted me and forcefully exclaimed, “Mike, you’re the goddamn judge, make a decision!” The then hung up on me. Best advice I ever received!
AALM: What accomplishment are you most proud of achieving?
Cicconetti: The accomplishments I am most proud of achieving has to be the variety of jobs I’ve worked in my life. Most people have no idea that I have never been unemployed since I was 10 years old. Perhaps experiencing the variety of the following jobs help me to better relate with those who appear before me.
My first employment at 30¢/HR was a human paper shredder. I physically tore up boxes of canceled checks for the Diamond Alkali Credit Union. I was a paperboy on a mile-long route for the now defunct Painesville Telegraph. I worked in various area nurseries; Martin’s (45¢/HR), Soloman’s (85¢/HR), Maddox ($1/HR), and Cole’s ($1.10/HR). I washed dishes at Camp Stigwandish and the following year taught archery and canoeing to the Scouts. I cut grass and lined baseball fields for the Recreation Department. I worked on a full-time garbage truck during two summers for the city of Painesville. At Fisher Foods grocery store, I packed groceries, was a cashier, worked in the produce department, managed the dairy and frozen food departments, worked on the night crew and was the building custodian. In my spare time, I attended Lakeland Community College. I was a beer vendor at the Painesville Speedway on Friday nights.
In order to complete college, I needed money. I had some local connections that helped me obtain a job with Olglebay Norton Company working as a deckhand and deckwatch on the SS Robert C. Norton ore, stone and steel carrier on the Great Lakes for an entire season.
At college, St. Leo University, the work/ study program had me working for the Dean of Men, running the weekly movie night, recording the Saturday football games and finally working 12 hours every Friday and Saturday at the St. Leo Golf Course.
On breaks home, I worked for the Lake County commissioners until I was appointed clerk of Painesville Municipal Court while attending the night program at Cleveland Marshall Law School.
Finally, practiced law for 13 years before beginning my 24 years on the bench.
AALM: Share any other information about yourself that you think our readers would enjoy.
Cicconetti: The use of social media has presented an issue never anticipated. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram has dramatically changed the impact and duration of these sentences.
The embarrassment of a creative sentence, due to social media, continues in perpetuity as punishment. It is not fair for the defendant and is inconsistent with my intent at the time of sentencing. It seems I am approached daily by people commenting on a sentence, believing it to be recent, as viewed on Facebook when, in fact, it has been reposted from four or five years ago.
This issue will, most likely, have a future impact on my sentencing practices.