Norbert Nadel Reflects on 40 Years on the Bench

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Judge Norbert Nadel

Photograph by Jonathan Willis

January 1, Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas Judge Norbert Nadel will retire, exiting the courtroom where he has spent 32 years. Nadel has presided over some of the region’s more memorable cases from his perch in Court Room No. 6: former Cincinnati Reds player/manager Pete Rose’s showdown with Major League Baseball over his gambling issues; the battle between Western & Southern and the Anna Louise Inn; and most recently, the trial of Hamilton County Juvenile Court Judge Tracie Hunter. During his 40 years on the bench—Nadel started in domestic and municipal court—attorneys have come to know him as a tough sentencer and a stickler for courtroom manners and decorum. Yet he has also been remarkably sympathetic to children, his courthouse staff, and his own juries. At the start of the Hunter trial, which lasted six weeks, he gave jurors doses of Airborne to keep them healthy, granola bars to fend off hunger, and a promise to end court by 4 p.m. each night. Despite being 75, Nadel says he would stay on the bench if he could, but state law forces judges to retire after they complete the term in which they turn 70. He agreed to talk in his chambers late one afternoon earlier this fall after wrapping up a long day of testimony in the Hunter case. The room was a picture of busy clutter—crowded with filing cabinets, fading photos of long-gone courthouse staffers, and walls stacked with framed newspaper articles of his most famous cases. Under a photo of the 1932 Hamilton County prosecutor’s office, Nadel leaned his tall, thin frame back in his desk chair and spoke candidly—and sometimes emotionally—about his courtroom memories.

Thanks for taking the time to talk about your life before retirement.
It’s like an obituary. [Laughs]

How do you feel about leaving?
I’ve been in this courtroom, this same courtroom, for 32 years. So it is difficult. But you know, everything has a beginning and everything has an ending.

What are you going to do with all of these pictures when you retire?
I don’t know. My wife said, “Well, we’ll take them home.” I said, “Why don’t we just throw them away.” I have threatened to get a big dumpster in here and throw them away, but I guess I’ll let my wife take them down and put them somewhere.

When’s the last time you put a frame up?
It’s been a while. I ran out of wall space.

Do you remember the first day you took the bench as a Municipal Court judge?
I came in on Monday [April 1, 1974] to find out where my courtroom was supposed to be. They called me “judge” and I didn’t know who they were talking to.

How did it feel to be called judge?
Oh my God, I got tears in my eyes.

Photograph by Jonathan Willis
Judge Nadel photographed in his chambers on October 2, 2014.

 

Then you moved up to Common Pleas, but you did domestic relations for two years. What was that like?
It was difficult because it dealt with families and splitting up families and child custody issues. When it came to figuring out custody I would always talk to the children and bring them in chambers alone. I’ll never forget one time, I asked a child, “Which parent do you prefer to go with?” And the child looked at me and said, “Listen judge, isn’t that your decision?”

You eventually moved to the general division of Common Pleas. When was your first death penalty case?
I started hearing cases in January of 1983 and heard a capital case by the end of the year. That was the Michael Beuke case, who was sentenced to death. He was the hitchhiker.

I heard about that case. Beuke killed one driver and seriously injured two others.
It was awful. He was executed, by the way, in 2010. I can remember the trial like we’re sitting here. You know, the kindest people pick up hitchhikers, and it’s not safe to do anymore. But the kindest people. Anyway, he killed one man who gave him a ride. There was no money involved; he shot him in the head. It was just done for absolute maliciousness and meanness. It was one of the cruelest things I had seen. [One of the victims] testified that “I’m driving down the road and I see a man hitchhiking. He’s carrying a gas can. And I thought to myself, Should I pick him up or should I not? Oh well, I’ll go ahead and pick him up.” That one moment changed his whole life. He was shot [and] became a paraplegic. It was so sad. I used to get calls from him worrying about Michael Beuke getting out of jail and coming after him because he had testified.

What is it like to sentence someone to death? Does it weigh on you any differently than sentencing someone to life in prison?
No, from a personal standpoint it doesn’t. These are people who are convicted and they’ve not only deliberately taken somebody else’s life but ruined the lives of the victims’ families. Like Beuke: My God, he was responsible for at least two deaths of innocent people—of people that he had never seen before. Beuke brutally murdered for no reason; he was like a hunter. No, he got what he deserved.

Tell me about your memories of the Pete Rose case in 1989. Major League Baseball announced it would investigate charges that he bet on baseball, and Rose asked you for a temporary restraining order.
There were people from all over the country here. We took out the whole back row of seats so we could accommodate everybody.

I’m assuming there was not a seat to be had.
No. It was tough. They fought for seats. If you knew the bailiff at the time, he’d kinda get you in.

What happened when you issued your decision?
Pete Rose was supposed to have his hearing in front of [MLB Commissioner] Bart Giamatti on a Monday. I felt it was necessary to make a decision before that, so he would know one way or another. I needed time to formulate my thoughts because we ended on Friday. In those days it was simpler because we didn’t have the security and all that. So I went to the building manager and asked if it was possible to open this building so we can have court on Sunday, and he said it was not a problem. On Sunday, it was a sea of people outside. There was some guy who was a Pete Rose lookalike. It was like a circus out there.

After you made your ruling, which sided with Rose and prevented Giamatti from holding a hearing the next day on gambling allegations, was there any ruckus?
There was a lot of criticism but no ruckus.

The criticism came from folks outside of Cincinnati?
No, it came from here, too. I got tons of letters—in fact, I’ve still got them. There was a lot of nasty criticism saying it was just a homer decision by some judge who was worried about reelection. Everybody felt that I was sticking my nose in the business of baseball. Especially the media. I got criticized by every editorial board, every so-called sports expert around the country. They all criticized me.

Did that bother you?
No, that’s when I sort of thought I was right.

Do you think Pete Rose will ever be reinstated to baseball?
Posthumously. While he’s alive, in my opinion, they will not. And I think they’re wrong, but that’s their business.

Why do you think they’re wrong?
Because they’re into the fact that he bet on baseball, which is based on the 1919 Black Sox scandal [in which eight players from the Chicago White Sox were accused of taking bribes to throw the World Series against the Reds]. But in this case, there was no dishonesty. Pete Rose bet on what he bet on, but there was never a scintilla of dishonesty in any way that he was influenced or that he ran the team any differently because he was betting.

I read that about a year later, you got a baseball in the mail that had been signed by Rose.
I did. I don’t know where it came from. And I don’t know where the darned thing is now. I think I gave it to my wife.

Let’s talk about some other important cases you presided over. The case of Annie Hyde, in 1992, was one of the first acquittals in Ohio in a manslaughter case based on the battered wife syndrome defense.
Actually it was a combination of that and self defense because she had been battered and abused by her husband and she just got sick of it. He came home one night and she got out a gun. He was drunk. I’ll tell you, if she hadn’t used that gun, he would have taken the gun away and used it on her. She had no choice.

Did you realize that you were breaking new ground with your decision?
No. In fact, I don’t think I realized [the defense] hadn’t been used until afterwards.

In 2011, a group of retirees sued the City over a change in their health benefits. Ultimately, you ruled that the city had the right to do that, which helped the administration plug a huge long-term shortfall in the pension system and saved the city from financial trouble. There are lawyers I’ve spoken to who think this was your biggest case.
It was a big case because it involved tens of millions of dollars. The city was changing their benefits; the people would be paying more to get less. The retirees were not happy about this. And I ruled in favor of the city. As a matter of fact, the city, I don’t think they were happy to get me as a judge, but they ended up winning the case. I think that decision really helped save the retirement system. It saved them tens of millions of dollars.

Did you get any pushback?
Oh yeah, there are city retirees I know who to this day do not talk to me.

You’re kidding.
Oh yes, they were not happy. I can understand; they ended up paying more to get less benefits. I figure I have to do what I have to do; it doesn’t make people happy.

Tell me about the 2001 Hamilton County morgue case— The professional photographer and deputy coroner who were convicted of abusing corpses by taking photos of autopsied bodies posed with objects—apples, keys.
Oh, that’s a good one. That was eerie. That had to be one of the weirder cases.

So you saw those photos?
Oh yeah, it was weird. I don’t know why people do what they do.

You presided over the lawsuit between Western & Southern and the Anna Louise Inn, which eventually settled out of court.
It really settled to the benefit of both sides: One side got a new facility and the other side got the facility they wanted for development downtown. There was quite some unhappiness by people on that. I remember seeing an “Impeach Judge Nadel” sign on a telephone pole on Reading Road. Apparently I made some rulings in that case which displeased some people.

You always ask defendants if they have children and if they support them. Why do you do that?
I want to know everything about people. And one of the things that really bothers me is illegitimacy. Where people have no job, or they may work at a fast food restaurant, and they’ll have four or five children by four or five different mothers. I just think it’s awful. I mean, the children have no chance.

Do you think it makes an impression on the defendants?
I don’t know but I hope so. I tell them, “What are you thinking?” Or they come in and they’ll have two mothers pregnant at the same time. I’m not going to sit up there and not say anything. And I’ve been criticized for that.

What’s the story behind your relationship with Leo Clyde Jorden, the homeless man who would come into your courtroom as an observer?
Actually, he had been a defendant. He had written some bad checks. I gave him probation and he used to come back in and visit me and we sort of became friends. We would talk. He was homeless, yet every time he would come in here, something good would happen. It was amazing. My bailiff, Kathy O’Mara, was suffering from terminal breast cancer at the time. He would come in one day and he’d sit in the back, and the doctor would call her with the test results—and [on those days] they were always good. He was like a good luck charm.

You let him store some of his things here, Didn’t you?
I had a filing cabinet in the back and he’d keep some of his stuff there. For a while he would use this as his address. He was on Social Security disability, and he’d use this address and get his check here.

Was it that you felt sorry for him?
No, I felt he was sort of harmless and likable. And he liked his life. We tried to get him Section 8 housing but he was never particularly interested.

When he died in 2000, everyone at the courthouse took up a collection.
Yeah we did, and we bought him a headstone.

How long was Kathy O’Mara your bailiff?
Fourteen years.

And she had terminal breast cancer?
Yes. [Whispers] It went on for five or six years. She would take treatments, we would get positive reports and then
she started going down. But she worked almost until the last day before she passed away. And you wouldn’t have known it; she had a wig that was beautiful. She was only 49 years old. She had a family. It was the most unjust thing. I was mad at God for awhile. I really was. [Cries]

Have you and your wife talked about next year?
Linnea is just the best. I call her the goddess of adventure. She’s jumped out of airplanes. One time at her insistence we went to Reykjavík, Iceland, for New Year’s Eve. We’ve snowmobiled. So she’ll drag me on some adventures. She’s been to South Africa and she wants to go back. She says she won’t go if I don’t go.

After you retire, do you plan to become a visiting judge?
I’m going to try that for a while. It won’t be the same because the quality of the cases that you get isn’t the same.

So what kinds of cases do you get as a
visiting judge?
The ones nobody wants. [Laughs] 

 

Photograph by Jonathan Willis
Originally Published in the December 2014 issue

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