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Courts and Crime

Colleagues say the woman who would keep it all on track is suited to the task
Federal Judge Sara Lioi is already keeping a tight hold the tiller as the Dimora trial gets underway

Tim Rudell
United States District Court Judge Sara Lioi (left) receives a hug as she presents Tinh Thi Thanh Truong her naturalization certificate on stage, along with 34 other new citizens, at a Constitution Celebration naturalization ceremony held at the Akron-Summit County Public Library on Friday, Sept. 16, 2011 in Akron, Ohio. The Akron Bar Association co-sponsored the event with the Akron-Summit County Public Library. (Paul Tople/Akron Beacon Journal)
Courtesy of Akron Beacon Journal
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The Cuyahoga County corruption case is one of the biggest in Ohio history: hundreds of charges against more than 50 defendants.

The centerpiece of that case -- larger-than-life Jimmy Dimora-- went on trial last week. A thicket of TV satellite truck masts and scores of onlookers took their places outside the Seiberling Federal Building in Akron. The trial had been moved there to try to ensure it won’t be skewed by sentiments about the former commissioner on his home turf.

And that move put it in the hands of U.S. District Judge Sara Lioi. WKSU’s Tim Rudell has more on the woman who is charged with keeping order until a jury finishes its job as much as three months from now.

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The Cuyahoga County corruption case is one of the biggest in Ohio history with hundreds of charges against more than 50 defendants.

The centerpiece of that case—larger-than-life Jimmy Dimora—went on trial last week. A thicket of TV satellite truck masts and scores of onlookers took their places outside the Seiberling Federal Building in Akron. The trial had been moved there to try to ensure it would not be skewed by sentiments about the former commissioner on his home turf, thus putting it in the hands of U.S. District Judge Sara Lioi.

Sara Lioi was appointed a federal judge in 2007, just a year before FBI agents began documenting Jimmy Dimora’s comings and goings and taping his personal phone calls. Part of that record revealed that Dimora did not spend much time in his office.

An unapologetic workaholic
Lioi, in contrast, rarely left work. Before her federal appointment, she was a Stark County Common Pleas judge – and was often the last one out of the county courthouse. One-time law clerk and now Cleveland area attorney Brodie Butland says he and others respected the pace and adjusted to it.

“The parties in front of her have real issues, and real needs, and in her view, it is important to get the case right,” he says. “So she works extremely hard to make sure that she is faithfully applying the law, and the parties are getting a fair shake,…and it was contagious.”

Retired Stark County Judge Richard Reinbold says Lioi’s management of her courtroom is what qualifies her most to handle a trial like this one. Reinbold recounts that when defense attorneys attempted to move the Dimora trial from Cleveland to Akron, they expressed concern about the trial becoming a circus to which Lioi remarked, “‘Trust me, Mister, it is not going to be a circus in my courtroom.’”

Although Reinbold’s a Democrat and Lioi’s a Republican, Reinbold says those political definitions meant nothing in Lioi’s court. He says she takes a conservative approach – tough sentencing and conservative with the civil side of docket – but is fair in her rulings, basing them on getting all the information possible.

“Often she has more information than the lawyers before her,” notes Reinbold.

Locally involved 
While the words “demanding and fair” are consistently applied to Lioi, so are “pleasant and considerate.” Away from the courtroom, the 51-year-old with salt-and-pepper hair is a dog lover and enthusiastic supporter of the community organizations in her native Stark County. That includes sitting on the board of the Humane Society, where Executive Director Lou Chriswell says she drove the organization to establish new policies.

“Again I have to stress the fact,” Chriswell notes, “of how she can direct a group of people—and you know we all have different personalities—to all come together. And really work for the common goal…and accomplish.”

Courtroom conduct
Most of the defendants in the Cuyahoga County corruption case have pleaded guilty, but juries convicted two former common pleas judges, Bridget McCafferty and Steven Terry – in Sarah Lioi’s court. At their sentencing, she made it clear that she has strong feelings about violation of public trust – especially by judges. Federal courts don’t allow video or audio taping, but the transcript of her words as she sentenced Terry to 63 months in prison made her emotions clear.

“Being a judge is such a special privilege that his conduct shakes the core of our system of justice in this country.”

Months may pass before the jury’s deliberation comes to a close in the case against Jimmy Dimora. Meanwhile, Judge Lioi is defining her courtroom broadly. She has blocked reporters from tweeting in the trial, and is keeping TV crews at bay; they have been restricted to the sidewalk and from the plaza outside the Akron federal building—all an attempt to ensure no one likens the Jimmy Dimora case to a circus.

Web story by Matthew Meduri 

Listener Comments:

Some of the attitudes attributed to her sound very good. She sounds like she believes she is at court to serve the litigants and that she is careful to apply the correct law to the facts which she tries to make sure she has down correctly. Nobody could argue with that. I am not sure what a conservative approach to a case, criminal or civil, really is. The approach, to me, should be what she said it was; the law applied to the facts. Get the facts down right and make sure you apply the correct law. There does not seem to be anything conservative or liberal about that. I guess she did not claim to be conservative on the law, others did. She just essentially claimed she was there to serve the litigants. Judge Battisti used to say that too and he meant it. I Judge Lioi means it too.

Posted by: Dan Roth (Cleveland) on November 23, 2013 5:11AM
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