Q&A with CSU alumnus was master class in character, poise, warmth
On Tuesday, March 28 at noon, the Cleveland State University College of Law hosted the Hon. Judge Clifton Newman ('76) for a special speaking engagement in the law school’s Moot Courtroom. It was Judge Newman’s first public appearance in the area since he presided over the high-profile trial and sentencing of former South Carolina attorney (now convicted murderer) Alex Murdaugh.
With a crowd of over 300 at the open-to-the-public event, Dean Lee Fisher beamed that the event was “a great moment in the history of our law school—because it’s fair to say that [Judge Newman] is the best known judge in the world right now.” CSU President Dr. Laura Bloomberg agreed, adding “I love to see this room filled” as she introduced Judge Newman, saying that he exemplified the College of Law’s ongoing motto “Learn Law, Live Justice.”
Throughout the Murdaugh trial which captivated the nation, Judge Newman earned national praises for his even-handed demeanor and his insightful comments during sentencing. To wit, it was Judge Newman’s character that carried the hour-plus event, co-sponsored by the CSU|LAW Criminal Justice Center and moderated by fellow CSU College of Law alum and Cuyahoga Court of Common Pleas Judge Brendan Sheehan (’93).
The pair shared the front of the room, with Judge Sheehan administering questions. The gallery was then allowed some additional Q&A near the conclusion. In all, the event was a masterclass in character, poise and warmth.
High school valedictorian and president of the student body during his time at CSU, the South Carolina-born judge recalled meeting his wife Pat (Glenville High grad) at CSU, as well as his early days practicing law in Cleveland from 1976 – 1982, while working on consumer debt- and uncontested divorce cases.
Returning to South Carolina in 1982 to start a private law practice, Judge Newman recounted serving as a defense attorney, civil practitioner, and prosecutor before the state General Assembly elected him to serve as a Circuit Court Judge in 2000.
When asked specifically about being selected for the Murdaugh trial, Judge Newman said that the Chief Justice of the court has discretionary authority to assign cases as desired. When the actual call came? “Bring it on,” he said.
The open-to-public-and-media case never became a distraction, the judge recalled; rather, he saw the Murdaugh trial as an opportunity to “simply [be] a judge in a trial doing my job,” and that "interest and notoriety surrounding it all had no effect on me, because I was engaged in the process of what I had to do.”
Judge Sheehan related that the high-profile case had 750 jurors summoned. Of those, the 12 selected along with alternates were identified in a lightning-fast 72 hours. Judge Newman volleyed that detail, adding that five of the six alternates were lost—some of them due to the coronavirus—and with that came a sense of disappointment from those jurors dismissed.
"There’s a sense of public responsibility and investment” he said of the jurors, who more often than not “hate to leave jury once they’ve gotten on it.” When asked about surprises during the court case, he parried eloquently: “Nothing surprises me when it comes to court cases"—even the short, three-hour deliberation before the decision.
As for what he deemed most important about a judge’s responsibilities? The imperative nature of translating law “into everyday language.”
At the conclusion of the event, Judge Newman was given a standing ovation, which prompted Dean Fisher to announce their guest’s return to Northeast Ohio on November 3 with his induction into the CSU College of Law Hall of Fame.
“He doesn’t know it yet, but he’ll be giving the keynote address,” Fisher added with a smile.
The complete 75-minute program held in the Moot Courtroom can be found at the CSU College of Law Judge Newman Livestream.
Judge Newman will also be the special guest of an upcoming episode of Dean Lee Fisher’s “Living Justice, Living Leadership” podcast, according to Elaine Terman, CSU College of Law Director of Marketing and Communications.