The Irrepressible Judge Joan
As an attorney, she's defended some of Cleveland's most notorious watercooler criminals -- from former Brook Park Mayor Tom Coyne to lottery loser Elecia Battle. Then, Republican Joan Synenberg did what many thought was impossible: beat a slew of
Judge Joan Synenberg doesn’t understand why you would want to read this story.
She doesn’t see what’s so interesting about a Republican who beat four Democratic opponents in last November’s race for Cleveland Municipal Court judge.
Nor does she view her famous cases and clients (she was a criminal attorney for 16 years before she was a judge) as anything special.
But anyone who has spent five minutes in a coffee shop or around the watercooler — which then turned into 20 minutes — knows differently. Synenberg’s list of notorious clients includes everyone from former Brook Park Mayor Tom Coyne to Wanda Kanner, the caretaker convicted of killing a woman with a bagel. In the first week of April 2004, her photo appeared in The Plain Dealer four times.
And she says she was shocked by the “Good Morning America” interview and other national media attention given her unusual sentencing of Nathan Mallett, who ran onto the field in the middle of a Browns game. He served his three-day sentence over Super Bowl weekend and was banned from attending Browns games for the next five years.
In some ways, Synenberg is right. As accomplished as she is, you could read her entire rÃ©sumÃ© and not catch a glimpse of why the spotlight always finds her good side. You wouldn’t understand how she draws people to her, why this woman sticks in the head of everyone who meets her.
Witness her in action: Before the election, she holds a fund-raiser at XO Prime Steaks in the Warehouse District. At 48, Synenberg is 20-something thin with blunt-cut blond hair. She’s wearing a stylish green-and-black wrap dress and stiletto heels, carrying a glass of wine, blowing kisses, giving hugs, greeting each person in the crowd as if they’re her dearest friend. She’s the kind of person you’d describe as being “in the moment,” completely engrossed in whatever conversation she’s having — at least until someone else pulls her away to start another conversation. She’s a human magnet. She consumes a room.
But it’s not just that she can work a crowd for political purposes. Because she’s like this everywhere she goes, forging relationships with the deli worker at her supermarket, other judges, clients, random people she meets.
The XO fund-raiser, for example, is packed with other judges and politicians, including former Mayor Jane Campbell. “She’s a woman and a smart woman,” answers Campbell when asked why she attended a fund-raiser for a Republican. “I’ve really gotten to be quite fond of her on the campaign trail.”
But even more surprising is the non-politicos who turned out for Synenberg’s events: a clerk from J.Crew who bragged that he got the svelte judge to try on a “really tight pair of jeans.” A man who introduced himself only as “Tony the barber.” A woman whose ex-boyfriend Synenberg represented in 1992. Another former client who calls the judge “my angel.”
“People want to be liked by her,” says well-known criminal defense attorney Jerry Gold, a close friend of Synenberg who talks with her every day. The flip side is that “she wants to be liked by people,” he adds. “She doesn’t want anybody not to be her friend, even if she doesn’t care about them.”
By most accounts, Joan Synenberg shouldn’t be here.
She sits on the bench, wearing her black robe and pearls, ruling on traffic citations, domestic violence charges and other non-felony cases. She’s a Republican — in a city that voted more than 5-to-1 for John Kerry over George Bush. Gov. Bob Taft appointed her to the Cleveland Municipal Court in January 2005. But few thought she’d win an actual election.
“Nobody gave her a chance,” said her campaign adviser Wendell Robinson on Election Night. “She’s a pretty, blond white girl from the East Side.”
Synenberg’s own husband, Roger, accused her of being naÃ¯ve. “Everybody said it’s impossible to my face,” she says. “I refused to accept the premise.”
On election night, as the results came in, Roger scribbled them on his hand and showed them to his wife. “It looks like Joannie’s running 2-to-1 over her next closest competitor,” he said. She ended up, as one of five candidates, winning 27 percent of the vote.
It was enough for Robinson to declare her “the face of the new Republican party in this county.”
That sounds great, but it’s not quite accurate. “She’s so apolitical,” explains Roger, a prominent criminal defense attorney himself. Synenberg says she can’t even remember why or when she registered as a Republican. “I think I probably liked Ronald Reagan,” she says. “I don’t know.”
Synenberg describes herself as “a social liberal.” As a judge, her philosophy is that people are complex and that the “law invites you to take a look at them individually.”
“Working on the premise, of course,” she continues, “that people are inherently good.” She says that politics has no place on the bench.
Jean Capers, a well-respected retired Cleveland Municipal Court judge, explains it like this, “Her compassion is the same toward all.” She describes Synenberg’s skills as “impeccable.”
So how does this compassion manifest itself in the courtroom?
Synenberg treats everyone who comes before her with respect, looking them in the eye and, whenever possible, offering encouragement, searching for the good in everyone.
To a man who got his license and insurance after being caught driving without them, “Nice going. Good for you. Sir, that’s a good thing that you did. You used your time wisely.”
To a man who got a DUI, whose license she took away for two years and ordered to, among other things, undergo and alcohol and drug assessment, “This is an opportunity for you. I really wish you every single success. … I hope not to see you in the next year and I wish you every success.”
To a man who showed up for court dressed in black pants and a button-down shirt (even if it did have a silk screen of a woman’s face on the back), “You did a nice job dressing appropriately.” And when she found out he got a job at Burger King, “That’s wonderful. Well, I’m really proud of you. That’s really terrific.”
She can be tough, too. To a man who pushed his girlfriend and kicked his niece, she gives a 180-day sentence and a $1,000 fine. When he explains that he was “talking with his hands,”
Synenberg raises her voice. “Talking with your hands? What does that mean? What you did was an act of violence. … You’ve never been to the penitentiary, have you?”
“You’re richly blessed,” she tells the man a moment later, her voice softening. “You have two children and one on the way.”
It’s not until after court is over that we find out what an unusual day this has been for Synenberg.
“Terrible,” she replies, when asked how’s she doing. “My mom died three days ago.”
During the week, Synenberg and her husband live in their condo in the Warehouse District. Since they were married nearly seven years ago, the couple has kept both this home and Synenberg’s house in Chagrin Falls, where they cozy up on weekends. They plan to sell both this year and are looking to buy in Little Italy, which Synenberg loves for its neighborhood feel.
It’s in this pink, 125-year-old house on Main Street, though, where we see a different side of Synenberg. It’s a Saturday night and, due to the recent and unexpected death of her mother and an otherwise busy schedule, it’s the only time we can meet. So she offers to cook dinner.
The place feels like a dollhouse for grown-ups. It’s a surprise: Synenberg most often dresses in crisp business suits, worn with her ever-present pearls and sleek leather heels. The house, however, is much more flower-child, with its cheery pastel walls, whimsical antiques and colorful art covering most of the available wall space in the home.
We find Synenberg at work on her Viking stove. The one modern touch in the house, it’s here because she loves to cook — tonight crab cakes, spinach tortellini and chicken marsala.
After a quick hike along the river (she loves to be outdoors), Synenberg went to the grocery store, followed by an hour at Mass and a quick dip in the hot tub. “It’s all about this,” she explains, “How much time do you have to do the things that you want to do?” She makes time, even if it’s a half-hour of hiking, a quick slow dance with Roger or 10 minutes indulging her wackiest hobby — Dance Dance Revolution, the video game that challenges you to keep up with a series of steps on a dance pad.
While sautÃ©ing and slicing, Synenberg tells Roger and me about the priest’s homily, and how it spoke to her. It was about reaching out in love to the people who most need it, the outcasts of our society.
Which brings to mind the judge’s life before taking the bench. After earning her law degree from Cleveland State University, Synenberg was a social worker for a few years before becoming a criminal defense attorney.
Over the years, she’s handled her share of interesting cases (see sidebar): stockbrocker turned scam artist Frank Gruttadauria; Jamaal Harris, the Cleveland State basketball star convicted of robbing Indians pitcher C.C. Sabathia; former Brook Park Mayor Tom Coyne; Elecia Battle, the woman who fraudulently claimed she won the Mega Millions lottery; former assistant Cuyahoga County prosecutor Aaron Phillips, who pleaded guilty to a dozen felonies; and Wanda Kanner, the caretaker accused of killing her multiple sclerosis patient by feeding her a bagel and allowing her to choke to death.
In addition to the cases she made money on, Synenberg always made a point of representing indigent people, trying cases ranging from theft to murder. “Everyone’s entitled to representation,” she says. “But you’re entitled to effective representation. Someone who’s going to treat you the same way as they would someone who has a well-funded defense.”
She also spent part of her time as a mitigation specialist, someone hired by another attorney in a death-penalty case to sift through boxes of records and put together a history of the defendant. Synenberg’s in the kitchen cooking the tortellini while Roger tells me she put in a typical 150 hours on such cases and made about $5,000.
“It’s not about the money,” Synenberg yells from the kitchen.
As a muni court judge, Synenberg earns $109,000 a year — a figure that Roger provides, as his wife says she honestly doesn’t know. It seems like a line, but before she married Roger, the judge sent her paycheck and all of her bills to her mother, who volunteered to oversee her daughter’s finances after seeing that she didn’t especially enjoy it.
“If left to her own devices ...” says Roger.
“I’d be an indigent lawyer,” Synenberg says, finishing the thought.
Synenberg certainly had no designs on being a judge. In fact, just a few months before the Republican Party tapped her for the post, she and Roger had just officially teamed up and opened a new office together. The stationery — with Synenberg and Synenberg on top — had barely been printed when she took the bench.
Synenberg and her husband come across as being ridiculously in love. He’d been married once before, but she wed for the first time at age 41. It’s not how she thought life would go.
“Actually, I always thought I’d be a mother,” she says. “I never thought, at the age of 48, I’d be a career woman.”
She just never found the right person — until Roger. “This is it for me,” she says.
On their anniversary, Joan attempts to surprise her husband each year by showing up at some point in the day wearing her wedding dress. Last year, she arranged to hide in the chambers of a judge where Roger was having a hearing. They then renewed their vows. Shortly after they were married, the couple started trying to have children, but were ultimately unsuccessful — a topic
Synenberg doesn’t want to discuss publicly.
Synenberg does have children in her life — her sister who lives in Michigan has four daughters and a son. In summer 2004, the 12-year-old boy fell off a pontoon boat and was hit by the propeller, which nearly sliced his left leg off. Synenberg took the four girls, then ranging in age from 4 to 10, home with her for the summer, taking a leave of absence from her work to care for them. “It was a very easy call to make,” she says.
Her nephew walks with a slight limp, but is otherwise in perfect health. And Synenberg remembers the summer as one of the best of her life. “Just a complete joy,” she says.
Roger says his wife “always wakes up in a terrific mood.” She says she is “grateful every day. Every single day I’m humbled by the joys in my life.”
It sounds so Pollyanna. But Synenberg’s actions bear witness to her philosophy. Here’s a small example: She loves to be outdoors and used to dislike winter because it curtailed her hikes. Then, one year, she decided simply to appreciate winter for what it is. She now bundles up and goes for walks outside no matter the weather.
“I choose to be this way,” she explains. “I choose to be happy.”
It’s a lesson she says she learned from her mother, with whom she used to speak several times a day. “When the sadness comes, I can’t even speak. It’s like a sadness that just breaks your heart.”
Her mother died early this year of complications from scleroderma, a chronic disease that causes hardening of the skin and can damage internal organs. “She suffered, but she was very stoic,” Synenberg says. “She chose to be happy. She set that example. It is a choice.”
When asked what the future holds, Roger says a logical next step might be the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court. Joan doesn’t rule it out, but says she hasn’t given it a lot of thought.
“I really don’t know. And I never believed anybody else when they gave that answer,” she says.
Rob Frost, chairman of the Republican party of Cuyahoga County, says he’s had this conversation with Synenberg and that she’s been “very sincere” in that she wants to focus on being a judge for now.
But a Republican who can win in Cleveland, he adds, has the kind of broad appeal that propelled Sen. George Voinovich and Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro. “I think she has a very bright future,” says Frost, mentioning other judicial seats. “I hope she’ll listen to me in the not too distant future about what opportunity there might be.”
Gold says he thinks Synenberg might be willing to leave her first love — the law — if it meant she could help more people. “I personally think that she ought to be in some sort of political capacity … where her people skills can be advanced,” he says. “Being a judge is good, but there are other places where she can do more good.” Gold even cites senator as a possibility.
Synenberg won’t talk about any of that — yet.
“The only thing I ever wanted to be in life is better. I just feel the need to be my best. That’s what I pray for.”
12:00 AM EST
March 20, 2006