Judge Michael Cicconetti Judge Michael Cicconetti
X Logo

"All rise, please!”

Judge Michael Cicconetti sweeps out of his chambers and onto the bench, his black robe flowing as he approaches his seat. 

The courtroom is full of the usual Tuesday morning crowd. Casually clad in jeans, sweatshirts and the like, defendants and their families stand and await his judgment. In one motion, Cicconetti sits and waves his hands downward, “Be seated, please.” 

The wooden pews creak as butts plunk back onto the worn surfaces. Cicconetti shuffles some papers, positions his glasses low on his nose and starts into his morning docket. Painesville Municipal Court is in session.

A month earlier, Lake County sheriff’s deputies had sent a 19-year-old confidential informant into a number of stores in an attempt to buy a six-pack of Budweiser. Now, a trio of clerks who sold beer to the underage informant waits for Cicconetti. 

One, dressed in an orange jacket and jeans, has done this before. The judge asks a few questions then pauses. He has entered a guilty plea and now faces the possibility of a fine and jail time. Cicconetti scribbles on the pages in front of him.  

“All right,” he says. The clerk must serve five days of jail or community service. “However, I will reduce that to three days of community work service if you participate in the Mardi Gras parade.” 

The man assents, silently turns and walks out.  

Every year, Cicconetti’s court organizes a float, donated by Bob’s Garage & Towing, at the Fairport Harbor Mardi Gras parade. Probationers decorate it with banners bearing slogans such as “Buzzed Driving is Drunk Driving” and “None under 21; Underage Drinking = Jail.” Cicconetti uses his campaign funds to pay for candy, which the offenders hand out along the parade route.

Often boisterous to the point of going hoarse, Cicconetti emcees with a flair befitting the colorful masks and costumes of Bourbon Street.  

Creative sentences like the Mardi Gras float have made the beloved local judge into a national folk hero — the common sense jurist who uses unconventional methods to exact justice. Cicconetti has developed such a reputation that he and his methods have appeared on television shows from Dr. Phil to Good Morning America.  

In 2005, he sentenced a woman who abandoned more than 40 cats in the Lake Metroparks to experience the same chill as the felines by spending the evening in the woods. After a woman pepper-sprayed an employee at a Painesville Burger King in 2014, the judge sentenced her to take a shot of pepper spray herself. The twist: The spray was actually just saline water.  

In 2002, Cicconetti sentenced a man who almost hit a police officer with a car and called the officer a “pig” to stand on the street beside a prize-winning sow with a sign proclaiming, “This is not a police officer.” After a group of high school seniors let the air out of a number of school bus tires in Madison Township in 2001, Cicconetti sentenced them to organize a party for the elementary students they had deprived of transportation. 

On this day, Cicconetti sentences a drunken teenager who puked in the back of a police car to do penance by cleaning cruisers.  

Since he began offering creative sentences in the late 1990s, he has only one strict criteria for the people he chooses. “The offense has to be one where no one was seriously injured, nonviolent or anybody was taken for a lot of money,” says Cicconetti. “Not a serious offense.” 

Otherwise, he works according to guidelines that flow like his robe. Many creative sentencing defendants are first-time offenders. Some are not. Mostly the judge looks for some sign that there’s a chance to right the trajectory of a life: tears on a cheek, a worried mom in the pews or the downcast eyes that suggest court-imposed embarrassment might be more impactful than a night in jail. 

“The protocol is pretty much, first-time offenders, young and impressionable, and shows some remorse with the crime,” says Cicconetti.  

Essentially, “all rise” is the unspoken mission of Cicconetti’s unconventional court. 

But experts say it’s difficult to tell whether creative sentencing is more effective than traditional forms. And the effects of such sentences can stick around long after the sentence is over.


Cicconetti was never bound by convention. 

As a student at Painesville’s Riverside High School, class of 1969, he tried football and was the lead role in class plays his junior and senior year. As a young man, he worked for a season on a Great Lakes ore boat, visiting places such as Green Bay, Wisconsin. 

“It was probably the best job I ever had,” he recalls. “It was hard, hard work. Good money.”

After a stint at Lakeland Community College, Cicconetti enrolled at St. Leo University in Florida, where he earned a degree in political science and secondary education.  

In 1973, Cicconetti got a part-time job as an aide to the Lake County commissioners, where he was put in charge of dealing with the county’s unregistered dogs. Not one for hands-off tactics, he and a team of college students earning $2.25 an hour went door to door registering rogue pooches. As a result, two lawyers filed a suit against the county, contending the puppy crackdown constituted illegal search and seizure, and was an invasion of privacy.  

“We had a little fight, a little lawsuit,” remembers Cicconetti, with some pleasure. “We prevailed in that. They never did [door-to-door registration] after that. It became too controversial.”  

Throughout his 20s, it was abundantly clear Cicconetti was a political comer. That fact was helped along by his father, a well-connected Democrat who served as Lake County dog warden. Cicconetti keeps a framed program from a local meet-and-greet with John F. Kennedy, a gift from his father, in his chambers. 

The younger Cicconetti was barely 24 when he won a seat on the Painesville Township school board. Shortly after, he became a clerk at the Painesville Municipal Court. At 28, he prevailed in a five-way contest for a Painesville Township trustee seat.  

Cicconetti also found time to go to night school at the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. “I had horrible LSAT scores. Horrible. I mean, just horrible,” says Cicconetti. “But I had a great GPA.” The school put him on a provisional list. “About three days before law school begins, they call me up: ‘We have one spot, do you want it?’ ”  

Cicconetti would pack a sandwich, leave the Painesville court at 4:30 p.m., commute to Cleveland for night classes and not return until after 10 p.m. He carpooled with Timothy Cannon, now an 11th District of Ohio Court of Appeals judge, Eugene Lucci, now a Lake County Court of Common Pleas judge and longtime Painesville city prosecutor Ed Powers, who died in 2013. 

“Now there are three judges out of there and a former prosecutor,” marvels Cicconetti, “out of that same car pool.”  

After being admitted to the bar, Cicconetti began a law practice in Lake County and built a reputation for DUI representation and unconventionality. 

In 1982, while representing a man who pleaded guilty to drug trafficking, Cicconetti argued that police had to reimburse the dealer, Jeffrey Pike, for the scale, brass strainer and bottles of caffeine pills seized from him. The court ruled in Pike’s favor, granting him $353.  

The next year, Cicconetti represented Patsy Mona, a man arrested shortly after emerging from a bar and accused of drunk driving. Cicconetti acknowledged that Mona was drinking that day but used testimony from the bartender to argue the alcohol wasn’t in Mona’s system before he got behind the wheel. 

“He got stopped less than two minutes after he left,” says Cicconetti. “It takes 15 to 20 minutes — boom, not guilty.” 

Sure enough, a jury acquitted Mona after less than an hour.  

“He wanted to make sure that his clients were better from [the experience], that they took a negative and turned it into a positive,” says Mentor Municipal Court Judge John Trebets, who met Cicconetti during his time as Eastlake city prosecutor. “I always admired that about him.”  

In 1988, Cicconetti ran for Lake County prosecutor but lost to Republican Steve LaTourette. About six months after the election Cicconetti and LaTourette had lunch in Euclid to smooth over campaign wounds. Cicconetti, adept in the art of small talk, won his former opponent over. “Steve and I really hit it off, to the point where we became really, really close friends,” says Cicconetti of the former congressman, who died last year.  

In 1993, Cicconetti ran against incumbent judge and former Mentor prosecutor Neil R. Wilson for the Painesville Municipal Court seat. “It will be a classic race,” Wilson told The Plain Dealer. “No-deal Neil against Lake County’s most notorious drunken-driving lawyer.” 

But Cicconetti turned the tables on Wilson and got the backing of his friend LaTourette, by then the rising star of Lake County politics. Due in large part to LaTourette’s support, Cicconetti won the seat by a 190-vote margin. 

Cicconetti immediately brought a fresh perspective. Before he took the bench in 1994, Cicconetti told a newspaper reporter he had attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to see what people in his court would be sentenced to. He also created a partnership with local trade unions that paired probationers and union workers to paint or fix up the homes of needy senior citizens. 

“There is no cure-all for crime, but if [the program] takes just one person from the threshold of a life of crime, it would be good,” he said at the time.  

The program didn’t last. But shortly after he took the bench, Cicconetti also started the Painesville court garden, where probationers plant and harvest truckloads of peppers and sweet corn to this day.  

“One of his better qualities is his good sense of humor,” says Trebets. “It’s like a good comedian, you have timing. He’s one of those guys that just has the timing. He knows when to be serious and when to think outside of the box, and that’s what makes him so special.”

Cicconetti recalls one of his first creative sentences was of a woman who drove her car around a stopped school bus in the late 1990s. He sentenced her to ride the bus with the kids she might have harmed. 

The first sentence to attract attention was of a trio of young men who threw rocks off a bridge and hit a sheriff’s cruiser in 1999. They were sentenced to stand outside the Lake County Fairgrounds with a banner saying, “We threw rocks from route 2 bridge. We’re sorry.”

But signs just won’t do it anymore, Cicconetti says. “The challenge is now, if I’m going to do sentences like that, to be more creative,” he says. “That’s why they’re probably fewer and farther apart now.”  

There’s no way to say definitively how many creative sentences the judge has handed down over 23 years on the bench. On an average day, Cicconetti deals with about 30 or 40 cases. He’ll give out one or two creative sentences some weeks, then go a few weeks without any. The court hasn’t kept separate records or flagged them. But using press clippings, court records and police reports, Cleveland Magazine assembled a list of 46 defendants who have been offered creative sentences between 1999 and 2015.  

“He never does these things to embarrass anybody. He’s doing it to bring awareness to some situations, and therefore, it sort of makes society think a little bit,” says Trebets. “I mean, Jesus, he was on Dr. Phil’s show.”

Damon sits on the bench nearest the back wall of Cicconetti’s courtroom, waiting for his name to be called. He wears dark dress pants, a jacket, a sparkling-white shirt and a crimson tie he picked out special that morning as a good luck charm. 

He was wearing the tie during a DJ gig when a grateful father of the bride gave him a fat $150 tip.  

Damon, who asked to be identified by only his first name, knows the judge well. Like Cicconetti, Damon was born in Painesville and has lived there for most of his life. He used to run into Cicconetti at the now-defunct PerchFest and had taken song requests from him while playing gigs at local watering holes. 

“We’ve had beverages,” says Damon. “He’s a good guy.” 

Damon even knows someone who received one of Cicconetti’s creative sentences, a family friend who pleaded guilty to playing music at excessive volume. The judge sentenced him to spend three hours alone in the silence of the woods at the Lake Metroparks. The friend told Damon that he couldn’t stand the silence and joked he wished he had smuggled in an iPod.  

As he waits, Damon also thinks of how different things could be this time around in court. 

As Damon tells his story, a cousin began dealing drugs out of his house in 2006. Although he never saw the actual drugs, Damon says, one day he saw his cousin meet with what he calls an “unsavory character.” 

“I told him, ‘You guys got to stop f---ing around because you’re going to get stuck in the ground.’ It’s a song Trick Daddy sang,” says Damon. “I told him, ‘You’ve got to quit it. I’m not down with this.’ ”  

The next day, a SWAT team burst through his door. Damon pleaded guilty to drug possession and permitting drug abuse.  He spent 9 1/2 months in prison.  

In Damon’s mind, the judge in that case didn’t care what he had to say and handed down a strong reprimand along with the jail time. “He called me all types of names, said I was a piece of shit,” says Damon. “I thought, This is not me at all.” With Cicconetti, Damon hopes, things won’t go as poorly.  

But as he watches a defendant accused of a drunken hit-and-run face the judge, he grows concerned. Damon had planned to tell Cicconetti his whole story, but he’s rethinking what he should say.  

A few nights before, he had played a gig at the Thirsty Cactus in Perry. Around 9 p.m., he’d had two strong Long Island iced teas. “Those two were like uppercuts,” says Damon. “I was like, I’m good.”

Damon has scoliosis, a diagnosis that quashed a burgeoning wrestling career when he was 17. The medicine, Damon says, lowers his alcohol tolerance. 

So when the gig was over, he hitched a ride home with a cousin. Hours later, he realized his prized Cleveland Cavaliers championship hat, a gift from a woman he has been seeing, was gone. A woman at the bar had snatched it. Damon knew where she lived, so he climbed into one of his cars to retrieve it.  

Near the woman’s house, as he was parking in the lot at New Hope Baptist Church, a Ohio State Highway Patrol trooper pulled up. Damon had been speeding. Upon seeing Damon’s bloodshot eyes and smelling liquor, the trooper asked him to get out of his vehicle and take a heel-to-toe drunk driving test. 

But the scoliosis also gives Damon poor equilibrium, he says. Compounded by the slight incline of the church lot, Damon knew he’d have trouble with the test. He told the officer about his condition and asked to move to a more level surface. 

A born storyteller, Damon punctuates his tales with waves of his arms and, sometimes, an impression or two.  That night was no exception. The trooper, Damon recalls, apparently saw that as a threat. Damon remembers the trooper putting him against the car, unholstering his weapon, handcuffing him and calling for backup. After the situation calmed, the troopers uncuffed him but refused to move the test. 

Damon felt foolish. New Hope is where he attends Sunday services. Now he was in the middle of a pool of light from the troopers’ cars, within sight of the church’s parsonage — all over a hat. 

But he had to do the test. He took a few steps. To his surprise, the troopers started cracking up. They were, Damon realized, laughing at his shoes — a pair of light-up kicks, like those prized by elementary schoolers. Normally, they are a reliable party gag. When he plays weddings, Damon uses a smartphone app to set them according to a bride’s palette. Now the police were laughing at them and him. 

“I’m like, ‘Was that good for you? I walked the line,’ ” Damon recalls. “They’re like, ‘Do it again.’ I’m like, ‘Wait, is this like shuck and jive black man?’ I’m embarrassed, just take me to jail.”

Damon was humiliated. He knew he had been speeding. Now he’d failed the test. The troopers offered Damon a Breathalyzer, which he refused. He spent the night in the drunk tank. 

That’s the story he was prepared to tell Cicconetti as he waited in the back of the courtroom.  But now it seems like the guys ahead of him are just upsetting the judge. Cicconetti lays into the hit-skip guy with a promise of jail time. “This better be good,” the judge says to him. “Because I am really going to smack your ass with this one.”  

In his head, Damon starts condensing the story. I’ve got to say as much as I can with as few words as possible.  


The use of creative sentencing has popped up in United States courts from the federal system on down. Usually it’s done sporadically. Cicconetti is the exception, a judge for whom creative sentencing is as common as beads at Mardi Gras. 

Many of the judge’s sentences make use of shaming a wrongdoer in public — dressing them in a chicken suit, making them hold a sign or walk in a parade. While rare, the practice has a legal basis. In 2004, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on public shaming in United States vs. Gementera

A trial judge ruled that Shawn Gementera, who had been convicted of stealing mail, had to stand in front of a post office holding a sign that said, “I stole mail. This is my punishment.” Gementera appealed, claiming the sentence violated the Eighth Amendment constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment. The appeals court panel ruled against him.

Under Ohio law too, judges have broad discretion to sentence and set probation standards as they see fit in misdemeanor cases.  

“Trial courts can do this if they want to,” says Jonathan Witmer-Rich, a law professor at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law and a former federal public defender. 

Creative sentences might save taxpayer money since prison is expensive, he says. They could also alleviate some of the human suffering of jail time, says Witmer-Rich, while giving wrongdoers a weightier sense of the consequences of their actions.

“Criminal conduct is not something we want to put a price tag on and say, ‘If you’re willing to pay this price, then go ahead and engage in the activity,’ ” says Witmer-Rich. “Instead we really want people to not do it. And [shaming punishments] may send a kind of moral judgment that this is wrong, it’s bad, and if you do it, you’re a bad person.”

But, he cautions, there is no hard data to prove that shaming punishments are more effective than traditional sentences. And creative sentences that do not involve an element of public shaming are largely unstudied.  

One school of thought is that simply by entering the criminal justice system, defendants are experiencing a good deal of shame already, says Mike Brickner, senior policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio. “I think we should ask the question of whether it’s wise to do this,” says Brickner. “No one has done any empirical study to show if this sort of shaming is productive.”  

Particularly when social media can amplify a story to global audiences, Brickner says, creative sentences can follow a person for years afterward. Even if the sentence itself contains no element of public shaming, the media coverage can be an engine of shame on its own.  

“The judge may sincerely believe that this is a way for these individuals to not commit a crime again. I’d point out, is there any evidence to support that?” says Brickner. “There’s a certain draw for a judge that is elected, in our state, to do things that get him on the news.”

We can’t say scientifically if Cicconetti’s methods are more effective than traditional sentencing. But Cleveland Magazine used news clippings to assemble a list of 46 defendants whom Cicconetti offered creative sentences between 1999 and 2015. With one exception, all decided to take the sentence.  

To determine if they offended again after being sentenced in Painesville, we ran each name on the list through a number of Northeast Ohio court records systems: Painesville, Mentor, Willoughby and Cleveland municipal courts, along with the systems for Lake, Cuyahoga, Geauga and Ashtabula counties. If they pleaded or were found guilty of a misdemeanor or more serious offense, we regarded them as having offended again.  

Cicconetti estimates that, of those higher-profile cases, roughly half reoffended. In fact, we found that 48 percent of defendants on our list got in trouble after being sentenced by Cicconetti. The overall Ohio recidivism rate is 27 percent.  

Most people on our list were found guilty of relatively minor crimes, but a few committed more serious felonies. Michelle Murray, who abandoned more than 40 cats in 2005 and was sentenced by Cicconetti to a night in the woods, pleaded no contest and was found guilty of theft in Cuyahoga County in 2009. In 2007, Cicconetti sentenced three men who pleaded guilty to solicitation to stand outside his courthouse in chicken suits. One of those men, Daniel Chapdelaine, of Perry Township, pleaded guilty to disseminating material harmful to minors in 2009 in Lake County Court of Common Pleas and will soon be released from prison.  

In 2015 Cicconetti sentenced two women, Kaylee Case and Victoria Bascom, to walk the track at the Lake County Fairgrounds for the distance a cab driver had taken them, before they made a run for it and stiffed him out of his fare. The next year, both pleaded guilty to a theft charge in Cicconetti’s court. In February 2017, Bascom pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery and receiving stolen property in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court.  

But our list is only a sliver of the whole picture, since we only examined his highest-profile defendants, says Cicconetti. 

“For every one that received publicity, there’s probably 10 or 20 that don’t,” he says.

Cicconetti estimates his court’s recidivism rate for all the creative sentences at around 10 or 15 percent. 

“The primary element in a first offender is stupidity,” says Cicconetti. “Most human beings of any intelligence — once they make one stupid mistake — typically don’t make another one.” 


Cicconetti has heard every criticism before.

“I don’t do it to get my name in the news, but it gets in the news,” he says. “I want people around here to know if they come to my court, they could be in for a surprise.” 

He keeps a picture of himself and Dr. Phil McGraw, taken during an appearance on Dr. Phil, in his chambers. Cicconetti’s sentences have been covered by Good Morning America, the Today show, Fox & Friends and CBS This Morning. Judicial prognosticators such as Nancy Grace and Court TV have also done stories. Items about Cicconetti’s sentences have appeared in newspapers from Florida to Oregon. In 2015, Cicconetti appeared on ABC News Nightline in a segment titled “Eye for an Eye.” It featured a woman who had left her pit bull mix named Moose alone in squalor. Cicconetti sentenced her to spend eight hours picking up trash in the dump.  

Cicconetti confesses that when he first started, seeing himself on television might have been part of the draw. But now he tunes it all out.  

“My wife lets me know if it goes on the television, but I don’t even need to watch it,” says Cicconetti. “I was there.”

The court has on rare occasions become such a media magnet that sentences must be planned around the cameras. That was what happened in the case of Murray, the woman sentenced to spend the night in the cold after abandoning cats she had rescued.

The judge convened a lunch meeting to carefully plan how the sentence would be carried out.  

Trucks from CNN and all of the local television stations were expected. The group worried that with all the attention, an angry animal rights activist might decide to take things too far. Making sure Murray could serve her sentence in safety was a top priority. So they hatched a plan: They would ensure the cameras saw her being marched into Concord Woods Nature Park, then whisk her away to another secure Metroparks location to fulfill her obligation.  

“We walked her into those woods, then kept walking until there was a back area,” recalls David Washlock, chief probation officer.

But after Murray was outside for a few hours, Cicconetti realized while watching the evening news that it was going to snow that night and called things off.  

“The judge is humble,” says Washlock. “He’s so humble, he didn’t make her stay out the entire evening.” 

Cicconetti called the park rangers, who brought Murray in from the cold. For her safety, she spent the night in jail. It was a punishment made for and ruined by television. 

Watching and reading coverage of Cicconetti, it seems the whole thing has to be contrived for the small screen. The avuncular judge, who thinks the drinking age for beer should be lowered, dealing out DUI convictions? Too good to be true. “What we do in that court every day could be a reality show,” Cicconetti once said.

But sitting through three days in court, the experience is the same without cameras. The punishments read as sensible. The judge doling them out appears as a man with a righteous interpretation of the law and a mischievous twinkle in his eye. Cicconetti’s court is a moral theater amplified by the camera’s eye, but used for a purpose regardless of its presence — the betterment of the defendants who, by wielding creative sentences as carrot or stick, he hopes to shape. 

Gary underwent one of Cicconetti’s creative sentences several years ago. He was a first-time offender in a high-profile case. It made headlines in The Plain Dealer, on local television, in national media and even the tabloid The Daily Mail.  

He would only agree to speak with Cleveland Magazine on condition of anonymity, including withholding details of the offense and sentence that would easily identify him. Gary says he was sentenced to be click-bait and does not want to further stoke the online flames.

“It’s completely immiserating,” he says of the aftermath of his Cicconetti sentence. “You don’t need to take the pulse of the country to know that people only read headlines.”

After his sentence, the Lake County native received several angry letters from strangers. People had apparently gotten his address from the court’s online records system. One day, a Bible unexpectedly showed up in his mailbox.

“The sense of public shame, in itself, is a punishment. I wouldn’t think that’s lost on [Cicconetti],” says Gary. “It seems like a strange tool set, to tar and feather, so to speak.”

Cicconetti’s creative sentences are delivered as a choice. A defendant is given time in jail or community service. Cicconetti knocks time off that punishment if the defendant does a creative sentence. But, Gary says, even being offered the choice felt harmful.

“The damage is done by the offer,” says Gary. “If somebody were to say, ‘Oh I’ll just go to jail for a few days and not do this bizarre sentence,’ it’s still probably a story if it’s a bizarre enough sentence. That seems like a troubling point to me.”

The Internet search results for his name hamper his dating life, with many women asking him what happened after reading the news stories. The experience has become so overwhelming that Gary has seriously considered legally changing his name. 

“You want to say, ‘I’m not an anomaly, many people have made that offense,’ ” he says. “But the punishment was somewhat of an anomaly.”

Gary doesn’t shirk responsibility. “I’m fully aware I did something wrong,” he continues. “But it feels disproportionate that you’d have to deal with it years later.”

As someone who had never experienced the criminal justice system at the time of his sentencing and has not since, Gary felt the usual courtroom experience would have been instructive enough.

“It’s not hard to see a situation where you can set a mob on somebody, and all of a sudden their kids are getting threatening letters and so forth,” he says. “We just had a very public, sensational killing on Facebook. Do we need that in our solutions as well?”

Cicconetti is not deaf to such concerns. Over the last few years, the judge has grown increasingly sensitive to the second life creative sentences can live online. He gets messages lauding ones he handed down years ago, because people dig them up and republish them.  

“I think things have changed over the years,” says Cicconetti. “Someone that offends five years ago on an animal cruelty case shouldn’t be repunished five years hence because it reruns.”

Recently, Cicconetti has handed down fewer sentences that have made a splash. “We as judges have to give more thought to what we do, and the repercussions it would have,” he says.


In Cicconetti’s chamber, in a desk drawer full of paperwork, a manila folder holds a contract. It is for a television show, created by Law & Order producer Dick Wolf, called Law & Order: You the Jury.  

“I was chosen out of all the candidates to be the moderator, the personality of the show,” says Cicconetti. 

Similar in concept to American Idol, the show had a judicial twist. Two people would argue their case in front of Cicconetti. Then he would turn to the camera and give jury instructions to the audience at home, who would submit their votes. 

In December 2015, Cicconetti was offered the role for a pilot plus five to eight episodes. He was given only three days to decide.  

He’d been offered others roles before. About seven years ago, Cicconetti finished second in an audition process for another judicial show. He had also been offered a development deal with Disney.  

“I get these things all the time,” Cicconetti says. “You get all these people who think they’re Hollywood producers.” 

Cicconetti turned down the Wolf offer, just as he had the rest. Cicconetti has also passed up an appointment to the Lake County Probate Court. “I love this job. I’ve got a great staff,” says Cicconetti. “I didn’t want to have to start over across the street and be the rookie in that courthouse. Now, I’m the oldest tenured judge in Lake County.”  

Cicconetti has been re-elected to four terms. If elections are a measure of public sentiment, Cicconetti is reliably popular in his hometown. From evictions to misdeeds to marriages, what seems like half of the city has been in his courtroom at one time or another. 

He has been on the bench so long that a second generation is beginning to pass through. “If I see the father, the kids are 18 now,” says Cicconetti. “It’s pretty amazing, I’m starting to see a lot of juniors.”  

A longtime member of the Elks Lodge and the Knights of Columbus, he maintains memberships at the Moose Club, Veterans of Foreign Wars (due to his father’s service), the American Legion, Americans of Italian Heritage and social memberships at the Hungarian Culture Club and the Slovenian Club in Fairport Harbor. “I do enjoy it, too,” says Cicconetti. “But I think it’s part of the job.”  

Cicconetti can’t go to Giant Eagle or a restaurant without two or three people stopping him for a chat. After a recent surgery, his doctor recommended periodic walks as a part of his recovery. But the judge would so often be interrupted that he couldn’t work up a sweat.  

Cicconetti is on the ballot again this year for another six-year term, and was unopposed in the Democratic primary. But Ohio municipal judges cannot be elected again after they turn 70. Cicconetti is 66. Given chances at stardom, Cicconetti has instead chosen to stay with the people that made him a civic fixture. This next term will be his last. 

In early June, the judge is scheduled to give a commencement speech to the graduating class at his alma mater, Riverside High School. Cicconetti hasn’t written the speech yet, but knows he wants to get past the usual rigmarole about bright futures and unlimited potential. 

Instead, he’ll probably say something like this — the closest he has to a personal philosophy — “You have to have time to breathe a little bit, still get the job done, but do what you have to do with an air of lightness once in a while,” says Cicconetti. “If you get criticized, you get criticized. It’s not the end of the world. There’s always tomorrow.”  


“Is Damon here now?” Cicconetti asks. 

Damon hops up from the pew and walks to the front. He leans on the lectern, his eyes level with the judge’s across the bench. Cicconetti tells him he’s facing a suspension of his license and some jail time, then asks Damon how he wishes to plead.  

“I’d like to plead no contest to the OVI and guilty to the speed,” Damon says. Cicconetti says he can’t separate the charges, but he usually dismisses the speeding if someone pleads to the drunk driving. Damon enters a guilty plea to the OVI.  

The judge recites Damon’s rights, then reads the police report aloud: the heel-toe stop and turn test, how Damon spent the night in jail. He asks Damon what his job is, which Damon uses to launch into his story in subdued tones.

“If I could, first, I’d like to tell you that this is all a big mistake. I shouldn’t have drove at all, and I understand that,” Damon says. He starts explaining the tilt, the light-up shoes, the embarrassment. 

“What do you mean, your shoes lit up?” Cicconetti interrupts. 

“They have little buttons on the side,” Damon replies. 

“So when you walk, your shoes light up?” asks Cicconetti, breaking into an incredulous smile. “Heel to toe?”

“Every time I touched my foot, they changed colors,” says Damon. “They started laughing. I was embarrassed, sir.” 

The judge starts laughing. His bailiff starts laughing. 

Conflicting feelings rush through Damon. “You’re laughing at me too, dude? You’re going to get down on me?” Damon says later. He was embarrassed all over again. “But in a sense, I realized that once he was laughing, he was empathetic.”  

Damon tells the judge about his scoliosis and the two Long Island iced teas. He asks for mercy, since he has a young son to care for. “All right, here’s what I’m going to do. It’s three days in jail, and this is a little unusual, but I’m going give you credit for one day if ...” Cicconetti says, pausing for a moment, “you do a DJ job at some charity event.” 

Damon jumps at the creative sentence eagerly, suggesting he could DJ a party at the YMCA. The judge gives him his driver’s license back, though restricted to job and family-related trips.  

When Damon came into the courtroom, he was facing up to 30 days of jail and a year’s license suspension. 

Now he only has to do a weekend in jail. He can still drive. In return, all he has to do is play a gig. Damon turns and walks out of the courtroom, hand over his mouth, stroking his goatee, his face showing utter relief. “I could float away,” Damon says later. “I went from feeling like concrete, to like a balloon.”  


Damon doesn’t wait around. “I wasn’t trying to smile until I was outside,” he says. “It felt like there was 10 cinder blocks on one shoulder, then [the judge] was like, Just carry this one stone.

About two weeks after his court appearance, Damon completed his creative sentence. He lugged his gear to the Lake Metroparks and DJed a volunteer recognition party, spinning a playlist of jazz and oldies.

“One lady was like, ‘You know you can leave, you don’t have to stay for all this. I already signed your paper,’ ” Damon recalls. “I’m not that guy,” he told her. “I’m the guy that stays until the job is done.” 

The woman was so impressed, she asked for a business card. The next week he shows off a selfie he took at the party, sweaty from a few hours of keeping the good vibes rolling. He’s wearing the Cavaliers hat. That, in a way, is what the judge hopes defendants get out of the whole experience — something constructive or instructive, a second chance or a shock to the system. 

Results aren’t guaranteed. But it’s why Cicconetti sentences people to chicken suits and nights in the cold, why he has them walk in the Mardi Gras parade and plant peppers and corn in the court garden. 

“There’s good that comes out of it,” says Cicconetti. “You hope there’s more good than just the sentence.”  

When Damon walked into the courtroom, he was thinking about his 10-year curse: His dad left when he was 7 years old. The scoliosis diagnosis came at 17. At 27, he ended up in jail. But as he walked out of Cicconetti’s courtroom, at 37, he felt as if something went right.  

“For once, the universe has balanced itself out,” Damon says. “I finally got a break, and it was very much needed.” 

X Logo