Judge Edward O'Farrell retiring after 39 years on bench

Nancy Molnar
 |  The Times-Reporter

NEW PHILADELPHIA Tuscarawas County Common Pleas Judge Edward O’Farrell retired Jan. 1 from a 39-year judicial career that was inspired by a desire to bring more fairness into local courts. 

Before he became a judge, he worked in the Ohio Attorney General’s Office prosecuting air and water pollution cases. He worked for Southeastern Ohio Legal Services in New Philadelphia, which provides legal help for people who cannot afford a lawyer. He took three cases to the U.S. Supreme Court.

He saw injustice in the justice system.

“Justice demands consistency,” he said. “When I was aspiring to be a judge I saw so much inconsistency … in the way people of means — wealthier people, people in prominent positions, doctors, lawyers, accountants, teachers, superintendents, people that have a higher visibility level in the community … many times were treated differently than men and women of a lower socio-economic strata.

“I was motivated to eliminate that disparity in treatment because I think justice demands that we eliminate it.”

He wanted to give lawyers for each side, prosecution and defense, plaintiff and respondent, the chance to use all the tools available under law to best present their cases. 

That included giving defense attorneys “the opportunity to fully defend their clients, challenging the state’s conduct when it is illegal, or in violation of their constitutional or statutory rights,” he said. 

His goal was to have proceedings in which lawyers, witnesses, jurors and defendants would leave the courtroom saying, “This was done fairly.” 

His time on the bench began in 1982 after his election to New Philadelphia Municipal Court. At the time, Tuscarawas County had the highest per-capita death rate from alcohol-related crashes in the state. He took a tough stand on drunken driving, giving first offenders a 15-day jail sentence, $750 fine, six-month driver’s license suspension and special red-on-yellow license plates. 

In the year before he took office, 17 people in the county died as the result of alcohol-related accidents. In 1985, there were none. Drunk driving arrests in his jurisdiction — which includes the northern half of the county — fell from 750 in 1980 to 308 in 1985. 

He got death threats, was spat upon and had beer bottles and cans thrown at his house.  

“It wasn’t my intention to cause that response. My intention was to work within the framework of the criminal justice system to address what not only was a crime, but was an out-of-control social problem, an issue that I felt was particularly able to be addressed, and possibly ameliorated, by sentencing positions that I took once someone was actually fairly adjudicated of drunk driving.” 

Because of his position, he held more jury trials for drunken driving than any other judge in the country in 1982.  

Many times, jurors deliberated deep into the night after a day’s drunk driving trial rather than return for a second day. 

“I think the latest time was one o’clock in the morning the next day,” O’Farrell said. “I didn’t keep people late because I wanted them to stay late.” 

None of the drunk driving verdicts were overturned on appeal. The number of jury trials dwindled. 

O’Farrell believes that the sentences he imposed stopped men and women of “reasonable dispositions” from driving while under the influence of alcohol. 

His campaign against drunk driving made him a frequent guest on national television news and talk shows. He was featured in national magazines and newspapers.

O’Farrell’s goal of having all persons convicted of the same offense sentenced consistently was challenged when a local school superintendent was convicted of drunk driving. He accepted the fine and jail time, but asked to be exempt from the requirement to display the distinctive license plate because it would cause embarrassment in front of students, staff and parents.  

The judge said he rejected the request “because he’s no different from anybody else. 

“What I was trying to accomplish was that men and women regardless of who they were, what station in life, how prominent they were in the community, were going to be treated the same.” 

He has one regret from his time as a common pleas judge. He convicted a man in his 20s who was accused of fondling a teenager. It was not a jury trial. The judge was the sole trier of fact.

“I found that the young woman was credible. He was not,” O’Farrell said.

He sentenced the man to six months in prison.

Several years later, the accuser told a convenience store clerk that she had lied in court.

She subsequently pleaded no contest to a perjury charge.

The man who was wrongfully convicted told O’Farrell he did not want the accuser to go to jail or prison.

“It was one of the most magnanimous events I’ve ever witnessed in my life,” O’Farrell said. “I was stunned. I abided by his request.”

O’Farrell took a few detours on his way to the legal profession. A native of Prairie du Chien, Wis., he studied to be a Jesuit priest for five years after high school.

“I knew, essentially, about a week after I was there that I didn’t want to be a priest, but it took me five years to get the courage to tell my parents,” he told a writer for the Ohio State Bar Association for a profile published in the OSBA News on Jan. 1, 2018. “I come from a large, Catholic family with five boys and a girl, so you know one of them has to be a priest. I guess that was going to be me.

“I had an incredible experience as a young Jesuit. I lived on Indian reservations in South Dakota, the Pine Ridge and Rose Bud Indian reservations. I buried the dead, ministered to the poor and sick, and taught children. That’s where the genesis of my desire to serve, as a lawyer, and then ultimately as a judge was born.”

He left the Jesuits and went on to earn a law degree from Notre Dame Law School. He narrowly failed the Ohio bar exam twice at a time when a third failure precluded additional attempts.

After the second failure, he despaired of ever practicing law. He took a job as an assistant manager at a beauty school in Columbus.

“I had my (law degree), all of these aspirations to be a great trial lawyer and I hadn’t even thought about being a judge,” he told OSBA News. “Yet, there I was, walking into a beauty salon, smelling permanent wave solution. When I think of it, it’s just hilarious. It was so far from where I thought I was going to be when I was in law school.”

He passed the bar exam on his third try.

O’Farrell was forced to retire Jan. 1 because, at age 74, Ohio law prohibited him from seeking another six-year term in November.

He has served five full terms as a common pleas judge, first having been elected in November 1990, and taking office in January 1991. He was in New Philadelphia Municipal Court from 1982 through 1990.

Assistant Tuscarawas County prosecutor Michael Ernest was elected in November to replace him in a term that begins Jan. 2.

O’Farrell intends to stay active as a visiting judge. 

“I was not ready to end my tenure as a judge because I love what I do,” he said. “I don’t love the misery and the heartache and the unhappiness and the decisions where I deprive men and women of their liberty. And I can’t make horrible situations in the lives of victims better. That always troubles me.”

He said his calling is to be a trial judge, although he once aspired to climb to the highest ranks in the judiciary. 

“If I had any strength as a judge, aspiring judge, it would be in how I managed cases, how I interacted with the bar, how I interacted with law enforcement, how I interacted with prospective jurors, how I treated witnesses when they came into the court in terms if making them, perhaps, a little bit more at ease, and primarily, how I treated men and women who were accused of crimes, or in civil cases where litigants were engaged in a serious civil dispute, I just felt if I could make this a less stressful environment for all of those people, not only would the end product be something that would be a much better quality product, but the process would be more — if I can use this word, and I use it very guardedly — enjoyable, for all those same people,” O’Farrell said.

He said he realized, after a failed attempt at election to the 5th District Court of Appeals in 1984, that he didn’t have the scholarly inclination for writing the “learned opinions” required of appellate judges and supreme court justices.  

O’Farrell succeeded in his goal of bringing fairness into the local justice system, as measured by his own estimate and that of those who practiced in his courtroom.

“Judge O’Farrell’s record of service in furtherance of justice in Tuscarawas County is unrivalled,” wrote R. Scott Deedrick, assistant Tuscarawas County prosecuting attorney. “During his tenure as a judge … he was a vigilant guardian of our constitutional rights. He treated whomever appeared before the court, no matter race, creed, color or socioeconomic background with unparalleled dignity, grace and decency.

“He was just, fair, impartial and the living embodiment of those most prized qualities of justice. Its hard to imagine the court without his presence and he will certainly be missed.”

O’Farrell and also-retiring Tuscarawas County Juvenile and /Probate Judge Linda A. Kate have been on the bench since Tuscarawas County Prosecutor Ryan Styer started practicing law in 1998. 

“It very much feels like an end to an era in our local justice system,” Styer told The Times-Reporter by email. 

“Judge O’Farrell has very much modeled for me and many others a reverence for due process,” Styer told The Times-Reporter in an email. “Even when we disagree, he is always a gentleman, and I always felt I had a fair hearing. He has always been very generous with his time and attention both in and outside of the courthouse.”

Public defender Mark Perlaky said practicing in front of O’Farrell for the last nine years was a privilege and a learning experience.

“So much of our business is about communication, and I’ve not been in front of a judge who knew how to communicate better than Judge O’Farrell,” Perlaky told The Times-Reporter in an email. “Not every person who came before Judge O’Farrell walked away happy, but the vast majority would tell you that they felt respected and that he was fair. 

“From how he ran his court, to the way that he spoke to everyone, he was a consummate professional. The longer I practiced in front of him, the more I felt motivated to raise my own level of professionalism as an attorney.

“His replacement was always going to have big shoes to fill,” Perlaky wrote. “He’ll be missed.”

Styer wished O’Farrell  “a healthy, well-deserved retirement.”  

Reach Nancy at 330-364-8402 or nancy.molnar@timesreporter.com.

On Twitter: @nmolnarTR

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