Judge Patton - The Person Behind the Robe

By Ed “Flash” Ferenc

The Honorable Charles L. Patton Jr. was elected to the Cleveland Municipal Court in 2005 and for the last 10 years has presided over the Veterans Treatment Docket, one of the four specialized dockets on the Court.  I had the opportunity to talk about that docket and Judge Patton’s long and distinguished career in Cleveland. Judge Patston VTD

Growing up and politics seemed to go hand in hand with you.  How did that happen?

When I was in elementary school, I watched a man in uniform going into his house next door to where I lived.  I found out later he was a marine.  After he changed his clothes, he came outside and started cussing up a storm.   That man was George Forbes, who eventually became one of the most influential people in local and national politics.  Even LBJ, when he was campaigning with JFK in 1960 came by to meet with George Forbes to get the east side vote and it worked.   Years later, the favor was returned when George got to spend a night at the White House.

In 1963, you met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  How did that happen?

I was 13 years old and a student at Patrick Henry Jr. High School, which is now named after the late Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones.  I was playing basketball with some friends when one kid said Martin Luther King was in town and planned to speak at the Cory United Methodist Church on East 105th.

I heard about how Dr. King captivated audiences around the country, so why not find out for myself?   Turns out the church was packed and I could not get in until one man came forward and escorted me to the church basement where a number of ministers gathered by a speaker to hear the audio from upstairs.  

(It turns out the man who did that was Russell Adrine, father of Retired Cleveland Municipal Judge Ronald B. Adrine)

After Dr. King delivered his sermon, he came downstairs to meet the church elders and expressed the need for the civil rights movement to attract more professionals, like doctors and lawyers.

“You need to go to law school. The civil rights movement needs attorneys,” Dr. King told me.    
I must admit at 13 I didn’t know what a law school was, so when I got home, I talked to my mom about it and sure enough that summer, our family went on a trip, to Howard Law School in Washington.  14 years later I received by law degree from Howard.   

“I lost a lot of my old classmates in Vietnam and those who came back are still haunted by that conflict.  If it wasn’t for my mom and the inspiration of Dr. King so many years ago, I could have been one of them.”

When you joined the City Prosecutors Office you were assigned to work in several courtrooms.  Can you reflect on some of those experiences?

When Carl Stokes the former mayor was elected to the bench, I helped him along and more or less coached him on how the courtroom should operate.  But the best story was the day I worked in Judge Jean Caper’s room.  After the defendant was called, he fell over and passed out.    Judge Capers was unfazed telling me to step over him and approach the bench.  At that point the man got up and we went on with court.  Judge Capers had this guy pegged from the start.

You have become quite fascinated with the Civil War and what lead up to it.  Why is that?

I was going to Ohio University in 1970 when the school just started an African American History Program.  I signed up for a class on the life of former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglas. It was fascinating and it made me ask, how could this happen in America?   From that point on I was captivated by everything Civil War.

Judge Patton ended up with a double major at OU—Journalism and African American History and today is a member of the Civil War Roundtable in Cleveland which has taken him to a number of historic sites and battlefields.  Over the years when the opportunity arises, he will reflect on the events of the Civil War in his courtroom in an effort to educate those before him, especially the 13th and 14th Amendments.

You have presided over the Veterans Treatment Docket for 10 years now.  How has that affected you as a judge?

It’s a totally different mindset.  Judges send people to jail, but with a treatment docket, jail is not the first option because the people before you are sick and we don’t send sick people to jail.  National drug court professionals remind you of this all the time.  It took several years to fully comprehend this because when I served on the City Council in the 90’s, we celebrated boarding up drug houses and no one talked about treating the people who used those places to feed their addiction.

But there are times you send vets to jail.  Any regrets?

I don’t like sending anyone to jail and I especially regret sending a veteran to jail.  But there are times when they were offered treatment, they declined.  When that happens, its jail time.  Some of these vets are in really bad shape.  I sent one to rehab all the way to Pennsylvania.  He broke out and was AWOL for two years, until he was found on the streets in Cleveland.  The defendant was in Special Forces and I ordered him back into treatment.

You visited a number of places around the world.  Any stories come to mind that you’d like to share?

In the 70’s I went to Europe and while in Germany I decided to stop by Frankenstein’s Castle, which some have said was the inspiration for the book. It was worth the stop and it was a long day.   I needed to spend the night there so I could catch the early morning train.  That’s when I noticed a sign reading, “Patton’s army was here on this date.”   At the hotel, there was a sign in sheet.  I wrote my name and when the woman at the desk read it, there was a look of fear in her eyes.  She started trembling and I’m sure she thought I was related to the General who stormed through there at the end of World War II!

If there is one person, dead or alive that you’d like to meet, who would that be?

That’s easy, Frederick Douglas.

Your health, you suffered a heart attack several years ago.  How has that changed your life?

I can tell you no one thinks it’s going to happen to them.  I must say there were warning signs like being short of breath and high blood pressure.   My wife is a nurse and I asked for an aspirin and she said we’re going to the hospital.   Long story short, I was prepped for open heart surgery and then one of the doctors at the Cleveland Clinic came by, examined me and decided the best course of action was to insert several stents in the arteries around my heart.   Later I found out that doctor was one of the top rated cardiologists in the country.   Talk about being at the right place and at the right time.

At the end of 2025, you can no longer run for election due to the age limits for judges.  Any plans yet?

I’d love to visit the capital cities around the world, like Paris, Rome and London.  But they have to have a subway. Trains are the best form of transportation to get from point A to point B.  I’ve been stuck in traffic in New York City and it’s not fun!

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