Keevin Berman, Cleveland’s Longest Serving Public Defender, Retires By C. Ellen Connally

In 1961 James Earl Gideon was a down-on-his-luck drifter. He was arrested on a felony charge of breaking and entering in the state of Florida. When his case was set for trial, he did not have the money to hire a lawyer. As a result, he was forced to represent himself even though he asked the judge to appoint counsel. Lacking proper legal representation, it did not take the court long to find him guilty and sentence him to a Florida State Correctional Facility.

In jail, Gideon did not give up. He felt that he had been the victim of an injustice and appealed his case. Ultimately, his pleas reached the United States Supreme Court. The Court, under Chief Justice Earl Warren, appointed none other than future Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas to pursue Gideon’s appeal. The argument was simple: The Constitution of the United States under the Sixth Amendment gave defendants in felony cases the right to a lawyer and if they could not afford one, the court must appoint a lawyer at public expense.

The resulting 1963 decision was the landmark case of Gideon vs. Wainwright, holding that Gideon’s argument was correct. The high court agreed that the United States Constitution ensured Gideon the right to counsel. His conviction was reversed.nWhen he went to trial a second time, with a court appointed lawyer, he was acquitted.

Public defender and appointed counsel, terms largely unknown in legal circles before the decision in Gideon, are now the common parlance in courthouses all over the nation. In 1972 the Supreme Court extended the right to counsel to include misdemeanor cases, allowing for every individual who comes to court, no matter how minor the charge, the right to have a lawyer if there is a possibility of jail time.

As a point of interest, President Joe Biden’s 2020 appointment of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson to the United States Supreme Court marks the first time that a person who had previously served as a public defender would sit on the nation’s highest court.

In 1963, 12-year-old Cleveland Heights resident Keevin Berman had no idea that the decision made in the Gideon case would change his life. Keevin’s father was a pharmacist. His younger brother would go on to become a prominent dentist and oral surgeon, who spends weekends and days off treating indigent patients. But Keevin chose the law.

Graduating from John Carroll University, he enrolled in Cleveland State University Law School, which he financed by working as a waiter and maître at the once famous Cleveland landmark the Theatrical Grill. A fringe benefit of the job was that he got to know a lot of lawyers.

Graduating in 1976 and admitted to the bar in 1977, he got a job with the Cleveland Legal Aid Society. Little did he know that he would spend the next 47 years representing indigent defendants for the Cleveland Legal Aid Society and, subsequently, the Cuyahoga County Public Defender’s Office, making him the longest serving public defender in the county.

Most recently he has represented defendants in Cleveland Municipal Court specialized dockets for drug offenders and veterans, often going beyond legal services, finding drug treatment programs and housing for his clients and sometimes a few bucks out of his pocket for bus fare or lunch. His long career has seen the gamut of cases, representing all kinds of defendants in all kinds of cases.

One that stands out in his mind involves alfresco urination. In 1995 Cleveland police officers arrested Charles Pugh. Since 1965, when Pugh was in the military and had surgery on his penis, he had urinary problem. Consequently, at times he had difficulty with bladder control.  Pugh admitted that he was urinating in a public place, but he maintained that he had to go and could not wait until he got home. As a last resort, he stopped his car at West 25th and Bridge. Standing next to his car, Pugh answered nature’s call. Police testified that because of the “way he was standing” they could tell that he was urinating. As they approached, they saw Pugh urinating on the ground with his private parts exposed. He was arrested and charged with public indecency. The Municipal Court Judge found him guilty as charged.

Berman, Pugh’s public defender, appealed, arguing that the ordinance did not apply because Pugh did not act recklessly. He acted out of necessity and did not cause an affront to the public. The appeals court found that although Pugh was imprudent in choosing the place where he urinated, his actions did not provide sufficient evidence of public indecency. They reversed the lower court.

While the decision may not seem earth shattering, to Charles Pugh it was important, just like the thousands of people who appear in municipal courts around the nation. It also ultimately changed the law in the state of Ohio as to how public urination cases were handled. While their cases may seem trivial, to the people involved  they are major life-changing events. These defendants are entitled to all rights and privileges of any defendant appearing in any court, no matter what level and those rights are insured with the service of public defenders.

Keevin Berman worked in the trenches of the judicial system for 47 years making sure that little people like Charle Pugh received justice. From arguing on behalf of people charged with a wide range of felonies and misdemeanors to people involved in immigration hearings, Berman has seen them all. In many cases, he raised objections to police procedures and practices that in the long run have kept the Cleveland Police honest.

Now it is time to spend some time with his three grandchildren and train himself not to get up every morning and head to the Justice Center. For the thousands of defendants who Berman served over his long career, I offer a heartfelt thank you. The scales of justice in Cleveland are more evenly balanced because of the dedicated work of our system of Legal Aid Lawyers and the staff of the County Public Defender’s Office, typified by Keevin Berman. Thanks for a job well done.

 

C. Ellen Connally is a retired judge of the Cleveland Municipal Court. From 2010 to 2014 she served as the President of the Cuyahoga County Council. An avid reader and student of American history, she is a former member of the Board of the Ohio History Connection, and past president of the Cleveland Civil War Round Table, and is currently vice president of the Cuyahoga County Soldiers and Sailors Monument Commission.  She holds degrees from BGSU, CSU and is all but dissertation for a PhD from the University of Akron.

 

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2 Responses to “Keevin Berman, Cleveland’s Longest Serving Public Defender, Retires By C. Ellen Connally”

  1. Avi Weiss

    I have known Keevin since he was in high school. He was a caring young man who became a wonderful lawyer who made sure every client was treated with respect. He is the consummate mensch who cares. Thank you Keevin.

  2. Chris Gibbons

    Congratulations Kevin! As a Cleveland police officer who has spent plenty of time in municipal court in the ’90s and early 2000s I can say that you will be missed. Fortunately, I no longer write citations because I can’t imagine going into court and not seeing your frequently, though by no means always, smiling face.
    Best of luck, Det. Chris Gibbons

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