“It is a distinct honor for our university to have John Cleland address our graduates, particularly during this milestone year as we celebrate our 50th anniversary,” said Dr. Livingston Alexander, Pitt-Bradford’s president. “Though he is well-respected throughout Pennsylvania, he has never forgotten his small-town roots, which will enable him to offer practical and valuable advice to our graduates and their families.”
Cleland earned a juris doctor with honors from The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., in 1972. After serving a clerkship in the federal courts in Pittsburgh, he returned to Kane in 1974 and practiced with the firm of Woods, Baker and Cleland.
After spending 10 years with the firm, he was installed on Oct. 5, 1984, as president judge of McKean County following a merit selection nomination by then-Gov. Richard Thornburgh and confirmation by the Pennsylvania Senate. He was subsequently elected to three terms as the county’s president judge.
In 2008, then-Gov. Edward Rendell nominated Cleland to be a judge of the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, where he served until December 2010. Cleland is currently a senior judge of the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas.
While Cleland spent many years on the bench in his native McKean County, his judicial impact has extended far beyond the boundaries of McKean County.
In 2009, he was appointed by the chief justice of Pennsylvania to chair the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice, which was charged with investigating corruption leading to the breakdown of the juvenile justice system in Luzerne County.
The commission reviewed what became known as the “Kids for Cash” scandal, which unfolded in 2008 in Wilkes-Barre where then-Luzerne County President Judge Mark Ciavarella and Senior Judge Michael Conahan were accepting kickbacks in connection with the development of a private juvenile detention facility. Both judges were convicted and sent to prison.
In 2011, Cleland was assigned to preside over the criminal trial of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky after all of Centre County’s judges recused themselves because of their ties to Penn State. The case and subsequent trial made Cleland, who was already well known in his home county, a familiar figure throughout the rest of Pennsylvania as well as the nation and the world as the high-profile case unfolded.
From 2008 to 2011, Cleland, along with 30 judges, court executives, law professors and journalists, participated in an executive session for state court leaders in the 21st century at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Cleland has also taken a role in public health emergency legal preparedness, publishing papers, giving presentations, and co-chairing committees to ensure that Pennsylvania judges and courthouse employees are prepared for any bio-hazard emergency.
During his career, Cleland has amassed a long list of awards, including the Heavy Lifting Award from the Pennsylvania Conference of State Trial Judges in 2012, the Robert I. Shadle Legal Excellence and Professionalism Award from the Herbert B. Cohen Chapter of the American Inn of Courts in York in 2010, the Community Collaboration Award from the Bradford YWCA Victims’ Resource Center in 2005, the Golden Crowbar Award from the Pennsylvania Conference of State Trial Judges in 2003, the Clarity in Writing Award from the Pennsylvania Bar Association Plain English Committee in 2001, and the President’s Distinguished Service Award from the Pennsylvania Conference of State Trial Judges in 2000. In 2006, he received the Presidential Medal of Distinction from Pitt-Bradford, the university’s highest honor.
In addition to his service with Pitt-Bradford’s Advisory Board, he has served on the University of Pittsburgh’s Board of Trustees, the Board of Visitors of the Graduate School of Public Health, and the Advisory Board for the Center for Rural Health Practice.
Cleland is also active in his community. He serves as an elder and trustee at the Presbyterian Church of Kane, was a member and chairman of the FCI-McKean Community Advisory Board, was a member and past president of the Kane Area Industrial Development Corp. and the Kane Rotary Club, was a former chairman of the Kane Area Recreational & Cultural Commission, and was president and director of the Kane Area Historical Society.
Cleland holds several professional memberships. He is a member and has held leadership positions on the Pennsylvania Conference of State Trial Judges, is a member and former vice president and secretary of the McKean County Bar Association, and is a member of the Pennsylvania Bar Association, the Bar of the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, and the Bar of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
He lives in Kane with his wife, Julie. They have two daughters and three grandchildren.