Last month, longtime Stark County Common Pleas Judge Lee Sinclair went on a hiking trip with his wife in the Oregon wilderness and decided it was time to retire from a job he loves.
“I realized I could still do 45 miles on a trail,” Sinclair said Thursday in a Beacon Journal interview, “so maybe it was time to go and do some more trails.”
His 61st birthday is this weekend.
After serving 18 years on the bench, Sinclair said he made his decision to retire soon after a trip last month with his wife to the Rogue Wilderness trails along the Rogue River — and its whitewater beauty — in southwestern Oregon.
Zane Grey, the famous Western adventure novelist, wrote many of his books in a cabin still standing on the river banks.
The allure of those rugged hiking trails, Sinclair said, clinched his decision.
“My wife and I did a lot of talking about it while we were gone, and I came back from that and thought it was the right time and right place to do it,” Sinclair said.
“It’s one of the last, true American wilderness areas in the Lower 48. It was an amazing place. It was really pretty and really desolate,” he said.
His retirement is effective Dec. 31, but Sinclair said he plans to continue hearing cases on assignment by the Ohio Supreme Court. He said he also plans to teach next year at the University of Mount Union in Alliance.
Sinclair is one of the most honored and scholarly jurists in the state.
As a three-term chairman of the Ohio Judicial College Board of Trustees, he is the lead faculty member for the board’s judicial teaching course, “Handling a Capital Case.”
It is required instruction for all Ohio judges handling death penalty cases.
Sinclair has written extensively on the judge’s role in such cases, authoring a major section of the treatise, Presiding Over A Capital Case — the nation’s leading textbook on death penalty litigation.
He also is a longtime faculty member of the National Judicial College at the University of Nevada and recently was elected as a member of the National Judicial College Faculty Council.
Sinclair said he has been privileged to do what he described as his “dream job.”
“Being on the judiciary allows you to do a couple of things. First, it allows you to do what’s right on cases, to protect people that need to be protected.
“It also allows you,” Sinclair said, “to make the community safer when you handle criminal cases and you put some of these really bad people that we deal with off the street for a long time.
“It allows you to protect consumers that have been mishandled by somebody who has more money and is a little more powerful — but not legally right. Just the whole concept of the Rule of Law and the American justice system being, without a doubt, the best in the world,” he said.
Sinclair wanted to be a judge since childhood.
His father had a dry-cleaning business in Canton and would do a lot of work for the courthouse judges.
“He would take me downtown — I was just a little guy— we would go to lunch together, and he would always like to go over to the courthouse to say hello to the judges he knew,” Sinclair said.
Strong impressions of the job, he said, came from a kindly judge who would allow him to sit at his desk on the bench and from the mere sight of a judge striding into the courtroom in a long, black robe.
“For a little kid,” Sinclair said, “it was just so impressive, and my Dad and my Mom both were so much into the fact: ‘You need to strive to do something good, to serve your community and be successful in your own right.’
“A lot of that,” he said, “was beat into me when I was a little kid.”
To this day, if Sinclair sees a child in the courtroom, he said he will call the child up to the bench to sit in his chair before he leaves.
“That meant so much to me,” he said, “that I figure if it makes a difference with only one kid in the hundreds I’ve done that with over the years, good for me.”
Sinclair and his wife, Janet, have four grown daughters and four grandchildren.
Ed Meyer can be reached at 330-996-3784 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.