by John Benson
Growing up in Cleveland’s Longwood projects, Michael Ryan faced many hardships. Ryan suffered an unfortunately common story of a drug-addicted mother, whom he watched die at the age of 13, and a physically-abusive, chemically-dependent stepfather. By the time he graduated, Ryan had attended 11 different schools. His future was bleak.
Overcoming all obstacles, Cleveland Municipal Judge Michael Ryan is a true testament to the values of faith and hard work, becoming a respected judge and community leader in Northeast Ohio.
“Basically the way I approached life was that I wanted to be better than everybody else because I was losing on so many fronts and other areas I didn’t control,” said Ryan. “That’s what pushed me. I knew if I were just mediocre I would not climb above my circumstances. I didn’t want to be hungry anymore like I was as a kid.”
Indeed, basic survival was tough. Hunger was a real problem, with school lunches his saving grace. Holes in his shoes were common, and a lack of suitable clothing made him an easy target among his classmates.
Still, Ryan remained committed to his academics, which often included studying under a street light glare in a house where the power had been turned off. There was also his athletic prowess on the football field and track. When he wasn’t studying or reading he was dedicating more time to training.
After graduating from Cleveland Heights High School, he received a scholarship to Allegheny College, where he obtained a BA in English in 1993. Three years later he graduated from Cleveland-Marshall College of Law and by 2000 he was licensed to practice in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio. In 2005 he was elected as Cleveland Municipal Judge.
Ironically, Ryan was initially uninterested in law enforcement or the courts.
“I had an aversion towards the criminal justice system because I had so many family members—my stepdad, my real father, cousins, uncles—who had been arrested and served time in the state penal institution or youth development center,” Ryan said. “I didn’t want to be a lawyer; I actually wanted to be teacher.”
A civil liberties class in college changed his mind, in which his professor discussed the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. From that point on, Ryan focused his attention on becoming a lawyer and one day a judge. Ryan wanted to help children in situations similar to his own and make a difference.
Today, Judge Ryan believes one of his greatest responsibilities is providing leadership to not only those who come before him but his court co-workers and legal peers.
Above: U.S. Attorney Steve Dettelbah, WENZ radio personality Robyn Simone and Judge Ryan
“Things we do on the bench and off the bench provide leadership for other people in the community,” Ryan said. “I am a mentor to many people. I bring students up to my courtroom at least once a month; they get to sit on the bench and review the same materials I’m reviewing. I go over with them what I’m doing so they get a better understanding of what the court’s function is. And a lot of kids, especially kids who come from a minority community, never get that opportunity. I try to give them a sense that this particular place is attainable. And it’s not something that’s far off and unreachable.”
Ryan said he uses his past to help his fellow judges gain a better understanding of domestic violence issues. He believes a different approach is needed to handle such cases to ensure everyone is protected. This includes the alleged victim, the defendant and any children that may be involved.
“Judge Michael John Ryan is truly one of the most remarkable people that I have ever met,” said Cleveland Municipal Court Administrative and Presiding Judge Ronald B. Adrine. “He is the epitome of focus, determination, and faith. Coming to adulthood under circumstances that would have wilted most other men, Judge Ryan persevered. Because of his own experiences, he sees the potential in all people and is adept at bringing it out of them.”
Ryan’s leadership is also evident in his relationship to the public. For most, a person’s presence in Judge Ryan’s courtroom indicates poor choices. Ryan believes he can be most influential helping people in these situations.
“There have been many occasions where people will say, ‘Judge, you don’t understand the problems that I’m going through’,” Ryan said. “They don’t say it but they imply I grew up with a silver spoon in my mouth, especially when they see I’m so young sitting on the bench. I’m a young, African-African male, and they think, ‘No way this guy got here and had to struggle the same way that I did.’ This gives me an opportunity to tell them about the issues and challenges I faced, and to tell them I didn’t choose the path they did, notwithstanding the struggles that both of us probably encountered. I get a chance to talk about those things periodically when people mention those as excuses for their behavior.”
He added, “There’s an old phrase my fraternity brother used to tell us all the time: ‘Excuses build bridges that lead to nothingness.’ It’s a paraphrase of a longer quote but I understand what it meant. Don’t make excuses. Get it done. There are right options to make and if you make the wrong ones, accept responsibility and be willing to turn your life around and do things the correct way.”
This article has been sponsored by:
Linkage’s Institute for Leading Diveristy & Inclusion