Alumni Profile: Judge Michael J. Ryan ’96

Posted 2017-01-24 3:05pm

Judge Michael J. Ryan ’96 experienced a childhood more challenging than most could possibly imagine.  Ryan overcame the numerous hardships and now uses his story, and Cleveland-Marshall College of Law education, to make a difference as a judge on the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas Juvenile Division.

“It felt natural for me to take a seat in the juvenile division because of my connections with community youth groups and everything that transpired when I was younger,” said Ryan.  “I thought it would make a huge difference in changing the lives of kids and families who would appear before me.”

Ryan truly believes the juvenile court is where he was meant to be, because he can connect with youth at a personal level that is rare in the judicial system.  He feels his role is to ensure that the youth before him do not ultimately find themselves in an adult court.

Ryan grew up in poverty in Cleveland's Longwood Estate projects.  With his biological father in prison, he was under the care of his mother, who had him when she was 14, and his stepfather.  Both his mother and stepfather were addicted to heroin and Ryan and his younger sisters would sometimes be taken along on their drug runs.  His stepfather was physically abusive to mother until he was 11, when his stepfather and step-uncle went to prison.

“Growing up, I did not want to have anything to do with the law because I had too many personal experiences with courtroom,” said Ryan.  “I thought all it did was cause emotional hardship for families and me.”

During that period, Ryan’s step-grandmother took him and his sisters out of the house and obtained custody.  Ryan was still in touch with his mother until he was 13, when she died when from illness related to her drug abuse.  His step-grandmother passed away a year later and Ryan and his sisters bounced around, living with two of his stepfather’s sisters and finally his maternal grandmother.

Ryan attended 11 schools by the time he reached 12th grade yet during his trying childhood, Ryan always found an escape at school. Part of the reason he cherished school was for survival, as it offered daily meals and was preferable to summer vacations where he would often go days without eating.  Looking at the bigger picture though, Ryan saw education as a path out of his situation.

“I’m a firm believer that if you put all of your effort in education, you will be rewarded,” said Ryan. “I didn’t give in to the distractions during my youth. I wanted to find a different way.”

Ryan received a scholarship to attend Allegheny College and after graduating was able to attend C|M|LAW thanks to receiving the Louis Stokes Scholarship and a scholarship from the Cleveland-Marshall Law Alumni Association.  He was drawn to C|M|LAW by through a relationship with Eighth District Court of Appeals Judge Melody Stewart, who at the time was Assistant Dean for Admissions and Financial Aid at the law school.  Ryan remains close to Judge Stewart to this day.

Ryan was also attracted to C|M|LAW’s Legal Career Opportunities Program (LCOP).  LCOP is a selective admission program designed to introduce students demonstrating academic excellence and writing proficiency beyond their LSAT score to legal studies while strengthening foundational skills for greater success in law school.  Ryan is one of the program’s finest success stories. 

During law school, Ryan worked for the City of Cleveland as a mediator and then law clerk.  After passing the Ohio Bar Exam, he joined the City of Cleveland Prosecutor’s Office and then took a position as administrator for the Office of Professional Standards of Cleveland’s Division of Public Safety before returning the Prosecutor’s Office.   During his time at the Prosecutor’s Office, Ryan decided he would like to pursue a judicial position but felt he needed civil experience as well to give him an alternate perspective for examining cases.  He joined Forbes Fields & Associates as an attorney specializing criminal defense and arbitration until he learned of a magistrate position opening with Cleveland Municipal Court from a job board posting at CM|LAW.

Ryan spent nearly five years as a magistrate, considering it the ideal judicial apprenticeship because of the breath of work he was given from traffic cases all the way up to jury trials.  In November 2005, Ryan to be successfully ran for judge, becoming the youngest African-American male to be elected in the Cleveland Municipal Court’s history.

In 2012, he was elected judge to the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas juvenile division, giving him an additional outlet to use his experiences to impact area youths.

“My experience does not impact how I see the facts of a case but it shaped how I want to influence the individuals in the court,” said Ryan  “A lot of the kids I see grew up in the same neighborhoods that I did and inevitably they’ll have excuses about the situation they find themselves in.  When they hear me talk about personal experience, I can see their mindset and demeanor change.”

Beyond his work in the juvenile division, Ryan has also continued extensive volunteer work with area youth, both directly and through helping organizations creating opportunities for youths.   He is on the board of the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland, a Christian-based organization that works to improve the lives of those most in need with special attention to families, women and children living in poverty.  Through Sisters of Charity he works on the A Place 4 initiative to prevent homelessness among young adults, and with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, focusing on strengthening families and ensuring access to opportunity for children.

Ryan is also focused on educational opportunities, because he sees a correlation between educational opportunities and the likelihood of landing in the criminal justice system.  He serves on the Literacy Cooperative of Greater Cleveland and was instrumental in the implementation of "Get on Track," a Cleveland Municipal Court program to help individuals who did not complete high school and have been convicted of misdemeanors to earn  their G.E.D.

In 2015, Ryan self-published a memoir, "The Least Likely: From the Housing Projects to the Courthouse," on how he overcome the odds.  The book has led to numerous speaking engagements where Ryan’s talks carry a message that resonates with those who have experienced extreme hardship and those who can only imagine the struggle.

“For individuals who have experienced some of the things I have or even worse, I hope that I offer an example of how you can overcome those challenges and be successful,” said Ryan.  “For those who have not experienced the things that I have and never will, I hope that they see a reason to not make any excuses as they work toward making their dreams come to fruition.”

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