CROWN POINT -- A defense lawyer once asked Lake Criminal Court Judge James L. Clement to have mercy on a thief who "was the sole support of his fiancee and their children."

The judge glared at the criminal defendant and asked, "Why don't you marry that girl?"

The 74-year-old former judge was being remembered Thursday as a jurist informed by a fairness and a moral compass that transcended the technicalities of the criminal law he practiced in Courtroom 4 in Crown Point for more than a quarter century.

He died early Thursday of a heart ailment.

Indiana Supreme Court Judge Robert Rucker, a former county prosecutor and East Chicago defense lawyer, said, "I knew Judge Clement for many years. He was highly respected. I had the honor of appearing before him many times as a lawyer and later had the privilege of joining him as a colleague on the bench when I became a judge myself."

Criminal Court Judge Richard W. Maroc said, "He was a great colleague and a good judge. He was to me, the role model of a hard working judge. He took his time, but attacked work tirelessly and uncomplainingly. You always knew that in Room 4, things were going to get done."

County Prosecutor Bernard Carter said, "Judge Clement was a dedicated, conscientious legal scholar. He can be proud of the legacy he left to his family and the community he served so well."

East Chicago lawyer Noah Lewis Holcomb, who served as a public defender in Clement's court for 20 years, said the judge had a reputation for being tough at sentencing, but that was never easy.

"It really pained him to have to hand out stiff sentences to some people who he found to have lost their moral compass for a split second in their life and gotten into a gas station robbery that had gone wrong and someone winds up getting killed."

However, he said the judge had no qualms about punishing violent, career criminals.

"He became more firm as he saw the same people coming back again and again. He was always most strict on those who were involved in physical violence inside a victim's home. I heard him say many times a man's home is his castle," he said.

Criminal Court Judge Clarance Murray said he had first practiced before the judge as a deputy prosecutor and then as a mentor.

"He wasn't just a fellow jurist," Murray said. "He was a good friend. We talked on a lot of occasions. We prayed together. He was very spiritual.

Keep reading for FREE!
Enjoy more articles by signing up or logging in. No credit card required.

"He was a very compassionate man who put a lot of thought into his decisions. He was a man of substantial wit and had a great sense of humor. A lot of people didn't know that about him. He could keep me in stitches. He also had tremendous energy."

Billy Alder, who worked for 22 years as the judge's bailiff said Clement routinely would run five miles during the lunch hour, sometimes keeping juries waiting for his return.

"He would jog all the way up to Route 30 on Whitcomb Street and back," Alder said.

Clement ran in the first two Chicago marathons and competed in a number of local races.

Murray said, "He once ask me when I was a deputy prosecutor to go jogging with him. I had to respectfully decline. I told him I didn't think I could keep up with him. I don't want anybody to see me lagging about 100 yards behind him."

Reared in Gary, Clement graduated from Horace Mann High School in 1945. He was in the Army briefly and worked at U.S. Steel. He also worked at Gary's former Budd Plant and Miami International Airport and drove a taxi during the years he attended the University of Miami and Valparaiso University Law School.

He was in private law practice for 16 years in Gary and a member of the local American Civil Liberties Union and was criticized by fellow whites for supporting Richard G. Hatcher for Gary mayor in the late 1960s, Holcomb said.

Clement said in an interview in 2000 he had no intention of making the political compromises necessary to run for judicial office, but got his opportunity in 1973 when the state Legislature took the Lake Criminal Court out of politics and created new judgeships, which he, former Judge James Letsinger and the late James Kimbrough filled.

He presided over more than 1,200 felony trials, including 15 death penalty cases. He sent six men to death row.

He was married for more than 50 years to his wife, Mattie. They had five children, 18 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. His oldest daughter Linda died of cancer in 1996.

The judge himself was treated for lymphoma and prostate cancer. His chemotherapy weakened his heart. He retired from the bench in 2000 and returned to private law practice.

Clement was a member of the First Baptist Church of Hammond for 35 years. Visitation will take place from 2 to 9 p.m. Sunday at Burns Funeral Home and Crematory, 10101 Broadway, Merrillville. Funeral service will be at 10 a.m. Monday at the First Baptist Church.

Bill Dolan can be reached at bdolan@howpubs.com or (219) 662-5328.

Be the first to know

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.