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Published: 5/12/2011

Toledo lawyer nominated to become federal judge

Helmick has led high-profile cases in area

BY TOM TROY
BLADE POLITICS WRITER
Jeffrey J. Helmick was recommended to take the place of Judge James Carr. Jeffrey J. Helmick was recommended to take the place of Judge James Carr.
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President Obama Wednesday nominated Jeffrey J. Helmick, a Toledo lawyer whose career has included representing defendants on death row, to be a judge on the U.S. District Court in Toledo.

If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Mr. Helmick would replace Judge James Carr, who has retired to senior-judge status.

In August, Mr. Helmick was recommended to the President by Ohio's two U.S. senators, Democrat Sherrod Brown and Republican George Voinovich, who since has left office.

Mr. Helmick, 50, of Toledo is a graduate of Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law and is a principal in the law firm Gamso, Helmick & Hoolahan in Toledo.

He graduated from St. John's Jesuit High School in 1978 and the University of Michigan and worked for the law firm of Marshall & Melhorn LLC as his first job after graduation.

Before starting law school, Mr. Helmick worked as an assistant to attorney Vince Nathan of Toledo, who was appointed by the federal court as a special master investigating prison systems in Georgia, New Mexico, and Texas. In 1993, Mr. Helmick was hired for two years as a consultant to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction in the wake of the Lucasville prison riot.

Senator Brown applauded Mr. Helmick's qualifications. He said the nomination was based on the recommendation of a 17-member judicial advisory commission selected from the court's southern Ohio district to avoid conflicts of interest.

Senator Brown called Mr. Helmick "an outstanding lawyer whose commitment to the law and to the Toledo community is second to none."

Nancy Rogers, chairman of the judicial advisory commission, said Mr. Helmick is highly regarded, both in his litigation work and as a problem-solver.

"Toledo lawyers and judges told advisory commission members that he is not only a fine lawyer, but also an extraordinarily good human being," Ms. Rogers said. She said he has extensive experience in criminal litigation as well as a background as a civil lawyer.

Senator Brown's office released a statement from Mr. Helmick, who declined additional comment.

NOMINATIONS SENT TO SENATE

  • Richard G. Andrews, of Delaware, to be United States District Judge for the District of Delaware, vice Joseph J. Farnan, Jr., retired.
  • Cathy Ann Bencivengo, of California, to be United States District Judge for the Southern District of California, vice Jeffrey T. Miller, retired.
  • Jeffrey J. Helmick, of Ohio, to be United States District Judge for the Northern District of Ohio, vice James G. Carr, retired.

"I am grateful for and deeply humbled by the President's nomination to serve on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio," Mr. Helmick said. "If confirmed by the Senate, I pledge to serve the people of Ohio with honor and conviction."

He served on the Ohio Supreme Court Commission on Continuing Education and is a member of the U.S. Attorney's Advisory Council for the Northern District of Ohio.

At OSU, he was editor-in-chief of the Ohio State Journal on Dispute Resolution.

Mr. Helmick, a registered Democrat, has a long record of representing criminal defendants in trials, including defendants in death-penalty cases.

In 2000, he was a key figure in an ethics case that went to the Supreme Court.

The court ruled 4-3 that Mr. Helmick should have turned over a letter from his client, Douglas Coley, who was sentenced to death in 1998 for the 1997 kidnapping and murder of Samar El-Okdi, 21, whose body was found near the Toledo Museum of Art.

An investigator hired by Mr. Helmick learned that Coley had written a letter to his brother that reportedly solicited the murder of a witness to the killing. The investigator received the letter from Coley's mother on the condition that it be shown only to Coley's attorneys.

At the advice of the Supreme Court's disciplinary counsel, Mr. Helmick read the letter to the judge presiding in the case, and the judge then forwarded the information to a Toledo police detective.

Mr. Helmick told the detective about the threat and resigned as Coley's attorney.

A judge charged Mr. Helmick with contempt of court after he refused a subpoena to turn over the letter in March, 1998, claiming attorney-client privilege. An appeals court vacated the contempt charge, but ruled that the letter must be produced. The Supreme Court upheld the ruling, saying the letter was evidence, not a secret privileged by the attorney-client relationship.

The state appeals court commended Mr. Helmick for his conduct in bringing the letter to the court's attention and saying his initial refusal to turn over the letter was a good-faith challenge of an area of the law that was untested.

Fritz Byers, Mr. Helmick's lawyer in that case, said the case should not surface as a problem when his appointment comes up for confirmation by the Senate.

"Jeff's conduct in this case reflects his commitment to the highest ethical standards of our profession," Mr. Byers said. "He did exactly what a lawyer put in this difficult position should do. A fair evaluation of this matter will confirm how well-suited he is to hold a position of federal judgeship."

More recently, Mr. Helmick represented Jay Schmeltz, a retired Lucas County sheriff's deputy who was convicted in connection with the death of an inmate in the jail and a subsequent cover-up. Schmeltz, 54, was found guilty of one count of writing a false report and was acquitted of three other counts of writing a false report, making a false statement to the FBI, and assaulting the inmate. Schmeltz was sentenced to one year and one day in federal prison.

Richard Kerger, who once worked in the same law firm with Mr. Helmick, said the nominee is a hard-working and honest lawyer who will bring those qualities to his job on the bench.

"He will call [cases] the way the facts and the law tell him to do," Mr. Kerger said.

Mr. Kerger noted that while Mr. Helmick is known as a defense lawyer, he started his career with Marshall & Melhorn, where Mr. Kerger was a managing partner, focusing primarily on civil law.

Toledo defense lawyer Jon Richardson praised Mr. Helmick's passion for his work, but also his even-handedness.

"Jeff is going to be one of those judges whose depth of intelligence matches the depth of his good will. He's a very, very smart guy," Mr. Richardson said. "The way he conducts himself -- both with co-counsel and with opposing counsel -- the fight is over the issue, the fight is not personal."

Mr. Helmick has represented one of the defendants in a case of alleged homegrown terrorism: Hor Akl, of Toledo, accused last year in a federal indictment of conspiring to aid the terrorist group Hezbollah with money and supplies.

In 2004, he represented James Wheeler of Indianapolis, the reputed leader of the Outlaws motorcycle gang on racketeering charges based on a variety of acts, including murder and drug dealing. Wheeler, then 62, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Four years later, an appeals court threw out the racketeering conviction, but let a conviction for conspiracy to distribute drugs stand.

Judge Carr, who was appointed in 1994, said that as a judge on senior status he is allowed to maintain as much of a caseload as he wants and he has chosen to continue with a full caseload.

He approved of Mr. Helmick's nomination to the court, saying, "He is an outstanding attorney who has both the qualifications and the temperament to be an outstanding judge."

Contract Tom Troy at: tomtroy@theblade.com or 419-724-6058.



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