Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Judge Norbert Nadel: A Legacy Of A Tough Exterior And A Kind Heart

norbert nadel
Al Behrman
Judge Norbert Nadel listens to arguments at a hearing for Judge Tracie Hunter in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court in June 2014.

You could call Judge Norbert Nadel a lot of things.

Unpredictable. Flamboyant. A politician who loved to see his name in print and his face on TV. A man whose tough guy persona as a judge was belied by his kindness to friends and strangers alike.

But you could never call him boring.

Nadel – known to his friends as Nick - died Friday at the age of 82 of complications from pneumonia. After serving more than three decades as a Hamilton County judge – one of the highest-profile judges of his era – he wrapped up a four-year term as Hamilton County recorder in January.

Steve Goodin, an interim Cincinnati City Councilman, served as a clerk to Nadel in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He was a close friend to the judge and was with him in the hospital when he died, along with Nadel's wife, Linnea.

"He never had children of his own, but the people who worked for him and their families were his family too,'' Goodin said. "He treated all of us like family and genuinely cared about the people who worked for him."

Nadel's biggest claim to fame came on a Sunday morning in June 1989 when media from all over the country gathered in his courtroom at the Hamilton County Courthouse for a highly unusual weekend hearing.

Attorneys for Cincinnati Reds legend Pete Rose, facing allegations by Major League Baseball that he had broken the rules by betting on games, filed for a restraining order against then-baseball commissioner A. Bart Giamatti, to halt the investigation of Rose.

I was there that Sunday morning for the Enquirer; they had brought me in on the team covering the Rose saga because the sportswriters had little experience covering the courts. Charley Steiner, now the radio voice of the Dodgers, was there covering it for ESPN and reporters from all of the major networks and media outlets in the country packed into Nadel's under-sized courtroom.

For a Reds fan – and Rose fan – as passionate as Nadel, it was like a pitcher hanging a breaking ball right over the middle of the plate. Nadel saw it as an opportunity to hit one out of the park.

It was the first time I saw him wear his signature bright blue judicial robes instead of the traditional drab, black robes. He was very frank when asked about it. It looked better on TV, Nadel said.

And that Rose hearing had another first for Nadel, one that he carried on in every high-profile media case he heard for the quarter century-plus. He re-arranged his courtroom so that the pool of media photographers and videographers couldn't possibly take a shot of the lawyers' table without Nadel on the bench, featured prominently in the shot. The over-sized nameplate on his bench made it clear who he was.  

After a morning-long hearing with lengthy presentations by both the Rose lawyers and lawyers from MLB, Nadel shocked many by issuing a restraining order telling MLB it could not go forward with the investigation of Rose.

He knew perfectly well that it was a popular decision with the Reds fans in Hamilton County (who also vote) and didn't seem that upset when his ruling was overturned by the First District Court of Appeals. And, of course, the investigation went on and Rose was banned from baseball.

Nadel did not care that the national media was calling him a "homer" for his Rose decision.

In his chambers, he proudly displayed a framed copy of Sports Illustrated that contained an account of his decision. When Rose published a book years later, Nadel finally met the "Hit King," who signed Nadel's copy of the book with a personal inscription: To Judge Nadel, Thanks for being fair to me. s/Pete Rose.

Nadel is also remembered as the judge who presided over one of the most raucous and difficult trials in Hamilton County history – the trial of former juvenile court judge Tracie Hunter.

Hunter, who had throngs of supporters inside the courtroom and outside the courthouse on the streets throughout the trial, was sentenced by Nadel to six months in prison for unlawful interest in a public contract – specifically, giving confidential documents to her brother, a juvenile court employee who was in the process of being fired.

After years of legal wrangling, Judge Patrick Dinkelacker, who took over the case after Nadel left the bench, ordered her to serve her prison sentence.

Alex Triantafilou, chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party and a former judge, said he learned a lot about running a courtroom from watching Nadel.

"The thing about Nick Nadel is that while he was serious about the business of running the court, he was a genuinely nice guy,'' Triantafilou said. "People liked to be around him."

Triantafilou said that before Nadel became ill, Nadel had told him he might be interested in getting back into politics, even at the age of 82.

"I was surprised; he didn't seem like a guy who was finished with it,'' Triantafilou  said.

Goodin said he, too, talked fairly recently with Nadel about a return to politics.

"He was talking about the possibility of running for county auditor, if Dusty Rhodes decides to retire,'' Goodin said. "I don't know that he would have done it. But he was definitely thinking about it."

The Republican said that his friend Nadel had a kind and generous heart, a side of the often-stern judge that the public would rarely see.

Years ago, when Goodin was a clerk in Nadel's courtroom, there was a man named Leo Clyde Jordan who was well known among those who came in and out of the courthouse. Jordan slept on the streets, often in doorways of Court Street businesses.

"The judge took an interest in him; he would talk to him every day," Goodin said. "The judge would let Leo come into his chambers and wash up in the judge's bathroom and let him hang his clothes there. They became friends. Leo would sit and talk to the judge about baseball and they got along fine."

Goodin remembered a time when he and the judge took Jordan down to a Reds game, a real treat for Jordan.

"Unfortunately, it was probably the last good day Leo Clyde Jordan had, because, a few days later, he had a massive heart attack and died on the streets,'' Goodin said.

Nadel, Goodin said, went around the courthouse collecting money to buy a headstone for Jordan's grave.

"You only do something like that if you have a good heart," Goodin said.

A public visitation for Judge Nadel will be held Monday, July 19, from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Thomas-Justin Memorial Funeral Home, 7500 Montgomery Road in Silverton. Private burial services will follow.