Longtime Butler County judge was ‘bigger than life’ in the courtroom

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

H.J. Bressler also served as court of appeals judge

Harvey Joel Bressler, a retired Butler County Common Pleas and 12th District Court of Appeals judge, was a gifted defense attorney before picking up the gavel and “bigger that life” when he entered the courtroom, his friends said.

Bressler, known as “H.J.” on the bench and “Joe” to friends, died Monday in Florida. He was 83.

The native of Baltimore who grew up in Hamilton, Bressler spent 40 years in a courtroom, 29 of those as judge before age limits forced his retirement from the court of appeals in 2012.

Just days before his retirement, Bressler told the Journal-News, “You know people say congratulations on your retirement. I appreciate their sentiment, but I don’t want to leave.”

He continued to serve as a mediator in common pleas court during his retirement.

Common Pleas Court Judge Jennifer McElfresh now sits at the same bench once occupied by Bressler on the third floor in the court wing at the county government services center. In 2013, Bressler swore in the former assistant prosecutor as a judge.

“Judge Bressler was a brilliant jurist and a wonderful mentor. Trying cases in front of him made me a better lawyer. He was an invaluable resource to me as a judge. It is an honor to preside over the courtroom where he once presided as a common pleas court judge,” McElfresh said.

Bressler worked at Proctor and Gamble while attending the Salmon P. Chase College of Law, graduating in 1968. He began practicing right away, setting up shop in Hamilton as a defense attorney, where he remained until 1997. Bressler served as a county court judge from 1981 to 1997 and was elected County Common Pleas Judge in 1997. He was elected to the appellate bench in 2004.

Longtime defense attorney Frank Schiavone III, who went head to head with Bressler in their private criminal and divorce practices, said his old adversary “had the biggest impact on my legal career than any person in my entire career.”

He recalled sitting in a Hamilton Municipal Court in 1978 as an intern in his last year of law school when the city prosecutor gave him a traffic case to try.

“I was wearing a cheap suit, and it was very exciting,” Schiavone said. “Then in walked Joe Bressler, the defense attorney. It was all over. It was a driving under suspension case, and I couldn’t even prove the guy was driving the car.”

Bressler, a tall man in stature, was “the man” in court.

“He was bigger than life and brilliant,” Schiavone said. That carried over to Bressler’s days on the bench. “A totally fair man in every way. He let you try the case. You always thought you were getting the best when you were in front of Joe Bressler.”

In 1980, Bressler was one of two defense attorneys for Hamilton mass murderer James Ruppert, who killed 11 members of his family, eight younger than 18, on Easter Sunday 1975 at their home on Minor Avenue in the city’s Lindenwald neighborhood. Ruppert lived out his days in prison, serving multiple life sentences, and died in last year.

Butler County Prosecutor Michael Gmoser was also went up against Bressler in the courtroom, including as an assistant prosecutor during one of the Ruppert trials.

Credit: Jeff Hinckley

Credit: Jeff Hinckley

“We fought like dogs in the courtroom,” Gmoser recalled. But it was Bressler’s ability speak from the heart and string together evidence in his client’s case “that amazed me.”

“Watching Joe Bressler and fighting with him in the courtroom made me a better lawyer,” Gmoser said.

Bressler’s abilities carried over to the appellate bench, where he kept lawyers on their toes.

Common Pleas Judge Michael Oster Jr. was the chief of the county prosecutor’s office appellate division when he came up against Bressler’s legal mind.

“He had a knack for finding case law because he was diligent in his research. He really made us all better attorneys,” Oster said. “If you were a good attorney, he would make you become a great attorney or you were going to fail in front of him.”

In retirement, Bresser also did some work for the Butler County Sheriff’s Office helping with civil cases and inmate complaints.

He was often a walking buddy of Sheriff Richard Jones.

“We would walk and talk. He talked some about the Ruppert case and a lot about his days as a lawyer. I had some colorful conversations with him,” Jones said. “He knew everybody in town, he knew how everything worked. When he worked for us he was brilliant strategist . One of the most brilliant jurists I have ever seen.”

Bressler died of complications from pneumonia. He is survived by three children, Scott and Jason Bressler and Erika Davis, and five grandsons and a great granddaughter.

Credit: Staff photo by Nick Daggy

Credit: Staff photo by Nick Daggy

His wife of 59 years, Ann, preceded him in death. Last year Bressler “met, fell in love again, and ultimately remarried” Darlene Miller of Fairfield, according the family.

Visitation will be held on Monday from 4 to 8 p.m. at The Presbyterian Church, 23 South Front Street in Hamilton. A celebration of life and funeral service will be held at The Presbyterian Church at 10 a.m. on Tuesday with burial to follow.

Credit: Greg Lynch

Credit: Greg Lynch

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