Login | October 19, 2017

Former JAG officer becomes Summit Co. Common Pleas judge

Judge Jason T. Wells took the bench as a Summit County Common Pleas Court judge on June 26. He is a retired Judge Advocate General with the Army National Guard. (Photo by Tracey Blair/Legal News).

Legal News Reporter

Published: September 22, 2017

Jason T. Wells had been retired from the Army National Guard for two years when he got an unexpected call.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich wanted to know if he’d be interested in replacing former Summit County Common Pleas Judge Lynne S. Callahan, who was elected to the 9th District Court of Appeals in November.

Wells, a 49-year-old Norton resident, hadn’t even applied for the job and had a few concerns.

But after talking it over with his wife, Angie, he decided to go on the interview.

“After I got out of the Guard, I missed the brotherhood of the service,” he said. “You go through hard times together and you know you’ve got each other’s backs there. I missed putting the uniform on. You always felt like you were putting your cape on.

“You feel like you’re doing your part to help society in the military, and that had been a little bit lacking. So when I discussed being a judge with my wife, she was like, `This is your chance to serve again. It’s your chance to give back.’ I hadn’t had an actual job interview since like 1992. But it seemed to go well.”

He took the bench in Summit County on June 26.

Judge Wells joined the National Guard in 1988, serving his country as a crewman on an M1 Abrams Armor tank.

After graduating from the University of Akron with a degree in education and then Akron Law, he accepted a commission as a Judge Advocate General with the National Guard.

As a JAG officer, he began as an assistant staff judge advocate advising commanders on a variety of legal issues. He then worked in the Trial Defense Service, an independent agency within the U.S. Army, until he retired in 2015 with the rank of major.

“As a JAG officer you have to know all the military legal issues that might arise — including the rules of engagement and how to treat enemy prisoners of war,” said Judge Wells. “It was interesting. You get to do a lot of things. I could advise commanders on how to punish this guy, or whether you should prosecute this guy. I also advised them on general things, like whether the National Guard could build at a certain location.

“If it was a huge crime, the civilian authorities would take over, so most of the stuff I did was insubordination, fraternization, positive drug tests and things like that.”

Judge Wells was born and raised in Barberton. His father was in the U.S. Air Force, and his grandfather served in World War II in the U.S. Army.

His younger brother, a sergeant on the Akron Police Department, joined the National Guard first.

“I used to look at my dad’s and grandpa’s pictures from the service and thought it was really cool,” Judge Wells said of his decision to enlist.

Plus, at the time, they paid 60 percent of your college tuition.

While serving in the National Guard, he also worked as a private practice attorney as an advocate for the disadvantaged and mentally ill.

In addition, he provided legal representation at each step in the civil commitment process with Summit County Probate Court’s mental health program for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled.

Judge Wells was also one of the attorneys who worked with Summit County Common Pleas Judge Amy Corrigall-Jones to start Valor Court. The specialized docket gives veterans access to programs, treatment and interaction with mentors to improve their chances of succeeding in the civilian world after they become involved in the criminal justice system.

Valor Court was a highlight of his legal career.

“I really enjoyed helping veterans,” he said. “A lot of these guys are coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan have seen things most people can’t even imagine, so they’re damaged when they get back. It’s hard for a lot of these guys to adjust back to society. I identify with these people who have been overseas and are a little damaged. A lot of vets self-medicate to try to forget what they’ve seen or done over there, and that leads to worse things.

“I don’t talk about it much, but everybody handles it differently. Being a veteran, I was able to talk to these guys. In general, people don’t necessarily trust lawyers. And vets are leery of anyone who is not a veteran. Having been an enlisted guy who scrubbed floors and went around and picked up trash, I’ve done the grunt work they’ve done. But I’m also an officer, so it gave me a perspective that most people don’t have.”

Judge Jones called Judge Wells — whom she went to law school with — an integral part of Valor Court that she and Akron Municipal Court Judge Jerry Larson established in 2013.

“(Judge Wells’) professional experience will assist him in being an empathetic, pragmatic jurist,” Judge Jones said. “I look forward to working with him as a colleague.”

So far, Judge Wells is enjoying the challenge of being a Summit County judge.

“I’ve done criminal defense for 20 years, so I’m familiar with how that worked, but it’s a little different when you’re sitting behind the bench and you have to make decisions on prison, probation or treatment,” he said. “For a lot of lawyers, it’s like, `How can I get my guy out of this?’ But I’ve always looked at it like, `How can I help my guy or girl? What do they need to get back to being a productive member of society?’

“Now, I have the ability to learn more about the people and try to figure out if the person just needs a job so he’s busy? Does this guy need to go back and get his GED? Does this person need intensive drug treatment? Or is this just one of the guys who needs to be punished for what he’s done to society? It’s nice to be able to look for ways to help people and change their lives.”

Judge Wells married his civil engineer wife 20 years ago. The two met at Magic City Lanes bowling alley in Barberton.

In their spare time, the couple likes to relax on their 26 acres of mainly woods and travel.

“I also love landscaping,” said the judge. “I have a nice tractor I get to play around on and move dirt. I just like the idea of not having neighbors so close.”

Judge Wells must win in the November 2018 general election to retain the seat for the unexpired term, which ends Jan. 2, 2021.

His path to success wasn’t always easy.

“I worked during the day at a software company training people on their software while going to law school,” said Judge Wells. “Working a full day and going to law school in the evenings while traveling all around the country to train people on the days I didn’t have class wasn’t easy. But I got out of law school, passed the bar, and here we are.”