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Toledo Legal News - News Judge Puffenberger carriers a gavel and a hammer

 

photo of Judge Jack PuffenbergerDon’t be surprised if the next time you see Judge Jack Puffenberger he looks a little tired and a little sun-burnt. The Judge and his wife Sarah have just returned from a week in El Salvador where they built houses with Habitat for Humanity. It was just another example of how Jack Puffenberger, who has served Toledo as Probate Court judge for over 15 years, cares and gives back. As Probate judge, Puffenberger is responsible for the poor, the indigent, the aged and the incompetent. For Judge Puffenberger, it’s a duty and obligation that doesn’t go away when he hangs up his robe at the end of the day.

At work, Judge Puffenberger presides over a court that doesn’t only hear contested estate cases, it also protects the interests of the minor children in the foster care system. In addition, Judge Puffenberger’s court looks after the mentally disabled and unwell and ensures that their guardians pursue their interests to the fullest. And even if Probate doesn’t get the press that other courts receive, Judge Puffenberger feels that his is one of the more important ones. “Probate court is a well kept secret. We look out for the best interests of those who can’t look out for themselves. We have a lot of people here that are incompetent, indigent, elderly and have a lot going against them and we need to look out for them.”

As a result of the cases Judge Puffenberger hears day in, day out, he has become very active in promoting the causes of the less fortunate outside of the courtroom. “I’ve read this somewhere and I believe it to be true: ‘the moral fiber of a society can be judged by how the least fortunate of that society are treated.’ That’s not only a judicial philosophy, that’s a philosophy of life for me.” Puffenberger has been the president of the Church Council where his family attended services. He sits on the board of the Lutheran Social Services and is on the human resources committee of Scholarship Fund, Inc., an organization which provides scholarship money to student’s who attend either University of Toledo or Lourdes College. The Judge and his wife, are also very active with Habitat for Humanity. Through Habitat, Puffenberger and his wife have now twice been to El Salvador.. “I think it’s part of this job to get involved in the care of others. I’m very involved with issues involving seniors and people who are disabled. There have been several programs started here such as our Volunteer Guardianship Program which helps people who are elderly, indigent or incompetent.”

In one way or another, social concerns have long been on Puffenberger’s mind. Judge Puffenberger is a lifelong resident of the Lucas County area. He was born in Sandusky and grew up in Port Clinton in a house on Lake Erie. He went away to Kent State to pursue his undergraduate studies and was there during the infamous shooting of students protesting the Vietnam War by Ohio National Guardsmen which left four students dead. It was that event which changed the course of young Jack Puffenberger’s life. “After the shootings, legal process became a big focus for a lot of students, everyone seemed to be talking about the law and that’s when I really became interested in it. So I switched my major from English to law enforcement administration.”

After graduating from Kent State, Jack and his wife, Sarah, moved to Youngstown. There, Puffenberger received a master’s degree in criminal justice from Youngstown University while working in the Youngstown Public Defender’s Office.

From there, the Puffenberger’s moved to Toledo where Jack pursued a law degree from UT. While in law school, Puffenberger had the opportunity to work with some illustrious names. In 1976 he served as a law clerk to Judge Francis Restivo in the municipal court and then in 1978 went to work for former Toledo mayor Harry Kessler, who at the time had just been elected Clerk of Courts.

Upon graduating from UT with his Juris Doctor, Puffenberger was hired to work as a prosecutor for the city of Toledo, a position he held until 1987 when he began to serve on the bench as a municipal court judge.

In 1990, Judge Puffenberger ran for the Probate Court seat and won, taking the bench in January of 1991.

When he isn’t helping the less fortunate in and out of the courtroom, Puffenberger is an avid sports fan who used to play baseball in college. He also enjoys spending time with his grown children and mother, who still lives in the house where she raised Jack, along with his sister and three brothers.

Still, such moments for rest and relaxation are scarce given his commitments to many causes and his active docket. “People tend to read a lot about criminal cases and they think that’s pretty exciting, but we get cases here involving people at their very worst. Spite and greed and fighting between siblings.” While the cases can be very difficult and emotionally taxing, the Judge gives his all to each one. He has to, because probate cases are personal in ways few other conflicts are: estates worth millions of dollars are contested by siblings; parents act as guardians over mentally disabled adult children and worry what will happen once they’re gone; relatives must decide whether or not to deny life saving measures to comatose family members. Even simple affairs get complicated in Probate Court, where the necessity of keeping social security numbers, bank accounts and medical records confidential must wrestle with the interests of a free and open court. And in the middle of everything is Judge Jack Puffenberger, always trying to make things right because it’s not in his nature to do nothing. “We have life and death cases here. I had a case of a man who was in a coma and we had an application to remove one of his kidney’s. This man’s brother was in need of a transplant and wanted his brother’s. I actually did grant that application, and it worked out very well, but it’s still a hard thing to decide. We order life support remove. And it can be difficult for a religious person to hear this evidence that says, this person is in a permanent unconscious state and I think in the back of my mind, are you saying you don’t believe in miracles?”

Michael Davisson, Toledo Legal News Staff Writer

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