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Battle for Youngstown Muni is too close for us to call



Published: Sat, November 3, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



For an hour and a half one day last week, the candidates for Youngstown Municipal Court met in a Vindicator conference room and duked it out.

Each answered questions put to him by Vindicator editors, they traded questions, they declaimed and they rebutted, they zigged and they zagged, and in the end, both were left standing.

The editors went into this meeting hoping for a definitive victory, maybe even a knock-out by one or the other. The last thing we wanted to see was a tie. But that's what we got.

In the race between incumbent Municipal Judge Robert A. Douglas Jr. and the challenger, Jeff Limbian, The Vindicator finds itself unable to endorse one over the other.

We have faced deadlocks before, but in almost all those cases one fact, one issue, sometimes even one phrase, managed to break the tie. Not this time.

Backgrounds: Robert A. Douglas Jr., 61, a Democrat, was appointed to Youngstown Municipal Court in 1997 by Gov. George Voinovich and elected to serve the remainder of his term in November 1999. He is now running for a full six-year term.

He was in private legal practice from 1980 to 1995 and was director of the Mahoning County Department of Human Services from 1988 through 1996.

Douglas points to his role in initiating video arraignments in the Youngstown Municipal Court and in hiring a court administrator and to his leadership in seeking new and adequate facilities for the court as among the reasons he should be re-elected.

Jeff Limbian, 42, running as an independent, has been in private practice for 11 years. He served as an assistant city prosecutor from 1991 through 1994, as prosecutor from January 1995 to February 1997 and was then law director until January 1998.

Limbian cites his experience as a lawyer in over 30 courts in six counties, and especially his extensive experience as a prosecutor and lawyer in the Youngstown Municipal Court.

He says he would run his court on time, improve the probation department, modernize the computer system, institute a viable night court and address the problem of inadequate court facilities.

Weighing the evidence: Limbian's statement that he is committed to serving the full six-year term begged the question: What does Douglas intend to do? Limbian said court employees have told him that Douglas plans to retire after two years.

This is delicate point with The Vindicator, because the judge Douglas replaced, Luke Levy, had denied similar rumors in 1995 when he was running. After pledging to serve the full term, he retired after only two years, citing "doctor's orders."

During a discussion of this point, Douglas denied that his wife is retiring in two years, acknowledged that he is building a house in Naples, Fla., but said it is "for our future" and then said he would serve six years, "God willing."

We begrudge no man the invocation of God's will under most circumstances, but Douglas' insistence on qualifying his intentions through almost tortuous exchanges with three editors was troublesome. He even invoked the uncertainties of life everyone has faced since September 11 to explain why he could not categorically stated that he would not cut short his term. He did himself a disservice.

Another troubling exchange occurred while discussing the judge's work habits. Asked if he blocks out most of his afternoons, he denied it. But Limbian said the assignment office has a document showing that Douglas has more restrictions on afternoon duty than the other two courts. Douglas first characterized Limbian's statement as a "misrepresentation," then said that any scheduling restrictions were not done to free his afternoons. But he never denied that the document exists.

Such an omission by a laymen might pass unnoticed, but good lawyers and good judges know the value of exactitude. Had Douglas said no such document exists, had he challenged Limbian to produce it, we would have been impressed. Characterizing Limbian's claims as unfair or inaccurate was a weak defense.

Those lapses aside, Douglas parried most of Limbian's claims of substandard performance in the court well, sometimes even artfully. When Limbian claimed that he has been in court at 8:30 in the morning and Judge Douglas hadn't taken the bench until 9:30 or 9:45, Douglas said he would need specific dates. Noting that he arrives at City Hall on time every day, he added, "I'm generally waiting for other parties -- and I've waited for Mr. Limbian."

Weigh-in: This race comes down to a number of issues that the voters are going to have to weigh.

The hot-button issue of recent years, low bonds and serial probation for criminal defendants -- was a nonstarter in this race. Limbian refused to discuss it, citing a canon that prohibits judicial candidates from discussing specific cases.

But there's a distinct difference of opinion on court facilities. Limbian believes City Hall could be remodeled and refurbished to accommodate the court. Douglas believes the building is beyond redemption and says a freestanding courthouse should be built. That something must be done is not an issue. The chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court has said the present facilities are deplorable.

And there's a question of whether Youngstown Municipal Court, which has three full-time judges, needs a full-time magistrate. Limbian sees the magistrate as a luxury; Douglas says a magistrate saves the city from paying a visiting judge when judges are on vacation or at required seminars.

Limbian and Douglas have opposing viewpoints on almost every subject, yet in the give and take of this campaign neither emerged as our clear choice.

Rarely have we found ourselves so conflicted. Never have we taken an entire editorial column to tell the voters we think this one's too close to call.

We eagerly await their decision at the polls Tuesday. Collectively, they'll declare the winner.




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