Judge Mark Frost puts a bit of levity into his speech explaining rights and procedures.
By NORMAN LEIGH
VINDICATOR SALEM BUREAU
LISBON -- Most people think of a courtroom as a stately chamber with towering ceilings, ornate woodwork and a robed judge enthroned on a high bench.
In many instances that's true, but not in Columbiana County's municipal court system.
The cramped space and battered furniture of the municipal courts in Lisbon, East Palestine and Salem make them look more like struggling storefront enterprises than halls of justice.
Yet justice is still the goal.
Judge Mark Frost, one of two county municipal court judges, is there to see to it.
"Our job is to do justice, not just run people through here," said Judge Frost, 54, of Columbiana, a 14-year veteran of the bench.
Everything from minor civil disputes to preliminary hearings for major crimes are handled in municipal court.
Its weekly schedule began shortly after 8:30 a.m. on a recent Monday when about a half-dozen defendants entered to await their hearing.
Judge Frost, an amateur actor in his spare time, began the session with what he has dubbed his longest-running performance, a speech explaining the defendants' rights and what they can expect when their case is called.
"All you can do is count on people not to understand everything," he had told a visitor before court started.
Although the presentation was serious, the judge inserted levity, as when he cautioned defendants to pay whatever fine may be imposed.
"Unless you really like dressing up in orange and rooming with some guy named Bubba, you really want to make sure you pay," Judge Frost advised, causing some of the defendants to snicker nervously.
The speech was interrupted while he tracked down and smashed a bug on his desk. "I feel like the crocodile hunter," he quipped.
Once the proceedings started, they moved quickly.
A variety of offenses was represented: Speeding, driving with a suspended license, operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Judge Frost listened patiently to the excuses.
"I got pulled over because they thought I was carrying drugs," one man said.
"I had no idea my license was suspended," a woman offered.
"I'm in the clutches of the BMV," one man protested, referring to the state bureau of motor vehicles.
Judge Frost frequently asked questions or offered advice, using a manner more like Ward Cleaver lecturing "the Beav" than Judge Judy scolding a scofflaw.
"How did this happen?" Judge Frost quietly asked one man. "You don't drive if you don't have a license," he gently admonished another.
Fines were imposed. Hearings were set. Two people couldn't decide whether to plead innocent or guilty. Judge Frost patiently schooled them on their rights.
Several men wearing orange county jail coveralls and handcuffs were marched in by a deputy.
Many of them had been lodged in jail over the weekend.
"What in the world were you thinking?" Judge Frost asked an inmate facing a battery of charges, including resisting arrest and reckless operation.
The judge sentenced him to a year in the county jail but set a review hearing in about a month that could free the man, a dishwasher.
Placed in counseling
The sentence for a man charged with his second drunken-driving offense included attendance at an alcohol counseling program.
"The important thing is the help. We don't want to see you back in here," Judge Frost told the man.
"I haven't had a drink since Memorial Day," the handcuffed defendant responded.
Later the judge noted that TV jurists such as Judge Judy have affected the public's perception of court.
"They're expecting to get yelled at. We don't do that here," Judge Frost said.
Despite the sober atmosphere, there are light moments.
During a break, the judge recalled a recent defendant who declared he was God. "He claimed to own all the planets," Judge Frost related.
The Almighty's case was dismissed because the man obviously needed treatment.
"I hope that someday, when I go, that God remembers I let him off," Judge Frost joked.
He told of a domestic violence case that originated over an argument about blood in the refrigerator from a squirrel the household's hunter had bagged.
"Only in Columbiana County," Judge Frost said, shaking his head and laughing.
With the courtroom cleared of defendants, the judge held informal conferences with attorneys.
"Why would I go along with this?" he asked Atty. David Betras of Youngstown regarding a proposed plea agreement in a drunken-driving case.
"How about he's not guilty?" Betras responded.
The judge eventually agreed to the deal but advised he was doing so reluctantly.
"Everybody on the street says, 'Be tough,'" Judge Frost noted. "But everybody who comes in here wants a break."
The judge's informal sessions with lawyers were relaxed and colored with banter.
"Don't give me your cold," the judge lightheartedly warned defense Atty. Chris Amato of Wellsville.
Judge Frost noted that he has before him the cases of two men who, between them, have a total of five drunken-driving offenses.
"That's not bad, two-and-a-half apiece," Amato said.
"Sometimes it's kind of like the Keystone Kops," Judge Frost cracked as a scheduling mix-up was ironed out.
There was no kidding, however, when he expressed his views on his work.
"I really love my job," he said.