Two judges in Mahoning County have filed lawsuits to force commissioners to give them more money for the operation of their courts -- even though to do so would put the county's general fund in the red. Juvenile Judge Theresa Dellick and Probate Judge Timothy Maloney contend that commissioners Edward Reese, Vicki Allen Sherlock and David Ludt have little discretion when it comes to funding the judicial branch of government and they want the Ohio Supreme Court to support that contention.
But before the Supreme Court rushes to judgment, we would urge the seven justices to conduct a hearing so that lawyers for all the parties involved can make their arguments in public and respond to questions from the bench. It would also give the court an opportunity to hear from an objective observer of Mahoning County government, Jim Petro.
Petro, the state's attorney general, served as state auditor the past eight years and during that time conducted a special performance audit of county government. Indeed, late last year, Reese, Sherlock and Ludt asked Petro to begin the process of declaring a fiscal watch based on the fact the general fund would be bleeding red ink in 2003 unless all budget requests were reduced.
But Petro declined, saying that an analysis by his office would be premature. Commissioners then passed a $47.6 million budget, which they balanced by cutting $10 million from 2002 expenditures.
But judges Dellick and Maloney have refused to accept the 20 percent across-the-board cut and want the Ohio Supreme Court to say that they have a right to be fully funded.
Given the statewide ramifications of the issue in this era of tighter budget, we believe the justices should not only conduct a full-blown hearing, as opposed to issuing an opinion based on the motions and briefs that are filed, but should come to Youngstown to hear oral arguments and to get expert testimony from Petro.
In the past the Supreme Court has tended to come down on the side of the judiciary. But there is a new justice on the bench who might be able to persuade her colleagues to take their blinders off.
Maureen O'Connor won election last year after serving four years as Ohio's lieutenant governor. O'Connor is well aware of the economic crisis that is undermining government at all levels and is also familiar with the pressures on the executive and legislative branches as they attempt to meet all the demands for funding.
We have long believed that no one agency or department or branch of government can claim to be so important that it should not be required to share in the burdens carried by others.
If judges Dellick and Maloney have their way, the commissioners would have to come up with almost $2.5 million. That would be hard to absorb in good economic times. Now, it would be devastating.
The Ohio Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Thomas Moyer, has a responsibility to the taxpayers to define the word "reasonable" within the context of Mahoning County's fiscal realities.