Judges consider asking for help

Judges are looking for more help on the bench to deal with the case overload.
& lt;a href=mailto:bjackson@vindy.com & gt;By BOB JACKSON & lt;/a & gt;
YOUNGSTOWN -- Mahoning County's common pleas court judges are exploring the possibility of adding a judge, or more magistrates, to help them handle a continually growing civil caseload.
This comes at a time when the county is already faced with budget problems brought on by stagnant sales tax income and declining interest on investments.
At least one official says the increased caseload is linked to the area's economic downturn.
There were a record 4,118 civil cases filed in common pleas court in 2002, said Kathi McNabb Welsh, chief deputy clerk of courts. That's an increase of more than 650 over 2001, which was also a record year.
"People tend to be more litigious in a bad economy," Welsh said. "Something that wouldn't have bothered them so much when times were good bothers them enough to sue now that times are bad."
The numbers have risen steadily, especially over the past two or three years, causing court personnel to scramble to keep up with the increasing loads of paperwork, and creating headaches for judges charged with disposing of the cases.
Criminal cases dropped by about 150 from 2001 to 2002, but still, are far higher than the 700 or so filed in 1990.
Considering seeking help
Judge Jack Durkin said he and his colleagues do their best to keep pace but have reached the point that they need help. They're looking at the possibility of asking the Ohio Supreme Court to recommend creation of a sixth judicial position for the court.
He said the state recently approved a sixth judge for Butler County, Ohio, which is similar to Mahoning in population and its court docket.
"I think our numbers clearly support addition of either additional magistrates or an additional judge," Judge Durkin said.
Judges could hire another magistrate without state approval. They already employ two magistrates whose jobs are primarily to deal with civil cases.
Judges haven't decided which move to make, or whether to look into other options. Addition of a judge would require approval of the General Assembly, with the blessing of the high court.
"We would have to prove our case to both of those entities," said Robert Rupeka, court administrator. He said Mahoning will compare its statistics with other counties of similar population and docket size before making any such request.
A fifth judgeship was created for Mahoning County in May 1990 because judges then couldn't keep up with the growing caseload. The late Judge Michael Gerchak was the first to hold that position, now held by Judge Durkin.
Budget strains
Judges realize that additional personnel would further complicate the county's already constricted budget and courthouse space problems, Judge Durkin said.Common pleas judges are paid about $107,600 a year, though the state pays 85 percent, and the county pays the rest.
Gary Kubic, county administrator, said judges should conduct a time-management study to ensure that they're making the best use of technology and scheduling.
Judge Durkin said the constant increase in civil cases also contributes to another county problem -- overcrowding in the county jail. Commissioners have complained lately that inmates are locked up too long while they await trial, and the county must pay for their incarceration.
But the increasing number of civil cases means there's also an increased chance that judges are going to be stuck in trial. When that happens, other cases get pushed behind and inmates wait in jail, Judge Durkin said.
"It's a complex problem and there isn't just one solution to it," he said.
Poor economy
Welsh said she's not surprised that, given the area's economic conditions, the civil case numbers are high.
"What is shocking to me is just how high they are," she said.
Much of the increase is because of foreclosures, which also have risen steadily over the past five years. About one-third of all civil cases filed last year were foreclosures, which Welsh said are "very labor-intensive cases with loads of paperwork."
Welsh said there were about 1,300 foreclosures filed in 2002, compared with 658 five years ago.
Atty. Cherie Howard of Northeast Ohio Legal Services said the increase is largely because of predatory lenders, financial institutions that lend money to people they know won't be able to pay it back.
"And when they can't pay, the foreclosure comes," Howard said, noting that most of the foreclosures are sought by out-of-town lending institutions.
Welsh said there were increases last year in workers' compensation cases and requests for civil protection orders, or anti-stalking orders, which contributed to the caseload increase.
There were no civil protection orders in 2001 because of a visiting judge's ruling in common pleas court that they were unconstitutional. That decision was later recanted and more than 370 were filed last year, far surpassing the 258 filed in 2000.
& lt;a href=mailto:bjackson@vindy.com & gt;bjackson@vindy.com & lt;/a & gt;

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