Stark vs. Mahoning courts: Similar in size, not in production.
By PETER H. MILLIKEN
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
CANTON -- Stark and Mahoning counties are urban counties sitting side by side.
Each has five general division common pleas trial judges handling major civil and criminal matters.
Both court systems had approximately the same overall caseload per judge -- a 2006 average of 1,508 cases were assigned to each Mahoning County judge versus 1,486 assigned to each Stark judge.
The judicial parallels stop there.
Mahoning County Common Pleas Court is among the worst in the state for backlogged criminal cases.
Stark has ended the last two years with no criminal cases pending beyond six months.
Mahoning County collectively had the fourth most backlogged criminal docket in the state, with 322 cases pending beyond the Ohio Supreme Court's six-month guideline at the end of 2005. That number grew to 359 in Mahoning County at the end of 2006. The Stark County judges also conducted at least seven times as many criminal jury trials as their Mahoning counterparts.
Long hours at courthouse
"From the time that the case is arraigned and assigned to a judge, they're on top of it," said Marc Warner, Stark County Common Pleas Court administrator. "They do not let the cases just sit."
"They're typically about the first ones here" each morning, and they sometimes work into the early evening, Warner said of the judges. At least two judges come to the courthouse on weekends, one of them regularly reading pre-sentencing investigation reports on Sunday afternoons to prepare for Monday morning sentencings, Warner said.
Judge Maureen A. Sweeney, administrative judge of Mahoning County Common Pleas Court, said her court's judges aren't regularly in the courthouse during evenings and weekends, but she said she routinely takes work home.
"I'm sure the other judges do, too," she said.
New criminal case filings have nearly doubled during the 12 years Warner has been in his job, but the number of judges has remained constant at five, Warner said. New criminal case filings rose from 1,442 in 2005 to 1,610 in 2006, according to figures Stark County Common Pleas Court submitted to the Ohio Supreme Court.
The figures for Mahoning County were 859 and 1,446, respectively.
Four Stark County court mediators settle 60 percent of civil cases they receive, clearing the docket to allow the judges to focus on criminal cases, Warner said.
Mahoning County Common Pleas Court's sole mediator, Atty. Richard Blair, settles 73 percent of cases referred to him, according to Robert Regula, Mahoning County Common Pleas Court administrator.
Number of criminal trials
One of the most notable aspects of Stark's court is the number of criminal jury trials the judges conduct: 95 in 2005 and 85 in 2006. The judges also conducted 10 criminal bench trials in 2005 and five in 2006.
Warner said Stark County's judges are among the leaders in the state in jury trials per judge.
"They're willing to go to trial," Warner observed. "I take it right back to the work ethic of the court," he said.
In contrast, the five general division judges in Mahoning County conducted only 11 criminal jury trials and two criminal bench trials in 2005 and 12 criminal jury trials and four criminal bench trials in 2006.
Judge R. Scott Krichbaum, the court's presiding judge, said that he believes Mahoning County's judges "exhibit a good work ethic" and that he didn't know why Stark's court has so many more criminal jury trials than Mahoning.
"I don't know. I'm here. I try cases," Sweeney said, concurring with Krichbaum. "We're ready to go," to trial, she added.
"Jury trials are very costly. The result is uncertain, and jury trials lend themselves to appeal," Krichbaum said. "There's no wonder that they've got to stay there until 7 or 8," p.m., arrive at 8 a.m. daily, and work on weekends in Stark County.
Krichbaum said he's wary of comparing Mahoning with other counties "where the economy is better than it is in Youngstown."
While keeping criminal dockets current, Stark's common pleas judges have not neglected their civil dockets. They conducted 62 civil jury trials and 20 civil nonjury trials in 2005, compared with 23 and six, respectively for Mahoning. They conducted 54 civil jury trials and 39 civil nonjury trials in 2006, compared with 38 and nine, respectively, for Mahoning.
At the end of 2005, four Stark civil cases were beyond the Supreme Court time guidelines, which range from nine to 36 months, depending on the type of case. In Mahoning, there were 334. At the end of 2006, three Stark civil cases were beyond time guidelines, compared with 341 for Mahoning.