Early bids on studying court setup vary widely

By Peter H. Milliken

Most survey respondents favor consolidation of courts.

YOUNGSTOWN — The Mahoning County Bar Association has received two very different informal and preliminary price quotations for its proposed study concerning consolidation of the county’s lower courts.

The urban planning department at Youngstown State University said it could do the study for about $10,000, but the Virginia-based National Center for State Courts quoted a $40,000 to $50,000 price range if it were to perform the study.

Those figures are not binding and “certainly may change once we tell them exactly what we want included” in the study, said Atty. Scott R. Cochran, bar association president.

Cochran said he hopes to submit bid specifications to the two organizations within the next month and that the organizations likely will submit final quotations early next year.

Cochran said YSU’s local presence largely explains its lower initial quotation.

Since the bar association lacks its own funding to pay for the study, Cochran said he hopes the Ohio Supreme Court will fund the study.

The top court said it might be willing to pay for the study once the association gets firm cost quotations, Cochran told The Vindicator.

“We need a good, comprehensive, objective study before any decisions are made” regarding consolidation, said Judge Robert P. Milich of Youngstown Municipal Court. Judge Milich is a member of the association’s courts committee, which will oversee the study.

Judge Milich said he wants to know in advance the experience any potential performer of the study has had in conducting similar studies and what methods that organization uses.

Public hearings should be conducted and comments should be solicited before the study begins and after it produces a report on various consolidation options, Judge Milich said.

Any study should evaluate not only the number of cases handled by each existing court but the types of cases that predominate in each court and the workload they generate, Judge Milich said.

Among the issues Cochran expects the study will cover are the number of judges and locations a consolidated court should have, whether the judges should be part time or full time, whether the judges should be elected countywide or from districts, and what impact consolidation would have on lawyers and the public.

The association decided to embark on an independent consolidation study after a 2-1 majority of association members responding to a poll said they favor consolidating the municipal and county courts into a countywide municipal court and that the association should take the lead in promoting consolidation.

One hundred and eighty-two of the association’s 592 members responded to the nonscientific survey, which the association conducted by e-mail and regular mail last summer.

Respondents said they favor consolidation because of the cost savings it might achieve and because of convenience to lawyers and clients to be achieved by reducing the number of court locations, and thereby reducing travel time for lawyers from one location to another.

The survey, however, did not produce a consensus as to how many locations the new court system should have.

The current 15,000-square-foot Youngstown Municipal Court is overcrowded, has inadequate air circulation, lacks public restrooms and is not conducive to proper court security, Judge Milich said.

If the court were to move and occupy 30,000 square feet at the City Hall Annex, as its judges have proposed, space still would be available for expansion should that location become the headquarters of a new countywide municipal court, he said.

Under the present system, Youngstown, Campbell and Struthers have municipal courts in their city halls; and the county courts occupy rented quarters in Boardman, Canfield, Austintown and Sebring.

Youngstown Municipal Court has three full-time judges, but every other court location has its own part-time judge.

In the survey, a majority of more than 2-1 said part-time judges shouldn’t be allowed to maintain a private law practice.

But, based on his reading of the responses, Cochran said he believes the respondents are more concerned about “the appearance of impropriety” when Mahoning County’s part-time judges practice law in other Mahoning County courts than about Mahoning County’s judges’ practicing law in the courts of other counties.

Respondents said they’re concerned about the public perception that a part-time judge could be more influential than other lawyers in private practice because of his or her status as a part-time judge.

Some lawyers feel uncomfortable and believe they’re at a disadvantage when their opponent in a court case serves as a part-time judge in another court, Judge Milich observed.

However, Cochran said he doesn’t recall a single poll response that said any of Mahoning County’s part-time judges are actually doing anything unethical or taking improper advantage of their judgeship status.

Cochran said he was unable to give precise numbers of respondents on either side of each survey question because some answered in sentences, rather than circling a “yes” or “no” answer.

Any cost savings to be achieved through court consolidation likely would come from operating fewer court locations, Cochran said. Having fewer judges also could produce savings, he added.

Court consolidation would produce some savings because fewer supervisors and court clerks would be needed in the new court, Judge Milich said.

However, he concluded: “The main objective in a court facility and a court system is not saving money. It’s justice.”

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