Politics rears its ugly head

To understand just how difficult it will be to change the court system in Mahoning County below the common pleas level, consider this email text response from Atty. David Betras, chairman of the Democratic Party, to last week’s column about eliminating one of the three seats on the Youngstown Municipal Court:

“If u just eliminate the judge in y-town w/o doing the other stuff I’m not in favor.

“The AA [African-American] community will hate me as I think they will see it as eliminating one of their seats. This is why it cannot be done in the vacuum.

“If the three judges run at large in say an eastern division a AA has an excellent chance to win.”

The column last week focused on the seat occupied by Judge Robert A. Douglas Jr., whose term expires next year. Douglas, who is black, cannot seek re-election because of the mandatory retirement age. It was, therefore, suggested that as a first step in the creation of a metropolitan court system, the Ohio General Assembly should eliminate the judgeship. That would still leave two full-time judges in Youngstown to serve a declining population and a caseload that has experienced a major decrease between 1999 and 2010.

According to the Ohio Supreme Court Statistical Analysis Department, in 1999, there were 1,056 felony cases filed in the municipal court, compared with 982 cases in 2010; as for misdemeanor filings, there were 5,754 in 1999, compared with 2,201 in 2010.

Caseload in Warren

By contrast, in the two-judge municipal court in Warren, there were 784 felony and 2,120 misdemeanor cases filed in 2010.

It is important to note that municipal courts in Ohio handle only preliminary hearings on felony cases. Trials are held at the common pleas level.

Indeed, the caseload in the Youngs-town Municipal Court is such that Judge Douglas is not regularly on the bench on Fridays, according to Assistant City Prosecutor Bassil Ally. That information was contained in the tape recording of a conversation Ally had with former city Prosecutor Jay Macejko when the two were embroiled in the dispute over Ally’s attending religious services in a mosque Friday afternoons.

It is clear that the three full-time Youngstown judges, along with two part-time judges in Campbell and Struthers municipal courts, the four part-time judges in the county courts and the mayor’s courts have outlived their usefulness.

These limited-jurisdiction entities are nothing more than a drain on taxpayer dollars. For at least three decades, thoughtful individuals inside and outside the legal profession have advocated eliminating these courts and creating a countywide metropolitan system in which the judges would run in districts and would serve full time.

In his emails to this writer, Chairman Betras, ever the politician, argued that only eliminating the one Youngstown judgeship would trigger a political backlash in the black community.

“Don’t allow them to elect a judge in 2013, or it will never get done,” he wrote. “At the same time in 2017 eliminate Struthers and Campbell.”

Struthers Judge James Lanzo and Campbell Judge Patrick Cunning, both part-timers, receive a significantly higher salary than the $24,000 median income of a family of four in the county. They also receive full benefits. All part-time judges also are eligible for public pensions.

Expiration dates

Here’s a complete list of the judges below the common pleas level and the years their terms expire. Only Judge Douglas and another Youngstown judge, Robert Milich, whose term is up in 2017, are prevented from seeking re-election because of age.

Youngstown: Douglas, 2013; Elizabeth Kobly, 2013; Milich, 2017.

Campbell: Cunning, 2017.

Struthers: Lanzo, 2017.

County Court #2 (Boardman): Joseph Houser, 2012.

County Court #3 (Sebring): Diane Vettori, 2013.

County Court #4 (Austintown): David D’Apolito, 2016.

County Court #5 (Canfield): Scott Hunter, 2012.

There are mayor’s courts in Canfield, Craig Beach, Lowellville, New Middletown and Poland.

There’s ample justification for eliminating the courts of limited jurisdiction. However, if politics rears its ugly head, change will not occur. Betras’ all or nothing attitude is disconcerting.

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