Officials request delay of bill

By David Skolnick


State Rep. Robert F. Hagan will postpone introducing a bill to eliminate a Youngstown Municipal Court judicial seat at the request of a majority of city council members.

Hagan of Youngstown, D-60th, agreed to first have a public meeting on the issue before introducing a bill in the state Legislature.

But he said having the discussion “won’t make any difference,” as a replacement for the retired Judge Robert A. Douglas Jr. won’t be named after the chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court sent a letter to the governor asking him to delay naming a successor.

Hagan said he had told council members he would only consider a delay if a majority of council members asked for it.

Hagan said he received a letter Friday urging the bill postponement signed by council members Annie Gillam, D-1st; T.J. Rodgers, D-2nd; Nate Pinkard, D-3rd; Janet Tarpley, D-6th; and council President Jamael Tito Brown. Also in favor of the postponement is Clerk of Courts Sarah Brown-Clark and ex-council members Rufus Hudson, the current president of the Mahoning Valley Sanitary District board of directors, and Artis Gillam.

After a public hearing in the area, Hagan said he’d introduce the bill to get rid of the Youngstown seat with a vote expected by the state Legislature sometime after the Nov. 6 general election.

The current and former council members say the decision to eliminate the Youngstown judicial seat should be part of a comprehensive study of Mahoning County’s entire lower-court system.

“We disagree with the decision to single out the Youngstown Municipal Court in the guise of consolidation and efficiency,” Hudson said.

When asked if the use of “guise” meant it’s a racial issue — Judge Douglas was the only black judge in the county and all of the current and former city officials in opposition are also black — Hudson said, “I’m not going to say it’s a race issue.”

Brown said it’s not an issue of race to him. Hagan said the same, adding that it’s a matter of saving money for the city.

“I feel the position should be eliminated and the money used to hire police officers,” Hagan said.

In 2011, the average caseload for a municipal court judge in the state was 10,942, according to statistics compiled by the Ohio Supreme Court. In Youngstown, each of the three judges had 4,421 filings last year. If one judge is reduced, the two remaining judges would have had 6,631 filings last year.

Hudson said that “not all cases are the same.”

Hudson also criticized county Democratic Party Chairman David Betras for his support to eliminate one city judicial position without consulting the party’s central and executive committees.

“We’re not opposed to a study with consolidation recommendations, but we also need a discussion on consolidating part-time county courts and mayors’ courts,” said Hudson, a county Democratic party executive committee member.

Betras, an attorney and longtime court consolidation advocate, said he’s “not in favor of just eliminating a Youngstown Municipal Court judge. I want to look at the entire county, but this is an important first step.”

Also, Betras said, “Race never plays an issue with me. I recognize the sensitivity of only one elected black judge in the county. But I’d say the same thing for any of the judges.”

After Gov. John Kasich received a July 18 letter from Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor asking him to postpone the replacement of Judge Douglas, who retired last week, the governor agreed to halt the process. The county Republican party had submitted the names of four finalists to replace Judge Douglas if the governor decided to have someone succeed him.

The chief justice said the delay was needed to allow county officials to examine an overhaul of the local judicial system.

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