By Marc Kovac
The debate over the elimination of a seat on Youngstown Municipal Court spilled over into the Statehouse on Tuesday, as city officials and a local newspaper editor voiced their opposition to the plan.
City Councilwoman Annie Gillam, Clerk of Courts Sarah Brown Clark and Buckeye Review Managing Editor Clarence Boles are among the opponents who provided testimony to the Ohio House’s judiciary committee, which is considering legislation that would reduce the number of municipal judges.
They and others hope to persuade state lawmakers to postpone a vote on House Bill 606, sponsored by Democratic Reps. Bob Hagan, from Youngstown, and Ronald Gerberry, from Austintown.
“All we’re asking is that our state representative hold a series of public forums, preferably four ... [in] all four corners of the town and solicit the opinion in a fair and reasonable way as to the elimination or continuation of the [judgeship],” Boles said, adding, “We don’t think we’re asking too much to be afforded a fair and responsible consideration for the discussion of [the seat].”
HB 606 would reduce the bench in the municipal court from three to two judges, eliminating the seat that was vacated when Judge Robert A. Douglas Jr. retired earlier this year. Gov. John Kasich has held off on appointing someone to the seat, awaiting legislative action on the issue.
The three-judge system has been in place for nearly 60 years and was established when the city had about 140,000 residents. The community is now home to less than half of that total.
According to statistics compiled by the government relations counsel for the Ohio Supreme Court, there were 13,000-plus criminal, civil and traffic cases before the court last year, amounting to 4,421 per judge. That’s less than half the statewide average of 9,629 cases. With two judges, the average would be about 6,600 cases.
The Mahoning County Bar Association and others support the move.
“It is ultimately the recommendation of the Mahoning County Bar Association Board of Trustees that the Youngstown Municipal Court can run efficiently and provide adequate access to justice for the citizens served by the court with two full-time judgeships,” Scott R. Cochran, a member of the group’s consolidation advisory committee, wrote in a statement provided to lawmakers.
But Youngstown officials at the Statehouse on Tuesday said a majority of city council members oppose the consolidation, and the legislature should postpone eliminating the judgeship until the end of next year.
Gillam said the extra judge is needed as the city combats crime, with the existing workload prompting the need for a magistrate to assist with cases.
“They say that the courts are a mess,” she said. “We feel we need at least a year so we can organize our court system and not leave it in disarray. ...They’re talking about saving money, but I think it will save the city money, it will save [the state] money because you won’t have to put as much money in the prison system. And it will also save lives.”
Boles criticized Hagan for moving forward with the legislation, after city officials asked him to “cease and desist.”
“We don’t understand what the big rush is,” added Brown-Clark. “Did not city council vote to tell Rep. Hagan not to pursue this?”
But one Democratic member of the House judiciary committee questioned why the decision should be postponed, given that other courts in the state have had to eliminate seats due to shrinking populations.
It’s not just a local issue,” said Rep. Dennis Murray, from Sandusky. “[It’s a] state issue. Other taxpayers pay for this judgeship. ... Youngs-town is not the first community to have to do this.”
Tuesday was HB 606’s second hearing, and the bill could move before the end of the session this month.