By Marc Kovac
and David Skolnick
Legislation to eliminate a Youngstown Municipal Court judicial seat could be approved by the Ohio Senate by next Wednesday or Thursday.
The proposal to reduce the city court from three judges to two likely will be considered Tuesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will have a hearing that day, and likely in front of the Senate for a vote a day or two later, said State Sen. Joe Schiavoni of Boardman, D-33rd, who will carry the bill in the Legislature’s upper chamber.
The Senate’s last scheduled session is next Thursday.
The Ohio House approved legislation Wednesday to reduce the size of Youngs-town Municipal Court by one judge.
The final vote on House Bill 606 was 76-12.
“We do respect the opportunities of how justice is meted out,” said state Rep. Robert F. Hagan of Youngstown, D-60th, who sponsored the bill. “But we also need to make sure that we’re responsible fiscally. ... The numbers just don’t call for the third judge.”
He added, “We have this responsibility to the taxpayers to make sure that we are vigilant and watching those dollars, and I can’t for the life of me justify the existence of another court judge when we have this opportunity to save between $100,000 and $150,000. And that’s just the minimum.”
The bill 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 Aug. 1.
Gov. John Kasich has held off on appointing someone to the seat, awaiting legislative action.
The three-judge system has been in place for decades and was established when the city had about 150,000 residents. The community is now home to less than half of that total.
“It’s been going on for 28 years, and I’ve always supported it,” said Mayor Charles Sammarone, who voted in favor of the resolution to reduce the number of judges from three to two when he was a city councilman in 1986. “I support it now for the same reason I supported it then: it’s a financial issue. It’s based on finances.”
And now is an ideal time to eliminate the position because it’s empty so no one would lose a job, he said.
According to statistics compiled by 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 Ohio Supreme Court, the Mahoning County Bar Association and the experts at the National Center of State Courts all agree that court consolidation is the right thing to do,” state Rep. Ronald Gerberry of Austintown, D-59th. “Passage of this bill is the successful first step towards a broader reconfiguration of the county court system.”
Wednesday’s action came a day after three city officials asked a House committee to postpone the vote.
Councilwomen Annie Gillam, D-1st, and Janet Tarpley, D-6th, as well as Clerk of Courts Sarah Brown-Clark, among others, want the vacant seat to be filled and the court to keep its three-judge structure through next year to allow the city time to prepare for the transition.
Gillam said she expects the Senate to pass the bill next week, even though a majority of council voted last month in opposition to the reduction.
“We want to have a judge appointed until the end of next year to give us time to have a smooth transition to two judges,” she said.