By Marc Kovac
The Ohio Senate could vote this week on much-debated legislation that would eliminate a seat on the Youngstown Municipal Court.
House Bill 606, offered by state Reps. Robert Hagan of Youngstown, D-60th, and Ronald Gerberry of Austintown, D-59th, was approved late Tuesday by the Senate judiciary committee, with members haggling behind the scenes over whether to allow the legislation to move forward.
Hagan said that a change was made to eliminate the mayor’s court of a community near Cleveland with population of less than 100 as part of the legislation.
He expects it to be voted on in the Senate today and, if approved, to move back to the House for vote on the changes.
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.
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.
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.
Hagan, Gerberry and Scott Cochran, an attorney from Youngstown, voiced their support for the legislation during Tuesday’s hearing.
“We need to show the people that we are using those resources as efficiently as possible without harming the administration of justice,” Cochran said, adding that cost savings from the elimination of the judgeship could be used for much-needed improvements to the city’s court facilities.
He added in written testimony, “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. The bar association is taking no position on which of the three judgeships should be impacted by any proposed legislation.”
Tuesday’s hearing also included testimony from opponents of the legislation, who want lawmakers to postpone a vote and push the governor to appoint a replacement for Douglas to complete his term next year.
Youngstown Clerk of Courts Sarah Brown-Clark disputed case statistics, saying that they do not accurately reflect court activity.
“When you look at these statistics that are given to you by the Supreme Court, you need to understand that a veterans court case that might require 12 appearances is counted one time,” Brown-Clark said. “A traffic ticket that is mailed in to the clerk’s office gets counted one time. Give consideration to the workload issue there and to those statistics, because it misrepresents the actual workload and the work of the court.”