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Courts won’t go quietly

Published: Sun, January 29, 2012 @ 12:00 a.m.

By Bertram de Souza (Contact)

“Ungaro pushes to cut judge”

“Abolition of post is target — Leaders seek just two judges”

Those two headlines appeared on the front pages of The Vindicator 25 years ago. To repeat: 25 years ago.

The opening paragraph of the first story was as follows:

“A 30 percent drop in the number of cases filed in Youngstown Municipal Court between 1976 and 1985 clearly proves Mayor Patrick J. Ungaro’s contention that three city judges are unnecessary, Finance Director Gary T. Kubic contends.”

The lead paragraph of the second story:

“A delegation of Youngstown officials led by Mayor Patrick J. Ungaro is scheduled to be in Columbus Wednesday to lobby for the passage of a bill that would abolish one of three judgeships.”

The stories were written by this writer. Reading them today is a stark reminder of the corrosive nature of politics in the Mahoning Valley. The public good has rarely been a priority — as evidenced by the fact that there are still three judges in the Youngstown Municipal Court.


It is interesting that in 1987, when then Mayor Ungaro led the charge to eliminate one of the judgeships, the legislator who sponsored the bill was state Rep. Joseph J. Vukovich III, a Democrat representing the 33rd District. Vukovich is now a judge in the 7th District Court of Appeal.

Vukovich’s bill did not go anywhere, but not from lack of trying. Local special interests, including prominent politicians, convinced then House Speaker Vern Riffe to kill the legislation. Why? Because the status quo meant job protection and influence peddling.

That’s the same reason the idea for consolidating the courts in Mahoning County below the Common Pleas level has been stuck in the talking stage for three decades.

Currently, there are three full-time judges in Youngstown Municipal Court; one part-time judge each in Campbell and Struthers; four part-time judges in the Mahoning County Court.

Hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars support this court system that is not only inefficient and wasteful, but is a reflection of the insidious nature of local politics.

Youngstown’s current population does not justify three black robes. Indeed, if the state formula that applies generally to municipal courts were to be used, the city would only be eligible for one judge.

To the argument that the case load makes three full-time judges necessary, the historical data renders it null and void.

Twenty-five years ago, when the Ungaro administration sought to reduce the number of judges, the data for 1985 was used as a comparison with previous years. It showed that there were 22,503 cases filed in the court.

In 2010, the total number of cases filed in Youngstown was 12,441. In 2001, the total was 20,927. The statistics are contained in a study on court consolidation in Mahoning County conducted by the National Center for State Courts.

The decline in the case loads is not confined to Youngstown.

Despite the absence of a legitimate argument for keeping the current setup intact, change has been all but impossible.

Countywide judges

The creation of a metropolitan court with a set number of full-time judges serving countywide would address the myriad problems now confronting the criminal justice system.

But as the news stories from 1987 clearly show, this county, left to its own devices, will not change. The enemies of progress are too powerful.

That’s why county Democratic Party Chairman David Betras’ appeal to Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor of the Ohio Supreme Court to intervene is so important. The interest of the public must take precedence.

The chief justice has appointed a special master to mediate the battle between the three Youngstown judges and the city administration over the court facilities. The judges want to move out of their quarters in City Hall and have ordered the administration to pay for the new location. The cheapest option would cost at least $8 million.

Betras wants the Supreme Court look at the consolidation as an alternative to requiring city government to provide the municipal court with new digs.

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