Democratic Party Chairman David Betras, long an advocate for eliminating the courts in Mahoning County below the common pleas level and creating a countywide system, has thrown political caution to the wind in urging Republican Gov. John Kasich not to fill a soon-to-be vacant Youngstown judgeship.
Judge Robert A. Douglas Jr. is retiring on Aug. 1, and according to the law the governor gets to appoint his replacement. Douglas’ six-year term ends in December 2013.
But although the word “shall” is used in the statute with regard to judicial appointments, as county Republican Chairman Mark Munroe noted in a letter published in The Vindicator May 13, Betras, a lawyer, argues that the governor is not required to act within an established time frame.
In a letter to the governor, Betras pointed out that a recent forum on court consolidation was hosted by Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor of the Ohio Supreme Court, and that the county bar association is working on a plan that should be ready by next year.
Because legislative action would be needed, the county’s state senator and representatives will be asked to sponsor a bill creating the new court system.
This newspaper first proposed a change in the lower court system three decades ago, and we have presented caseload analyses that clearly show there is no justification for three full-time judges in Youngstown, two part-time municipal court judges in Campbell and Struthers, four part-time county court judges and several mayors courts.
We have argued that as a first step toward consolidation, Douglas’ seat should be eliminated, which would leave two judges to handle a declining caseload in the city.
As a recent editorial highlighted, the 12-year data, compiled by the Supreme Court, shows a decline in filings of misdemeanor and felony cases in Youngstown. Municipal courts in Ohio hear misdemeanor cases and hold preliminary hearings for felonies, which ultimately end up in the common pleas court.
Just because Gov. Kasich, who has been unyielding in his demand that governments at all levels do more with less, has the statutory authority to fill a judicial vacancy does not mean he should do so.
When Judge Douglas leaves, his colleagues on the bench, Robert Milich and Elizabeth Kobly, certainly won’t be overburdened by work. And, if there comes a time that the court is swamped with filings, a visiting judge can be appointed by the chief justice to help ease the pressure.
The Democratic Party chairman is taking a political risk in urging the governor not to fill the vacancy seeing as how the appointment may well go to a Democrat. There aren’t any Republican lawyers living in the city who would qualify for the judgeship. That alone should prompt the governor to take a step back and consider the arguments put forth not only by Betras, but others who have studied the issue of court consolidation for many years. The Mahoning County Bar Association has a report prepared by a national criminal justice organization that lays out the advantages of reorganizing the court system below the common pleas level.
Finally, Kasich should have a conversation about the Youngstown Municipal Court with Chief Justice O’Connor and her staff.
The governor has been around politics long enough to know that once a public position is filled, it is almost impossible to eliminate. He should let Judge Douglas’ seat remain vacant.