Mahoning Bar: Two judges enough

Published: Thu, November 15, 2012 @ 12:08 a.m.

By Peter H. Milliken


The presiding and administrative judge of Youngstown Municipal Court said it doesn’t matter to her whether the court operates with two full-time judges or three, but, to eliminate uncertainty, she’d like a decision to be made soon.

Judge Elizabeth Kobly made her remarks after an announcement Wednesday by the Mahoning County Bar Association that it believes the court can operate efficiently with two full-time judges.

A vacancy was created by the retirement July 31 of Judge Robert A. Douglas Jr. Judge Douglas had 17 months left in his term.

Judge Kobly said she’d like to see decisive action soon, whether Gov. John Kasich appoints a replacement or the Ohio Legislature abolishes the seat.

“It’s dragged on way too long. The uncertainty isn’t helping anything, so the sooner it gets decided one way or the other, the better off we’ll be,” Judge Kobly said. “Right now, we’re up in the air with regard to scheduling” of cases based on visiting-judge availability, she explained.

Although its docket still is current, the court is being forced to eliminate night court in mid- December because Magistrate Anthony Sertick’s daytime workload has been increased because of Judge Douglas’ departure, Judge Kobly explained.

“We’ve always been current, and we’ll continue to stay that way regardless of what we need to do. We pride ourselves on that,” she said.

County Court Judges David D’Apolito and Diane Vettori sat as part-time visiting judges between July 31 and Oct. 31, and the Ohio Supreme Court has approved the continuation of Judge Vettori as a visiting judge through Jan. 31.

George Denney, court administrator, said the employment of Judge Douglas’ bailiff and secretary was terminated Nov. 2 due to a lack of work.

Judge Kobly said the status of the veteran’s, driver’s license suspension and housing specialty courts is unknown if the court is permanently reduced to two full-time judges.

Sarah Brown-Clark, municipal court clerk, said the availability and viability of the specialty courts, which “are very critical to an urban population,” could be reduced if the third judgeship is permanently eliminated.

“Operating with two judges would reduce expenses and align the court more closely with the city’s population and the court’s case volume, both of which have declined considerably in the past 10 years,” said Atty. Shirley J. Christian, bar association president.

Brown-Clark said she wants Kasich to appoint someone to fill Judge Douglas’ unexpired term. That would provide more time to study the municipal court’s needs in the context of potential consolidation of Mahoning County’s entire lower-court system, she said.

If abolishing Judge Douglas’ seat is justified, the abolition should become effective when the term ends at the end of 2013, she added.

Christian said the association is not taking a position on whether the third judgeship should be eliminated now or when another vacancy arises.

The next known open seat in Youngstown Municipal Court will occur five years from now when Judge Robert Milich will be legally barred from running again because of his age. State law forbids judges from starting a new term after their 70th birthdays.

State Rep. Robert Hagan of Youngstown, D-60th, proposed in August to introduce a bill to abolish Judge Douglas’ seat, but agreed to postpone the introduction at the request of a majority of city council and several former council members.

The city’s three-judge system dates back to 1953, when Youngstown’s population was about 150,000. The city’s current population is about 66,000.

The current Youngstown Municipal Court caseload is insufficient to justify three full-time judges, Hagan said.

Brown-Clark said categories of court cases need to be separated in the Ohio Supreme Court’s case- reporting system that is used to compare the workloads and productivity of the courts to accurately reflect the number and types of cases in each category.

For example, she said traffic cases, in which a fine is mailed in without any court appearance, should be separated from cases that require court appearances when the workload and productivity comparisons are made.

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