Court consolidation genie is already out of the bottle

Officials in the cities of Camp- bell and Struthers deserve high marks for honesty on the issue of court consolidation: They readily admit that their desire to maintain the status quo of each city having a municipal court is, first and foremost, about money.

“Keep the number of employees we have here for income-tax purposes,” says Struthers Mayor Terry Stocker.

The court is a money maker for the city, admits Campbell Law Director Brian Macala.

In other words, it’s not about the proper administration of justice, or service to the public. The almighty dollar rules.

It is instructive that the chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court, Maureen O’Connor, has said the entire court system (including Campbell and Struthers municipal courts) in Mahoning County below the common pleas level is judicially and financially archaic.

Likewise, a study of the municipal courts in Youngstown, Campbell and Struthers, the four countywide courts and the mayor’s courts by the State Justice Institute of the National Center for State Courts unequivocally recommends consolidation. The creation of a metropolitan court system below the common pleas level has been discussed for at least three decades.

But at long last, the issue is moving beyond the talking stage. Democratic Party Chairman David Betras is leading the charge with the politicians, while the county bar association is expected to recommend passage of state legislation to begin the process of consolidation.

But in the opinion of the officials in Campbell and Struthers, the dollars generated by the municipal courts are reason enough to oppose any changes.

From 2011 to 2012, Campbell took in $225,000 from the court, while Struthers was left with a little over $100,000 after the court’s receipts were weighted against expenditures for 2009 through 2011.

Both cities have passed resolutions opposing any plan that would eliminate their municipal courts.

But, seeing as how money is the main argument they’re using to maintain the status quo, here’s a fact they should consider: The population of their cities and the other communities served by Struthers is declining, resulting in a decrease in the caseloads of the courts.

Cost reduction

On the other hand, the analyses by the Ohio Supreme Court and the State Justice Institute show that a consolidated system will not only improve efficiency, but will reduce the cost of administering justice.

The first step toward consolidating the lower level courts in Mahoning County was taken recently when Gov. John Kasich refused to fill one of the three judgeships in Youngstown vacated by Judge Robert A. Douglas Jr.

The General Assembly followed up by eliminating the position.

The now two-judge court — there also is a magistrate — has not collapsed under weight of a huge backlog of cases.

Rather than fight the inevitable, officials in Campbell and Struthers should begin the process of merging their court systems.

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