Probate courts in Ohio rank among the least understood but most important tiers of the civil-justice system. Courts of probate — from the Latin probatio, to prove — must maneuver a massive matrix of 200 duties mandated by state law. These range from adoptions, guardianships and name changes, to wills and settlements of multimillion-dollar estates.
That’s why it’s critical to have knowledgeable, seasoned and creative leadership at the helm of probate courts. Trumbull County residents are fortunate to have three such thoughtful, knowledgeable and seasoned attorneys on the May 6 Democratic primary ballot seeking the party’s nomination for probate judge. They are William Flevares, 48; Patricia Leopardi Knepp, 50, and James Fredericka, 60, all from Warren. Though each has strengths that he or she would bring to the bench, The Vindicator puts its support behind Fredericka for the greater depth of his 35 years of legal experience and for his creative yet practical ideas to enhance court operations.
In his campaign, Flevares rightly places a high priority on increasing mediation to settle probate cases. “It will save families on both legal and emotional costs,” he said. Flevares, however, who argues that the probate judge must maintain a respectful judicial temperament, sounds rather disrespectful of some attorneys. He charges that many “lawyers are looting estates and depriving families of what is rightfully theirs.” Such harsh rhetoric could sour much needed cohesive attorney-court relationships.
Knepp would bring many effective ideas to the court, not the least of which is her goal to humanize it and make it more meaningful and accessible to the masses. “I know first-hand that these matters are not just cases with numbers,” she said. “They are people.”
Knepp said she would expand educational outreach programs about the court to nursing homes, hospitals and shut-ins and would explore options to better assist people who can’t afford court costs or who have difficulty navigating the bureaucratic maze of court documents and services. All are solid ideas.
FREDERICKA’S STRONG CANDIDACY
But Fredericka, the oldest and most experienced attorney in this field, absorbs the best of both Flevares’ and Knepp’s platforms. Like Flevares, he, too, seeks stronger efforts at mediation of probate cases. Like Knepp, he, too, seeks stronger community outreach programs to debunk myths and allay fears about the court.
Fredericka also advocates strong fiscal management at a time when the court and county budgets are strained. Partially toward that end, he urges expansion of the Guardian Angel program, in which screened and trained volunteers check on the welfare and treatment of subjects of guardianships including senior citizens. “They can be the eyes and ears of the court,” he said. Among Fredericka’s other promising goals are expansion of electronic filings and the court’s online presence to save time and expense for attorneys and court staff and to provide greater transparency to the public.
Regardless of who wins May 6, he or she will have some mighty big judicial shoes to fill. Judge Thomas Swift has accumulated a superlative record of service to the court, to the county and to the state since first becoming probate judge in 1979. Age limits prevent Swift, 72, from seeking re-election again.
The Vindicator therefore recommends voters choose Fredericka as the Democratic nominee best suited to continue the record of integrity that has defined Swift’s court for four decades.