By David Skolnick
Judge James C. Evans of Mahoning County Common Pleas Court said he’s been talking about retiring for months and his decision to do so, effective Sept. 1, shouldn’t come as a surprise.
“Everybody knew,” Judge Evans said Friday in an exclusive interview with The Vindicator. “I can’t think of anyone who didn’t know I was retiring.”
But Lou D’Apolito, the court’s administrative judge, to whom Judge Evans sent notice Thursday of his pending retirement, said, “I was surprised he was retiring. There were rumors, but he never talked to me or to any of the other judges, to the best of my knowledge, that he was retiring.”
Judge Evans said he originally was going to retire in February, but “personal issues with my wife postponed” it.
Judge Evans, 71, added: “It’s time to go.”
The judge’s resignation comes on the heels of his decision to recuse himself from hearing the case against Robert Brooks and Grant Cooper in the Sept. 25, 2010, death of 67-year-old Vivian Martin.
Martin’s friends and family expressed frustration about the delays in an article published Sunday by The Vindicator.
Judge Evans said, however, the retirement was planned for a long time and has nothing to do with the Martin case.
Judge Evans recused himself from that case June 6, a couple of hours after a reporter with this newspaper questioned him about the delays.
The judge said Friday he didn’t think about recusing himself until after that interview.
He defended himself against criticism about the delay of the trials of Brooks and Cooper, who were indicted Oct. 13, 2010.
“On Dec. 30, 2013, I told all the attorneys I was going to Columbus on March 4 to hopefully get everything prepared for my retirement,” Judge Evans said. “If you research the docket, you’ll see motions for delays by myself, the state and the defense.”
When asked if he understood that Martin’s friends and family are upset with the delays, he said, “Oh, yeah, sure. In all cases, there’s frustration with delays.”
Judge Evans’ original recusal didn’t give a reason why he wanted to no longer oversee the case. Rules governing the courts say a reason must be given.
“We have a case with [nearly] four years of delays and I wanted an explanation,” Judge D’Apolito said.
Judge Evans followed it up Thursday with two brief letters — one about the Brooks’ case and the other about Cooper’s — writing he was retiring, effective Sept. 1.
Between the recusal and retirement date decisions, Judge Evans saw Judge D’Apolito but didn’t tell him about his retirement.
“I didn’t feel it was necessary,” Judge Evans said. “I didn’t want it out at that time.”
While the judges said they don’t have any personal issues with each other, their comments don’t echo those sentiments.
Judge D’Apolito has “been waiting for me to retire,” Judge Evans said. “He couldn’t wait for me to retire to get his son into this seat.”
“Boy, is he crazy,” Judge D’Apolito responded when told of Judge Evans’ comments. “He seems angry with me. My son [Anthony] is a magistrate in juvenile court with a lot of experience, including being an assistant prosecutor. He’s interested in being a judge.”
Judge D’Apolito said his son was looking to run for Judge Evans’ seat in 2016, when the latter judge’s term expires. Judge Evans couldn’t seek re-election because of the state’s age restrictions on judges.
But Judge D’Apolito said his son — along with other attorneys — will consider seeking the Democratic appointment for the rest of the term of this seat in the November general election. The term runs through Dec. 31, 2016.
The Ohio Secretary of State’s Office said because Judge Evans’ retirement date is more than 40 days before the election, candidates can run for the unexpired term in November.
Democratic and Republican precinct committee members would vote on their respective party nominees for Judge Evans’ seat.
The parties would have to act relatively fast after the judge’s Sept. 1 resignation — or even before — as boards of elections must have military and overseas ballots done by Sept. 20.
Also, Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, has the power to appoint a replacement for Judge Evans. That person would serve until the certification of the Nov. 4 general election under state law.
Before serving as a common pleas court judge, Evans was an Ohio State Highway Patrol officer, had a private law practice, was a Jackson Township trustee and a county court judge.
He was elected in 1998 to the first of three six-year terms on the bench, defeating Republican Theresa Dellick, now juvenile court judge, for an open seat.
“I absolutely enjoyed what I did,” he said. “Trying to rectify wrongs in a proper fashion gives me a feeling of satisfaction.”
Judge Evans said his most-memorable case was a civil one shortly after he was elected. The case involved a Poland woman improperly terminated from her job because of her age. She was awarded about $35 million in damages.
The judge spent more than five years working out of a small courtroom on the third floor of the county courthouse.
It was so small that in the Poland woman’s case “every pew in the little courtroom was covered in evidentiary materials,” the judge said.
Judge Evans said he will continue to serve on the Canfield Fair board of directors. He was first named to the board 20 years ago. A former board president, he is in charge of the fair’s police, fire and traffic operations.
He said he may go on visiting judge status or teach “or a couple of other things I’m keeping confidential for now.”