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Attorney: ‘Experiments’ in Mahoning courtroom aren’t working

Judge Beth Smith of Mahoning County Domestic Relations Court stands in her courtroom last week near the witness stand, at left, and a podium where attorneys stand at right. The judge’s bench is behind the plastic barrier. About a month ago, the witness stand was in the back of the large courtroom for social distancing. But a recent court filing states a bigger problem was that microphone issues made it impossible for a court reporter to provide a usable transcript of large parts of a hearing.

YOUNGSTOWN — An attorney has asked Mahoning County Domestic Relations Judge Beth Smith to postpone a protection order hearing scheduled for Tuesday because of concerns that it cannot be carried out effectively.

Attorney John Juhasz filed a motion last week stating that Smith and others deserve praise for resuming hearings and trials despite COVID-19, but he called changes being implemented “experiments.”

And, he noted, the changes Smith made to her courtroom affected a hearing a month ago in a way that made it impossible for a usable transcript of proceedings to be made.

He cited an Aug. 13 hearing in another case in which he participated that suffered from a number of technical and logistical problems — making it hard for everyone to hear one another other and for a recording device to pick up everyone’s words.

Smith said she has since fixed the problems.

THE SITUATION

Juhasz’s filing notes that Smith’s courtroom is large. On Aug. 13, the witness stand was located along the back wall of the room. That would place it some 30 feet from tables where the attorneys sit. In most instances, the witness stand is in the front of the courtroom near the judge and attorneys.

Smith said she had the witness stand moved to the back to provide at least 20 feet between the witness and other parties, because particles from a person’s mouth can “spray” at least 20 feet.

A court magistrate was in the usual location at the front of the courtroom behind a “copious amount of protective plexiglass,” and there was no court reporter, Juhasz’s filing states.

Microphones were provided to the witnesses and attorneys, but they did not work well, Juhasz stated. At several points, one of the microphones provided to an attorney lost battery power, so the attorneys shared one.

That led to one of the attorneys speaking into his microphone to inform the magistrate that the other attorney had raised an objection to some aspect of the testimony, Juhasz stated.

With the witness sitting so far from the attorneys, it was difficult for the witness, attorneys and magistrate to hear one another, the filing states. Despite the distance between the parties, each still had to wear a mask.

An attempt was made to have a witness testify electronically from another room. That witness still had difficulty hearing and being heard, the filing states.

After the magistrate ruled in the case, Juhasz objected to the decision, and a court reporter was asked to prepare a transcript of the proceedings from the recording, but it wasn’t possible, Juhasz stated.

“The court reporter spent hours attempting to discern the proceedings and finally telephoned (Juhasz) to advise him that she could not produce an accurate record,” the filing states.

WANTS A DO-OVER

Juhasz said he will be asking for the entire Aug. 13 hearing to be held again. That would involve additional expense to the parties in the case.

“It is expensive enough to pay a lawyer to try a case once. It is foolish and wasteful to pay lawyers to try a case twice,” the filing states.

Juhasz asked the judge and Magistrate Donald Hepfner to postpone Tuesday’s hearing “until it can be safely conducted under circumstances where an adequate record can be made.” The filing also states that Juhasz has a schedule conflict that day because he has a client with a hearing that day in a criminal case.

Judge Smith said she would not comment on how she or Magistrate Hepfner will rule on Juhasz’s request to postpone Tuesday’s hearing — but said she believes it can be held without any of the technical or logistical problems of Aug. 13.

When she became aware of the transcript problems shortly after the hearing, the witness stand was moved to the front of the courtroom to within about 15 feet of where the attorneys are located. Changes also were made to the microphones so that they work with fewer glitches, Smith said.

“I think the technical diffiulties are remedied, but we continue to monitor to make sure the transcripts are available,” Smith said. “I truly want litigants to be heard and have their day in court.”

She noted there is another way to address a problem with a deficient transcript besides holding the hearing again. It involves the use of affidavits, which are written statements of facts given by a witness under oath.

A judge or magistrate can rule on a case with affidavits if the transcript is not available, Judge Smith said.

Many parties in domestic relations cases like using video conferencing for hearings better than in-person hearings, Smith said. That technology is used a lot in her court, she said.

erunyan@tribtoday.com

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