Chief justice supports end to mayor's courts
There are 15 mayor's courts in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties.
By MARC KOVAC
COLUMBUS -- Legislation abolishing small-town mayor's courts has gained the support of Ohio's top judge.
"I've been urging -- quietly for a number of years and not so quietly for the last year in a half -- that Ohio come into the 21st century ... [and] eliminate part-time judges," Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer told reporters Thursday.
Justice Moyer joined Rep. Larry Wolpert, a Republican from Hilliard, during a press conference at the Statehouse outlining provisions of House Bill 154, which would eliminate mayor's courts from communities with fewer than 1,600 residents.
Under current Ohio law, municipal corporations with more than 100 people can operate mayor's courts to hear cases involving violations of local ordinances and state traffic laws, according to information compiled by the Ohio Supreme Court.
There were 336 municipalities operating mayor's courts as of 2005, the most recent statistics compiled by the state.
Those courts dealt with nearly 346,000 cases, including 51,181 misdemeanors, 5,767 drunken-driving and 288,899 other offenses.
Wolpert said his legislation would eliminate mayor's courts in about 142 Ohio municipalities with fewer than 1,600 residents.
The move would affect seven of the 15 mayor's courts in Columbiana, Mahoning and Trumbull counties, according to the most recent statistics compiled by the Supreme Court.
Close to 200 other mayor's courts (in municipalities with 1,600 or more residents) would become community courts, with magistrates appointed by county courts and not by locally elected officials.
The local courts also would fall under the authority of the Ohio Supreme Court, providing an enforcement means that does not currently exist, Wolpert added.
Notes conflict of interest
Justice Moyer said the current mayor's court system, which exists in only Ohio and Louisiana, is a conflict of interest and creates, at minimum, a perception of impropriety.
Mayors serving the executive functions of a community or magistrates appointed by those individuals sit in judgment over people who are paying fines that fund the community's budget.
The chief justice said the local courts do play a role, providing a convenient means for resolving minor disputes and allowing law enforcement to stay in their communities instead of driving to bigger centralized courts and waiting for cases to be heard.
Villages losing their courts would be allowed to retain half the fines collected from infractions in their communities. Wolpert said the ultimate financial impact wouldn't be too great for some once the costs to operate the mayor's courts are eliminated.
Not that that will appease village officials.
"I'm going to have 142 mayors mad at me," Wolpert said, adding that, collectively, the populations affected by the change represent about .09 percent of the state's population.