Let the Y’town judges roll dice

By Bertram de Souza

Youngstown’s municipal court judges have threatened to go to the Ohio Supreme Court to force city government to provide them with new facilities. Mayor Jay Williams and city council should tell the judges, “Take your best shot.”

In the current economic climate, not even members of the highest court in the state would have the audacity to put the city in a deeper hole than it is in now — with a projected $3 million budget shortfall.

Indeed, the stars may have aligned in the city’s favor — if a letter from Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Moyer is any indication of his view of the world.

The letter was written in January to Judge Robert C. DeLamatre of the Erie County Juvenile Court, apparently in response to the judge’s inquiry about budgetary matters.

Here’s what Moyer’s letter says:

“All Americans are experiencing the impact of the financial conditions in our country. The courts of Ohio are no exception. We have been good stewards of public resources, but new realities are impacting all entities of local governments. The purpose of this letter is to offer encouragement and assistance, and to request your best efforts to sustain the ability of our courts to meet our constitutional duties.”

Fiscal discipline

Chief Justice Moyer notes that the Supreme Court has reduced its budget this fiscal year, and will identify reductions in budget requests for fiscal years 2010 and 2011.

“With respect to the budget challenges you may encounter locally, I urge you to continue to keep open the lines of communication with your funding authority. When doing so, it is important for all judges to balance the indispensable role of the courts and court programs against the necessity of being realistic in our assessment of the short term needs and revenue constraints of our funding authorities.”

In light of Moyer’s letter, this may be the most opportune time to resolve the dispute between the Youngstown municipal judges and the administration and council.

Mayor Williams and lawmakers say the $8 million to $12 million it would cost to move the municipal court out of its current location on the second floor of City Hall into one that meets the criteria set by judges Robert A. Douglas Sr., Robert Milich and Elizabeth Kobly is way beyond government’s reach.

Douglas, Milich and Kobly have signed a journal entry saying that if agreement cannot be reached, they want the city to provide $25,000 for a lawyer to sue the mayor and council in the Supreme Court.

Well, there isn’t going to be $25,000 out of the general fund for the lawsuit. So, the judges are on their own.

Atty. David Betras, a well known criminal lawyer who wants to be chairman of the Mahoning County Democratic Party, has offered to represent the judges for free. But it isn’t because he believes the city must give into the court.

Court consolidation

Rather, Betras is of the opinion that the time is ripe to push for the creation of a metropolitan court system below the common pleas level. He has embraced a plan developed by the late Atty. Don L. Hanni Jr. that would replace the municipal courts in Youngstown, Struthers and Campbell and the part-time county courts with one entity that would have several full-time judges.

The new court would need facilities beyond what are available in city hall.

That’s why Betras’ offer deserves to be taken seriously. It gives the judges of the municipal court the ability to look at the big picture — and the savings that would be derived by getting rid of the archaic court system that now exists.

Here’s what the chief justice had say to Judge DeLamatre about the budget challenges confronting the court system in Ohio:

“As you experience these difficult weeks and months, you may find assistance in a comparison of the budget of your court with the budgets of similar courts in the state. To this end, the Supreme Court is able to help. For instance, in the next several months we will be conducting a survey of staffing levels and budgets in the Ohio courts. The results of this survey will be shared with every judge and every court administrator in Ohio to help you assess your operations against others of similar size or jurisdiction.”

Mayor Williams and city council should encourage Douglas, Milich and Kobly to go to the Supreme Court. The judges won’t like what they hear — if the chief justice’s letter reflects the attitude of his colleagues.