Court consolidation issue to get an objective review

More that two decades have passed since a proposal to consolidate the courts in Mahoning County below the Common Pleas level was unveiled by the late Democratic Party chairman, Don L. Hanni Jr., but progress has been limited to talk. That’s because the special interests committed to preserving the status quo have prevailed in the political arena.

Now, however, the impasse is on the verge of being broken — thanks in large part to Atty. Scott Cochran, president of the county bar association. Cochran, who has focused on court consolidation since he became president, announced this week that the State Justice Institute has awarded the association a $50,000 grant to be used to study the feasibility of changing the lower court system.

But just as significant is the fact that the study will be performed by the National Center for State Courts. The center, based in Williamsburg, Va., is an independent, nonprofit entity that studies court systems with an eye to improving them.

And that’s exactly what the system in Mahoning County needs: an objective analysis. It was not that long ago that a special master appointed by a federal judge presiding over a lawsuit against the county jail contended that the criminal justice system was dysfunctional.

We have long maintained that the four county courts located in Boardman, Austintown, Canfield and Sebring, and the three municipal courts in Youngstown, Campbell and Struthers should be eliminated and replaced by a metropolitan court system. We were early supporters of the plan developed by Hanni to create full-time judgeships to replace the four part-time county judges and the five municipal judges.

The National Center for State Courts will use the $50,000 grant, as well as contribute $15,000 in staff time for the study. There is a requirement for a $5,000 local match for the grant, which bar President Cochran hopes to raise from the county and the cities that have municipal courts.

But given the current economic challenges being faced by governments at all levels — that, in itself, is a compelling argument for consolidation — the bar association would do well to reach out to organizations in Mahoning County committed to bringing efficiency and cost containment to the public sector.

Regional Chamber

For instance, the Youngstown Warren Regional Chamber has been pushing for metropolitan government in Mahoning and Trumbull counties and the consolidation of the administrative responsibilities of the school districts in the region.

It would be better for the independent study of the court system if the local match came from sources other than the entities that would be directly affected by the findings.

The study was proposed last year by Cochran and the bar association after a poll of the members found that by a 2-1 margin they favored consolidating the courts below the Common Pleas level. Although only 182 of the 592 members participated, their opinions certainly mattered.

The part-time county courts are archaic and the municipal courts are a waste of taxpayer dollars.

The independent review of the court system is long over due.

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