Court consolidation gets blessing of Mahoning Co. lawyers group


With the Mahoning County Bar Association recommending the creation of a metropolitan court system below the Common Pleas level, Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, in her capacity as the overseer of all state courts, is now in a position to host a meeting of all of the interested parties, including judges, lawyers and officeholders, to map out a legislative strategy.

It will take General Assembly action to eliminate the municipal courts in Youngstown, Campbell and Struthers and the county courts in Boardman, Austintown, Canfield and Sebring and replace them with a countywide lower court system. That’s easier said than done, given the success supporters of the status quo have had in burying this issue for almost two decades.

The creation of a metropolitan court system was first proposed by the late Don L. Hanni Jr., a leading criminal lawyer in the state and a former chairman of the county Democratic Party.

But despite Hanni’s political power and standing in the legal community, the enemies of change were able to derail the proposal before it could even get a hearing in the Legislature.

COMMITMENT OF BETRAS

The current chairman of the party, David Betras, also a lawyer, has been as committed to seeing the court system reorganized as his mentor, Hanni. But, Betras also hit a political brick wall. Highly paid judges — the two in the Youngstown Municipal Court are full time, while the rest are part time — and court employees are determined to preserve their jobs.

But, with the bar association now fully in support of the creation of a metropolitan court — one division would be located in Youngstown and the other in the Canfield area, with the Sebring court location left intact because of its distance from population centers — Betras can use his political prowess to persuade state Sen. Joe Schiavoni, D-Boardman, the minority leader, and state Reps. Robert Hagan, D-Youngstown, and Ron Gerberry, D-Austintown, to put the interest of the public before their self interests.

Chief Justice O’Connor, who has firsthand knowledge of the workings of the local court system, should not hesitate to use the power of her office to move this issue along.

The Vindicator joined with Hanni those many years ago in calling for the elimination of the archaic court system that now exists and the creation of a modern countywide court that not only addresses the needs of the taxpayers but gets rid of part-time judges.

What exists in the four county courts is a mockery of the judicial system, because the judges are allowed to maintain their law practices and to appear as lawyers in court.

The bar association, which has submitted a report with its recommendations to the chief justice and to the county’s legislative delegation, is right when it says, “ ... the employment of part-time judges creates a structural appearance of impropriety.”

In its report, the association put forth a second reorganization plan: consolidation of all the lower courts, except Sebring, into one located in Youngstown.

The bar’s trustees aren’t in favor of that plan.

Too many years have passed since the idea of changing the court system in Mahoning County was first broached. It’s now time to act.