Ohio State Rep Bill Patmon (D-Cleveland)
Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
Ohio Supreme Court Justice Yvette McGee Brown
By Kathy Wray Coleman, Publisher, Editor-n-Chief, Cleveland Urban News. Com and The Cleveland Urban News.Com Blog, Ohio's Most Read Online Black Newspaper(www.clevelandurbannews.comBy Kathy Wray Coleman, Publisher, Editor-n-Chief, Cleveland Urban News. Com and The Cleveland Urban News.Com Blog, Ohio's Most Read Online Black Newspaper(www.clevelandurbannews.com
By Kathy Wray Coleman, Publisher, Editor-n-Chief, Cleveland Urban News. Com and The Cleveland Urban News.Com Blog, Ohio's Most Read Online Black Newspaper(www.clevelandurbannews.com)
COLUMBUS,Ohio-A freshman Ohio State Rep. that was formerly a Cleveland councilman who subsequent to that lost a non-partisan runoff bid against second-term Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson before being elected last year to the House of Representatives is drafting a bill that would require that Ohio trial court judges are assigned and reassigned to criminal, civil and all other cases by random draw at all times, and that they are elected judges accountable to the community. Currently some are handpicked for cases for various reasons and many of those are retired or former judges.
Trial court judges are judges that hold trials such as municipal court judges that hear traffic and misdemeanor cases and civil cases in which damages sought are less that $15 thousand, and common pleas court judges that primarily hear criminal cases that include a felony indictment by the county grand jury and lawsuits that seek damages in excess of $15 thousand. Also included are domestic relations judges that hear divorces and family disputes, probate judges that deal with wills, adoptions and estates, and juvenile court judges.
State Rep. Bill Patmon (D-10), a Cleveland Democrat, talked with community activists and said during the discussion that justice should be blind and that that is why he is crafting the unprecedented bill. Activist groups represented in the discussion include the Imperial Women, Black on Black Crime Inc., Stop Targeting Ohio's Poor, Ohio Family Rights, the National Organization for Parental Equality, and Advocates for Cleveland's African-American Museum.
"It is in the preliminary stages and has been sent down," said Patmon, who also agreed to look at other concerns brought by the activists such as the targeting of innocent parents by the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services and a state law that holds trial court judges accountable through damages for frivolous dismissals of civil cases and the failure to dismiss malicious criminal cases when their orders are subsequently overturned on appeal for an egregious abuse of discretion. They also want a state law that precludes trial court judges from being represented for any reason by county prosecutors and law directors that bring criminal charges and then appear before them in cases.
Currently county prosecutors represent common pleas and other county judges such as probate, domestic relations and juvenile court judges and city law directors represent municipal court judges. Representation varies and includes affidavits of prejudice filed against the judges by parties before them and petitions to the jurisdictional appellate courts seeking compliance with the law and other authorities by the judges in criminal, civil and other proceedings.
Patmon said that he is going to confer with Ohio Supreme Court Republican Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor and Democratic Ohio Justice Yvette McGee Brown, a former journalist and Franklin County Common Pleas Court Judge, and former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland's Lt. Gov running mate for his failed reelection bid last year against controversial Republican Gov. John Kasich.
"I will confer with Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor and Justice Yvette McGee Brown on the bill ," said Patmon.
A former Lt. Gov with former Ohio Republican Gov. Bob Taft, O'Connor, who campaigned last year on judicial reform promises, trounced Democratic Chief Justice Eric Brown in Nov. to become the first female chief justice in Ohio.
Eric Brown was appointed last May by Strickland to replace long serving Chief Justice Thomas Moyer then 70, a Republican elected chief justice in 1987 who died unexpectedly last April 2 and could not seek reelection because of the Ohio Constitution's mandatory retirement age of 70, a mandate applicable unless the judge is completing an unexpired term, which raises questions about retired judges standing in on cases. McGee Brown, the only Democrat on the seven-member Ohio Supreme Court, was appointed Jan 1 by Strickland to complete the unexpired term left by O'Connor's election as chief justice. She is the first Black female Ohio Supreme Court justice.
O'Connor was elected as a regular justice to the court in 2002. Her popularity stunned Democrats as she walked away with 68 percent of the vote in her race last year against Eric Brown for chief justice. Now community activist groups that endorsed her such as the Imperial Women want her to make due on her promise to lead efforts to reform Ohio's legal system for the betterment of the larger community in general and the minority community in particular.
"We need Chief Justice O'Connor and Justice McGee Brown at the table on this issue and we believe that this bill for fair and impartial judicial assignments and reassignments to court cases is crucial to enhancing Ohio's legal system and ensuring due process rights of Ohioans," said Roz McAllister, a member of the Imperial Women and leader of Ohio Family Rights.
Ohio trial court judges are traditionally assigned to cases by random draw, which means at random and not by a handpicking process, though state law allows the handpicking of judges per the granting of an affidavit of prejudice to remove a trial court judge for bias or conflict. Legal system activists such as the Oppressed People's Nation and the the Imperial Women want state laws on affidavits of prejudice amended to require other elected judges assigned by random draw to replace those removed or recused for conflict, bias or otherwise.
And though trial court judges are traditionally assigned to cases by random draw initially it is when they recuse themselves from cases and when affidavits of prejudice are granted that the chief justice and the common pleas court presiding judges from the respective counties in Ohio runaway with handpicking visiting retired and former judges with nothing to lose to replace them with. Sometimes, however, they simply handpick sitting judges to sit in for their colleagues and they are often chosen by temperment and a flair for one thing or another, but traditionally not because of a commitment to the implementation of due process of law.
And activists say that that infringes on the constitutional due process guarantee under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. And they claim that the process is being used to sometimes for instance in the Cuyahoga County Court Common Pleas put judges hard or crime on criminal cases, a disproportionate number involving Blacks, to seek to manipulate innocent and maliciously prosecuted defendants into taking plea deals that they would not ordinarily take.
Also, say community activists, the excuse of high case loads of sitting judges is not acceptable to violate Ohioans' due process rights where judicial pools can simply be expanded to provide for more elected judges by whatever method Ohio's Constitution requires.
A recent investigation by nineteen action news investigative reporter Ed Galek found that visiting judges are costing Ohio tax payer some $2 million annually, a fourth of that for the arbitrary assignment of retired and former judges to civil, criminal and others cases in the Cuyahoga County courts. They include the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas where Judge Nancy Fuerst is the presiding and administrative judge, also known as the chief judge, a position secured through peer selection by the other 33 judges of the general division of that court. The television news story by Galek, that ran last week, also suggested that Ohio's trial court judges should minimize using visiting judges at taxpayer expense and should do their work and "work harder."
And some of those visiting judges, which can easily make $500 a day and travel time, come from all over the state and are sometimes the same ones chosen due to political contacts. This, says activists, raises questions as to why an elected judge from the same or a nearby court cannot takeover cases at all times through assignment by random draw. It is therefore not surprising that some criminal defense attorneys, and of course community activists, say the judges sometimes harass parties in criminal, civil, divorce and other cases for the judges that that they replace that either voluntarily withdraw or are removed from cases due to the granting of an affidavit of prejudice.
In addition to the governor's office Republicans control both the House and Senate. How that will impact Patmon's push for his fair judicial assignment process bill into law remains to be seen. But one thing is clear, grassroots activists believe that the lawmaker's bill, even in an altered form, is constitutionally ripe to be heard by Ohio's General Assembly.
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