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Ohio Mayor's Courts: Are They 'Courts' At All?

This week we’ve been exploring fines and fees that can disproportionately affect poor people in the justice system in a series we’re calling ‘Justice for All.’  Today we’re going to take a look at a quirk in the Ohio justice system: Mayor’s Courts

Ohio is just one of two states that allow towns without a municipal court of their own to hand to a mayor basic cases like traffic violations, and first offense OVIs.  But why do they exist?

CARROLL: “From a municipal court judge I don’t know why they exist, from my perspective.”

After that caveat, Lakewood Municipal Court Judge Patrick Carroll explained Mayor’s Courts to me.

CARROLL: “It’s roughly akin to a justice of the peace.  It goes back into the 50s when courts were not as accessible as they are today.  Back then, it was difficult, physically difficult, to get to court.  Also for traffic infractions, if somebody needs to pay a fine if you’re not going to contest it you can send in a check by mail, you can appear in court, you can waive it online.  So those people that are not interested in contesting, they don’t have to actually physically come to the court anymore, so a lot of those cases have been removed from the volume that the courts deal with.”

GANZER:“You pointed out some of the benefit of having this would be to take away some of these minor traffic violations out of the greater court system, but there are some concerns with that, too, because a mayor is not a lawyer, necessarily, and mayors also have their fingers in city budgets, so there is I guess an appearance of a conflict of interest with them.”

CARROLL: “I think you touched on it, the fundamental principle of our government is a separation of powers.  And when you walk into a municipal court, common pleas court, there’s a judge. The judge is a separate branch of government, for example, I am not a Lakewood city employee.  My duties, responsibilities, my salary, the jurisdiction of the court, is all set by the General Assembly of the state of Ohio.  You walk into a Mayor’s Court, and there’s the mayor or the mayor might have a magistrate, and the magistrate is appointed by the mayor, and over in the corner is the prosecutor who is going to prosecute your case is appointed by the mayor, based on a ticket written by a police officer who is appointed by that mayor.  So there is no checks and balances there.  I mean people come into the Lakewood court and they’ll say, ‘well your police did this,’ and I’ll stop and correct them and say, ‘I don’t have a police department. The police department’s run by the mayor, not by the court.’ So that’s the one major issue, the separation of powers.  And the other one is the pecuniary interest, the financial interest, in running the Mayor’s Court as opposed to a municipal court.  The legislative authority is required to fund the municipal court for the necessary expenses that we need to operate the court.  They’re required by law to do that.  And that’s whether the Lakewood court this year has a deficit or a surplus, that’s irrelevant to the needs of the court.  With Mayor’s Courts, all the money stays in that city. So there’s an incentive to make a finding of guilt, and impose a penalty, a fine, that’s going to go right back to that mayor, and pay the mayor’s salary, or the magistrate’s salary, or the prosecutor’s salary, or the police officer’s salary.”

GANZER: “A person can appeal a Mayor’s Court ruling, or take it to a ‘real court’ if they have the time and the resources to do that, right?”

CARROLL: “Right, and how often that happens, I don’t think it happens very often, because again it’s a minor infraction, how much time are you going to take off work to contest a ticket when they say well here’s the amount, and you just say, ‘I’ll just pay it and be done with it.’”

GANZER: “Is this ingrained in how Ohio functions now, or is there a wave to change this?”

CARROLL: “Well our late Chief Justice Thomas Moyer of the Ohio Supreme Court attempted to do it, and there was universal opposition to it from mayors across the state of Ohio, so it’s going to be a formidable task to change.  I think perhaps looking at the overview of the whole court system, municipal courts, Mayor’s Courts—as I said not calling them courts because I think people get confused when they talk about a Mayor’s Court and a municipal court.  There’s not the procedural safeguards for people when they come into court.  When you come into our court, if it’s a possible jailable offense, you’re informed immediately that you have the right to an attorney, if you can’t afford an attorney one may be appointed for you, you have the right to a jury trial—all these safeguards.  You don’t get those safeguards in a Mayor’s Court.”

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