Speeches

Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer
Testimony Before the House Judiciary Committee in Support of H.B. 154
May 31, 2007

Chairman Blessing, Representative Harwood thank you for providing me the opportunity to discuss with the House Judiciary Committee efforts to close a gap in the process that is used to determine thousands of misdemeanors each year in Ohio.

I commend Representative Wolpert for sponsoring House Bill 154. Every citizen of Ohio should know that the only interest of the person adjudicating legal rights and responsibilities in a court, is the fair resolution of the case.

Last month I delivered the State of the Judiciary Address to a joint session of the General Assembly…in which I reviewed efforts by judges and court personnel to enhance the administration of the courts and the rule of law in Ohio.

I talked about the progress courts are making in the resolution of cases involving children and families, and how courts are using collaborative efforts to place neglected children in safe, permanent homes.

I also reported on efforts to provide timely training to judges and court administrators on a broad range of matters from the latest in court security procedures, to the adjudication of cases that involve the life sciences, genetics and technology.

Today, judges and court administrators have the tools to be efficient and the training to ensure that their work exceeds the expectations of all Ohio citizens.

In addition, you will hear testimony a little later this morning regarding a proposal to strengthen the training and experience requirements for judicial candidates. The General Assembly has wisely supported our goal of establishing full-time judges in all courts by combining part-time courts to create full-time courts.

These efforts are part of long-term, on-going work to ensure that all levels of the courts are fair, efficient and worthy of the respect of all citizens.

Today I appear before the committee to ask that you take another step. Ohio should strengthen the wall that separates the executive and judicial branches of government at the local level.

The courts have held that a system is unconstitutional when one office in government imposes court fines, while also participating in budget and law enforcement decisions.

The conflict in the statutory system of mayors' courts is perhaps best described by Chief Justice William Howard Taft in the 1927 decision in Tumey v. Ohio.

This is some of what he wrote:

“The mayor represents the village and cannot escape his representative capacity.

Oh the other hand, he is given the judicial duty, first, of determining whether the defendant is guilty at all, and second having found his guilt, to measure his punishment.

“With his interest as mayor, in the financial condition of the village and his responsibility therefore, might not a defendant with reason say that he feared he could not get a fair trial or a fair sentence from one who would have so strong a motive to help his village by conviction and heavy fine?”

The decision of Chief Justice Taft was reinforced more recently in a 1999 decision by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Many of the great debates of the past two centuries have centered on the exact issue before us today…the separation of powers. Our system of government is established on the principal that each branch has distinct and separate responsibilities… ones that are clearly defined to prevent conflicts.

That is my only goal, to ensure that all court decisions in Ohio are free of conflict and just as importantly, they are perceived by the general public to be decisions influenced solely by the rule of law.

We have made progress since Chief Justice Taft's observation.

It is not enough that a mayor appoints a lawyer to act as a magistrate in mayor's court. House Bill 154 separates the function. It simply provides that the administrative judge of the local municipal court where the mayor's courts are established would appoint the magistrate. The result is a community court, conducted at the same convenient location as a mayor's court. But the perception will no longer exist that the adjudicator may be influenced by the village's need for funds.

Most cities and counties will see few, if any changes, in any new system. Twenty Ohio counties have no mayors' courts, and 27 others have only one or two. The greatest number of the courts are located in the three largest counties: Hamilton, Cuyahoga and Franklin Counties.

Of the 335 mayors courts in Ohio, 47 courts manage fewer than 100 cases each year, and only 94 courts manage more than one-thousand cases. Statewide, 52 percent of the cases in mayor's courts involve only the processing of uncontested fines.

House Bill 154 provides communities with a population greater than 1600 residents the flexibility to decide if they wish to transfer cases that come before a mayor's court to the appropriate municipal court or to create a community court. This measure also ensures that a community is able to petition the General Assembly to create its own municipal court.

This bill also preserves local control of the appointment of the community court magistrate by placing the appointment authority with the local municipal judge or administrative judge of the municipal court in a multiple judge court.

Opponents of this measure have told town and village officials that House Bill 154 would force layoffs and budget cuts. That is an interesting argument, even if it were true, when the issue is perception of impartiality.

Contrary to these arguments, the legislation would require that the municipal court in those jurisdictions with fewer than 1600 people where a community court is not warranted, return 50 percent of the funds generated from costs, fees and fines collected in cases that would have previously been heard in mayor's courts.

Case statistics indicate that the transfer of cases from villages of fewer than 1600 residents will not inundate municipal courts.

Approximately 55,000 cases could be transferred to municipal courts, but slightly half of those cases are uncontested traffic citations that do not result in a court appearance; only the payment of a fine.

The fact that a majority of mayor's court cases are uncontested also weakens the opponent's argument that moving cases to a municipal court would divert law enforcement officers.

This bill preserves the convenience and flexibility of the current system while removing the inherent conflict of interest. It also subjects community courts to the same rules of superintendence as all other courts. An advantage is that community courts could receive the many services provided to courts by the Supreme Court.

It also has been argued that the bill would violate some city charters that established the local mayor's court. The Ohio Constitution gives express authority to the General Assembly to create or eliminate courts and mayor's courts have been created by statute.

The bill creates a straightforward restructuring of an outdated system of adjudicating rights and responsibilities. Only Louisiana and Ohio retain the system. Adoption of House Bill 154 will move Ohio closer to our goal of assuring every person whose rights and responsibilities are adjudicated in a judicial forum that the only concern of the adjudicator is the case before the adjudicator.