Speeches

Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer
Mayors Court Testimony
Dec. 2, 2008

Chairman Goodman and Senator Kearney thank you for providing me the opportunity to discuss with the Senate Judiciary Committee on Civil Justice efforts to close a gap in the process that is used to determine thousands of misdemeanor cases each year in Ohio.

I commend Representative Wolpert and Senator Coughlin for sponsoring House Bill 154 and Senate Bill 252. 

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.

When I delivered the State of the Judiciary Address to a joint session of the General Assembly in 2007 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.

These efforts are part of our perpetual work to ensure that all levels of the courts are fair, efficient and worthy of the respect of all citizens.

Many of these accomplishments have been possible because the General Assembly has supported, with funding and other actions, the indispensable role of Ohio’s 385 courts.

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.

In 1934, a statutory entity chaired by the Chief Justice reported on the administration of justice in Ohio and ended with this observation from a survey of justice of the peace and mayor’s courts: “There is evidence that the mayors may abuse their power and endeavor to finance municipal operations by criminal prosecutions.  If the practice becomes prevalent, it can be curbed by appropriate legislation.”

In November 2008, a magistrate in a mayor’s court described his role as a magistrate and is quoted as saying, “I get the mayors (sic) approval but I decide the fines.”

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.  On 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.

Although I believe that the function should be totally separate, that the magistrate presiding over the new community court should be appointed by an unbiased party, in an effort to compromise, under H.B. 154 local officials would appoint the magistrate.

I do not support that provision in H.B. 154.  In fact, I prefer the procedure in S.B. 252 (which is similar to the original H.B. 154) in which a presiding judge of the municipal court appoints the magistrate.  That is consistent with the appointment of magistrates in all other courts.  If we apply the principle in H.B. 154 to Cincinnati for example, the city council of Cincinnati would appoint the magistrates in the Hamilton County Municipal Court.  Or to use an imperfect sports analogy, it would be similar to giving one team in a game the privilege of selecting the referees.

Most cities and counties will see few, if any changes, in any new system.

Twenty Ohio counties have no mayor’s courts, and 26 others have only one or two. The counties containing the greatest number of the courts are the three largest: Hamilton, Cuyahoga and Franklin Counties.

Of the 335 mayor’s courts in Ohio that reported activity in 2007, 62 courts manage fewer than 100 cases each year, and only 93 courts manage more than one-thousand cases.

Statewide, 58 percent of the cases terminated in mayor's courts involve only the processing of uncontested fines.

House Bill 154 and Senate Bill 252 provide 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.

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 100 percent of the funds generated from costs, fees and fines collected in cases that would have previously been heard in mayor's courts.
Actually, those villages would benefit—they would receive the same amount of funding without the cost of producing the revenue.

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

Approximately 50,000 cases could be transferred to municipal courts, but slightly half of those cases are uncontested matters 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 Supreme Court 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.

Is it not time that we leave Louisiana as the only state clinging to its mayor’s courts?

Adoption of S.B. 252 will move Ohio closer to our goal of assuring every person whose rights and responsibilities are adjudicated in a judicial forum that the only interest of the adjudicator is the fair disposition of the case before her.

I urge the Committee to recommend that the Ohio Senate adopt S.B. 252.

Thank you.  I would be pleased to answer your questions.