When she began dating a prosecutor assigned to her Summit County Juvenile courtroom, then-Magistrate Maria Copetas Kostoff said she went right to her boss with the news.
She didn’t want her relationship with Catherine Loya to cross ethical lines.
Judge Linda Tucci Teodosio gave her blessings to the relationship, with one caveat: Loya could never appear as an attorney in cases being decided by Kostoff.
Now divorced and carrying her maiden name, Copetas said last week that the courtroom arrangement lasted for several months, through June 2009 when she resigned to take a job as a Medina County public defender.
She said it was important that she and Loya never breach any ethical bounds.
“It gives the appearance of impropriety to be in a relationship with somebody who appears in front of you, because you’re required to be impartial,” Copetas, 48, said last week. “That was very important not to have her in front of me at all.”
Ethical questions, however, continue to follow Loya, now an assistant public defender in Akron. Last week, she was reassigned from the courtroom of Akron Municipal Judge Joy Malek Oldfield.
The move comes about two weeks after Loya and Oldfield were questioned by a Copley police officer, who reported that he found the women, partially clothed, in the backseat of a car that smelled of alcohol.
Oldfield’s attorney has said the police officer’s report is “untrue” and that the women were not in the backseat or in a state of undress.
Loya, 30, was charged with having physical control of a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol. Her driver’s license was suspended when she refused an alcohol breath test.
Afterward, Oldfield and Loya continued to work together in the courtroom, and on several occasions the judge provided the defense lawyer rides to and from work. Loya declined to comment last week.
The incident involving Oldfield raises ethical questions and the challenges of balancing social and professional relationships among judges and lawyers. It’s a potential conflict that the Akron Bar Association will review as part of its investigation of the Oldfield-Loya incident. The group’s attorneys requested the police reports.
The bar association can refer conduct violations to the disciplinary branch of the Ohio Supreme Court. Discipline could range from written reprimands to law license suspensions.
Judges are bound by strict guidelines called canons. The first canon states: “Judges should uphold the integrity and independence of the judiciary.” A second canon reads: “Judges shall respect and comply with the law and shall act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.”
Finally, Canon No. 4 states: “Judges shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all of the judge’s activities.”
Ric Simmons, a law professor at Ohio State University and a former assistant district attorney for New York County, said it is “not only acceptable, it’s common” for lawyers, prosecutors, judges and magistrates to socialize outside the courtroom. This includes political fundraisers, bars, restaurants and, on occasion, each other’s homes.
“Friendships between lawyers and judges are quite common. I guess you draw the line if it is more than friendship, if it turns into a romantic or sexual relationship, I think that means you shouldn’t practice in front of that judge, or the judge should recuse herself,” he said. “Anything else, I think, is not only acceptable, it’s common.”
While Oldfield, 36, has not commented about the incident with Loya, her attorney, John Hill, said there was no improper personal relationship between the two women. Hill last week denied assertions that Loya was staying temporarily at Oldfield’s home in the Fairlawn Heights area of Akron after her arrest.
Hill acknowledged occasions in the past month where Oldfield gave Loya rides to and from work. According to the police report, the officer took the two women to Oldfield’s home the night of the incident. Loya uses a Hudson address.
“Carpooling, I’m all right with that,” Simmons said. “If there’s a romantic relationship, or if they stay in the same house, even temporarily [in a platonic setting], that would, I think, cross the line. That would make me question the neutrality of a judge. It might indicate a close relationship, other than just social friends.”
Copetas said she was in the process of ending a 14-year marriage in late 2008 when she began dating Loya, then an assistant prosecutor. They met in the courtroom and dated for about six months before eventually sharing a home in Cuyahoga Falls.
By the end of 2009, both were out of Juvenile Court. Teodosio did not respond to messages seeking comment. Walsh’s office would not comment, a spokeswoman said.
In June of that year, Copetas said she sought a fresh start and resigned as a magistrate after about 13 years on the job to accept the Medina County job. In December, Loya and several other assistants were laid off in cost-cutting moves by Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh. She was eventually hired as a public defender.
Meanwhile, in early 2011, Loya and Copetas separated, she said. Copetas concedes it was not a pleasant breakup.
Copetas said lifestyle changes occur when attorneys don a robe, either as a magistrate or a judge. During her tenure as a magistrate, she said she socialized with other magistrates and tried to avoid out-of-court relationships with attorneys.
“It’s hard,” she said. “You have to maintain a degree of distance from attorneys. It’s just the nature of the position. I went out with other magistrates. I didn’t necessarily associate with other attorneys.”
On the night of Loya’s arrest this month, she and the judge were among a large group of people out socializing. At one point, Oldfield’s husband left the party and Loya volunteered to drive the judge home.
According to her attorney, Oldfield was drinking that night and distraught after hearing news of a gravely ill relative. He said the women stopped at a strip mall parking lot off Ridgewood Road, about a mile from Oldfield’s home, to allow the judge to smoke a cigarette and compose herself.
They reportedly were stopped only a few minutes — the car’s lights and engine were on — when Copley Patrolman Thomas Ballinger approached the women about 1:45 a.m. He said it appeared the women were in the backseat in a state of undress. After moving to the front seat, Oldfield claimed she was the only one who was drinking that night, the officer said. Nonetheless, Ballinger noted alcohol odors from both women. Further, he said Loya refused to take any breath tests. She was taken to the police station with Oldfield and was issued a citation.
Loya also refused a breath test when Peninsula police charged her with drunken driving in April 2009. She crashed her Toyota Scion in a ditch while trying to make a U-turn on Truxell Road, authorities said.
According to a police report, Loya initially denied drinking that night. When asked about the smell of alcohol, she admitted having two drinks. She refused to take any breath tests.
Loya eventually pleaded guilty in Stow Municipal Court to a lesser count of physical control.
Phil Trexler can be reached at 330-996-3717 or email@example.com.