Reasonable people can disagree.
Those same reasonable people also can agree completely.
Such is the case with your favorite columnist and high-profile lawyer David Singleton.
The last time we crossed paths, we were tangling on the Dr. Phil show, where we were on opposite sides of the Kelley Williams-Bolar issue.
Like any decent lawyer, Singleton was trying to paint his pro-bono client in the best possible light. And even though I disagreed with virtually everything that came out of his mouth, I thought he was pleasant, articulate and extremely bright.
Singleton is a Harvard-educated lawyer who spends much of his time backing the underdog. He is executive director of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, a nonprofit, public-interest law office in Cincinnati whose stated purpose is to “reform Ohio’s justice system.” He also teaches at the law school at Northern Kentucky University.
On Friday, one of his third-year students stood in front of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals and argued a class-action lawsuit that, if successful, would have a positive impact throughout the state.
The suit says, essentially, that a mayor should be prohibited from acting as cop, judge, jury and moneymaker.
Mayor’s courts are an abomination. Singleton sums up the problem beautifully in just two sentences:
“Judges must be completely neutral to ensure fairness and confidence in our court system. When mayors have a financial stake in the outcome of criminal cases, they should not preside as judge because of the appearance of impropriety.”
The “appearance of impropriety” is actually the best-case scenario. With municipal budgets strained to their bones, impropriety is at least an occasional reality.
Mayor’s courts are cash cows for small towns — and, sometimes, for large towns (read: Cuyahoga Falls, which created its own mayor’s court in 2009 after Stow stole the Falls’ municipal court).
Ohio is one of the few states in the union that still tolerate mayor’s courts. We have a staggering 330 of them, including 10 in Summit County.
In this suit, Singleton’s side is not arguing for the abolition of mayor’s courts, just for the removal of mayors in favor of magistrates, who, in theory, are more impartial.
A magistrate who serves at the pleasure of a mayor or council is not exactly the epitome of impartiality, but this would be a start.
The mayor’s court in question is in Broadview Heights, the burg between Akron and Cleveland that has been known to occasionally convert its two-mile stretch of Interstate 77 into an ATM.
The case involves a traffic ticket and the aftermath, a contempt-of-court citation.
There’s another local tie: The brief was written by Akron lawyer Melissa Graham-Hurd, who asked Singleton to argue it through his constitutional litigation clinic at NKU.
Graham-Hurd is primarily a family-law practitioner but occasionally branches out for the greater good. You might have read about her in 2001, when she successfully led a crusade to get Summit County government to stop gouging the public for photocopies.
She has been fighting mayor’s courts for a long time. A 1999 case in Macedonia seemed to confirm that towns with a strong mayor form of government could not put that mayor in a position to be the top cop, the chief financial officer and the guy in the robe, as is the case in Broadview Heights.
Graham-Hurd once fought to abolish mayor’s courts altogether, arguing that if a mayor can remove a magistrate who isn’t bringing in enough money, the end result is the same.
But that argument was “soundly, roundly defeated,” she says with a laugh. It never got past the district court level.
She would love to try again if she can find a situation in which a magistrate was sacked for failing to bring in enough fine money.
At this point, however, our best hope for putting a dent in mayor’s courts is in the hands of a law student.
Students in their final year of law school are allowed to argue cases under the supervision of a real lawyer. But still, isn’t putting such a significant case in the hands of a student risky?
Singleton doesn’t think so. He says his clinic is 2-0 in the court of appeals and that his students put “a ton of hours” into preparing. The prep in this case included student Tom Schulman being grilled by experienced lawyers during seven practice arguments.
Singleton says Friday’s session went well. Let’s hope so.
In 2012, mayor’s courts are not just an unfortunate relic but a drain on a region’s economy. These fiefdoms should be consolidating, not proliferating.
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or firstname.lastname@example.org.