The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio calls the problems with mayor’s courts “overwhelming.” In doing so, in its 36-page report issued last week, the organization joins a line of critics going back decades, including the late Thomas Moyer, once the chief justice of the Ohio Supreme Court. He called for the abolition of mayor’s courts.
The ACLU adds to the discussion through fresh detail defining the many shortcomings and worse. The hope is that state lawmakers will respond with action, at the least requiring upgrades to bring more professionalism, transparency and accountability, today nearly 300 mayor’s courts operating in 64 of the state’s 88 counties. Perhaps even local officials will act on their own, say, in Cuyahoga Falls, where the mayor’s court largely stemmed from political retaliation when the municipal court moved to Stow.
Mayor’s courts are relics of the 19th century, of a dramatically different Ohio, lacking, for starters, the convenience of today’s transportation. They reflect the heavy and costly layering of local governments across the state, now at roughly 3,700 jurisdictions.
As the ACLU report makes clear, mayor’s courts have a conflict at their core. They thumb their nose at the separation of powers, many appearing to put the need to generate revenue ahead of administering justice. How is that possible? Mayor’s courts handle traffic violations and low-level misdemeanors. The mayor also is responsible for the city’s operating budget, not to mention the police department. Thus, the opening is there: Use the mayor’s court to drive up revenue, even when the mayor taps a magistrate for the job.
The ACLU report cites the village of Kirkersville, where in 2016 authorities issued 572 traffic tickets, though the village population is 525. The report identifies 51 municipalities with mayor’s courts in which officers issued an average of more than 100 traffic citations. In those communities, officers wrote an average of 35.8 tickets per 100 residents — or at a rate 436 percent higher than in Akron, Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati.
Are police officers in larger cities busier with more serious crime? Perhaps, but that hardly explains such a striking difference.
The ACLU report adds that many mayor’s courts fail to document adequately their proceedings through an official transcript or recordings. This creates an obvious problem with accountability and transparency. The data also reveal a dismaying racial disparity, notably in inner-ring municipalities, black motorists receiving tickets at levels far above their share of the population. In Norwood, next to Cincinnati, African-Americans make up less than 10 percent of the population yet received nearly 40 percent of the traffic tickets.
Closer to home, African-Americans are less than 5 percent of the Cuyahoga Falls population, yet they faced 18 percent of the citations. In Parma Heights, the ratio is similar.
Another problematic practice involves mayor’s courts using the threat of arrest and driver’s license forfeiture to pressure people to pay fines for minor traffic violations. They often do so, as the report shows, without weighing an individual’s capacity to pay. This collides with the law barring incarceration simply because someone lacks the means to cover the cost of fines or fees. More, jail and other harsh penalties hardly are fitting for such transgressions.
The ACLU report rightly recommends shutting down the mayor’s courts in Summit, Cuyahoga, Franklin and Hamilton counties. Each has municipal courts to take up the tasks. For the remainder, it proposes improvements, such as increased training and comprehensive record-keeping. It sees increased state funding for local governments as a way to ease the fiscal burden and the incentive to issue tickets.
These steps would make the system better. There also remains the option of seeing Louisiana become the one state left with mayor’s courts.