A STATE law that permits retired judges to, in effect, hire themselves out to preside over civil cases can help counties with crowded dockets, but legitimate questions have been raised. Foremost among them: Should "private" judges be utilized in a public legal system when they are not held to the same public accountability as elected judges?
The matter recently became an issue when the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that some common pleas court judges in northeast Ohio are dismayed with the 1987 law.
The most disturbing prospect is that wealthy litigants could basically "shop" for a judge. Private judges can earn $20,000 for a two-week trial, a fee shared by the parties. While both sides must agree to hire such a judge, and a person of average means could just say no, the arrangement still offers a different level of justice to those who can afford it. Their case can be heard relatively swiftly, unlike the months or even years it might take to get a resolution in the traditional manner.
That appeals to litigants who can afford it, and some attorneys say the arrangement is a "lawyer's dream," because the judge is dedicated to just one case and there are no long postponements or delays.
But is that fair to individuals who must rely on the regular courts and can't buy swiftness?
There's another troubling scenario: Lawyers get themselves elected - or appointed - to a judgeship, then resign to become a private judge, freeing themselves from running for re-election and the public scrutiny that brings.
It happens. Robert Glickman, 39, is a Cuyahoga County judge who was appointed to the common pleas bench by Gov. Bob Taft. After being defeated in his first election, he retired, then hired himself out as a private judge.
A key distinction between private judges and so-called visiting judges is that private judges can maintain a law practice; visiting judges cannot.
Private judges help lighten the court docket but they also pose a problem when they use jurors because they do so at the expense of sitting common pleas judges who could be forced to delay a trial when there are not enough people in the jury pool.
Ohio needs to revisit and revamp this law. Ours shouldn't be a system of elected judges for the poor and private ones for the wealthy. The statement on the U.S. Supreme Court building serves to remind us what our society is supposed to uphold: Equal Justice Under Law. We need to work harder to make that so.
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