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Published: Friday, 12/30/2005

Summit County's uncivil action

THE U.S. Constitution guarantees citizens accused in criminal prosecutions the right to a speedy trial. But it shouldn't happen at the expense of civil litigants, who also deserve to be heard in a reasonable amount of time. That's why seven Summit County judges' decision to shove aside civil cases in deference to criminal cases is troubling.

If the "Summit Seven" intended to draw attention to their cause - Summit County needs more judges - they succeeded. Their decision has startled attorneys, other Ohio common pleas judges, lawmakers, and the Ohio Supreme Court.

Just last year, Summit County's eight judges had more new cases filed per judge, 1,719 each, than anywhere in the state. That's a heavy load and one which makes efficiency nearly impossible.

Summit's common pleas court docket is heavier than Lucas County's, though it's all relative. In 2004, Summit had 12,533 civil cases and 6,142 criminal cases. Lucas County's 10 common pleas judge handled about 10,600 civil and 3,400 criminal cases, a substantial caseload of their own.

But even if Summit County's predicament is undeniable, the judges' remedy is unacceptable. The action by seven of the eight to basically ignore civil litigants makes it all but futile for citizens to file a civil suit, which the judges say they will hear only "in the most rare situation."

That sounds unconstitutional and ought to be illegal.

Lucas County Common Pleas Judge Charles Wittenberg empathizes with his peers' decision, but doesn't endorse it. "Criminal cases should take priority over civil cases," he said, "but not to the exclusion of civil cases."

It's likely the judges in Summit County know that and are just shaking the rafters to gain attention to an old problem. Eight years ago Summit County - Akron is the county seat- tried to convince the General Assembly to fund two more common pleas judges. It added one.

Summit County employs visiting judges, but that creates other issues. Citizens have the right to have elected judges hear cases. Of greater concern, though, is the challenge of identifying courtroom space and staff for visiting judges.

State lawmakers should move to alleviate the problem, even if that means adding judges.

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