House bill targets mayor’s courts

30% of Ohio’s 318 would close


COLUMBUS — After years of debate, Ohio lawmakers might be ready to take a bite out of small-town mayor’s courts.

House Bill 523 would increase from 100 to more than 1,000 the minimum population required for a municipality to hold a mayor’s court.

That change would eliminate nearly 30 percent of Ohio’s 318 courts, according to Ohio Supreme Court records.

Ohio and Louisiana are the only states to still operate mayor’s courts, where local mayors or magistrates hear violations of local ordinances and state traffic laws.

The bill is slated for a likely committee vote today, and supporters hope lawmakers pass it before wrapping up the two-year legislative session over the next three weeks.

For years, the courts have come under steady fire from critics who see them as relics from a bygone era, acting as little more than cash generators for small towns with speed traps.

The late Chief Justice Thomas B. Moyer was a longtime advocate of abolishing mayor’s courts in Ohio, and current Justice Paul E. Pfeifer has said people come out of those courts “feeling like they just participated in a spaghetti western.”

Rep. Courtney Combs (R., Hamilton) introduced the bill in May shortly before lawmakers left for the campaign season.

Various versions of the bill have tried and failed numerous times over the years, as small-town officials pressured their lawmakers, and court supporters argued that they help make the overall judicial system run more efficiently by keeping minor offenses from bogging down caseloads.

Mr. Combs said he got a call recently from House Speaker William G. Batchelder’s office, who told him that they had conversations with the state Supreme Court and would like to get the bill passed before lawmakers close out the session in mid-December.

“It got wheels and away we go,” Mr. Combs said. “It looks like we finally have enough support to get it done.”

The bill would leave a number of mayor's courts in existence — and Mr. Combs expects the bill will be amended to exempt the court on the Lake Erie islands — but some of the more egregious ticket-writers would be eliminated.

That includes Hanging Rock, a town of 221 people that hugs U.S. 52 for about a mile and a half just down the Ohio River from Ironton. In 2009, the town reported $401,218 in court revenue — 95 times the amount it collected in local taxes.

“The bigger towns don’t seem to be the problem,” Mr. Combs said. “It’s these little burgs that have their speed traps, and I've heard horror stories.”

Mr. Batchelder has not said whether he supports the bill, a spokesman said.

The Senate also will continue hearings this week on bill to increase the mayor’s court population threshold to 200, which Sen. Tom Patton (R., Strongsville) introduced mainly to target Linndale, a town of 179 people that includes a quarter-mile stretch of I-71 just south of Cleveland. The town handled about 4,200 citations in 2011.