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Published: Friday, 12/28/2001

Ohio audit of pay to visiting judges finds few errors

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - An audit of the Ohio Supreme Court's payments to visiting judges filling in temporarily on courts has found a small number of cases in which judges have been overpaid and underpaid.

But state Auditor Jim Petro, in an audit released yesterday, did not specify wrongdoing on the part of these judges, did not name names, and did not order reimbursement to the court.

The audit was requested by the high court because of questions raised about the billings of elected and retired judges assigned temporarily to other courts to fill vacancies, substitute for judges with conflicts of interest in a case, or help clear a case backlog.

The audit focused on cases processed since the court's computerized compensation system went on line July 1, 2000, finding the accuracy of the system to be “very good, but not perfect.”

It found 20 cases, 0.3 percent of 7,775 cases, in which judges were paid for more than the maximum eight hours allowed per day. While noting such a low error rate could be attributable to human error, the audit raised concerns that the automated system, when specifically asked to look for such cases, flagged just five of them.

The audit found 81 cases, an error rate of about 1 percent, in which visiting judges billed and were paid for time that went beyond the dates for which they were assigned.

In all, there were 480 hours of such billings valued at $24,251. In one case, the billings covered nearly 40 months beyond the assigned time.

Visiting retired judges are paid $414 a day, plus expenses, when sitting on a county court of common pleas and $450, plus expenses, for an appellate court. Sitting elected judges receive their salary plus $50 a day while on assignment elsewhere.

The audit recommends that court rules set limits on how much a judge can seek in reimbursements for meals, lodging, and travel.

“Most [of the overpaid judges have] already reimbursed the court,” Chief Justice Thomas Moyer said. “A few may still owe less than $50, and we may pursue those more actively. One of the things the auditor found was that some of the judges were underpaid, which tells us there was no pattern.”

Noting the low error rate, Chief Justice Moyer said no decision has been made whether the new automated system should be employed to double-check prior years' payments.

“Why would you not want to catch judges who double-billed and make them pay the money back?” Mr. Palmer asked. “That's ridiculous. These judges already know who they are.”

He criticized the audit's lack of attention to the practice of some judges' billing for an entire day of eight hours, regardless of how much time they spent on a case.

Steven C. Hollon, the court's administrative director, said new rules to take effect in late winter or early spring will require judges to account for their time on an hourly basis.



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