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Shortage of space, funds delays vote for judge

NAPOLEON - Henry County residents won't elect a second common pleas court judge to the bench anytime soon.

The county commissioners yesterday said they will support state legislation for a second judge, but they won't be able to do so by early next year as the local bar association requested.

Instead, commissioners predicted it will be at least November, 2004, before the county will be ready to elect a new judge.

“We all understand the need for a second judge: That's top notch,” said Commissioner Rita Franz. “We're not telling them no. We don't have the resources [right now].”

A committee formed by the Henry County Bar Association recently recommended seeking a second judge to hear felony-level cases.

The decision would be made by the state legislature, but the bar association had hoped to get the commissioners' support first.

The committee wanted to seek the state's approval to add a judge by February to meet the filing deadline for the May, 2002, primary. They had planned to add their request onto similar legislation from another Ohio county.

A judicial election in November, 2002, would not cause a conflict for the current Henry County common pleas seat held by Judge Keith Muehlfeld, who will be up for re-election in November, 2004. Common pleas judges can be elected only in even-numbered years.

Still, commissioners said they doubt the state process will be completed by next year. And they said they are not yet prepared to handle space constraints and budget issues involved in bringing a new judge on board in January, 2003.

The county would have to pay some of the annual salary for a new judge, as well as court staff and court security. In addition, the commissioners would need to find space to house a second courtroom.

That likely would be inside the commissioners' hearing room on the fourth floor, a space that was renovated several years ago for future use as a courtroom.

But Ms. Franz said it will take time for commissioners to find a place for their office of eight people.

“We need to go out now and find some space that will help us do our jobs like we do here,” Ms. Franz said.

Gerald Laver, who chaired the bar association's committee that studied the issue, said he was disappointed by the commissioners' decision.

He said it will affect local residents who use the court system.

“Certainly we can wait that long if we have to wait that long,” Mr. Laver said. “But I think it will diminish the service through the court system that would have been possible with a new judge.''

Judge Muehlfeld, who was unavailable for comment, has said he's concerned about the length of time people have to wait to have their cases heard in Henry County.

He handles all the common pleas matters himself, while Judge John Collier works part-time in Napoleon Municipal Court handling misdemeanors.

Mr. Laver said he expects that the bar association will meet to discuss the commissioners' decision.

He said he was unsure whether they can or will proceed with their plan without the commissioners' support. But he said they doubted they would be able to do so.

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