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Published: Friday, 8/22/2003

Ohio seeks stay during appeal

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Hours after an Allen County judge ruled yesterday in favor of a permanent injunction barring the governor from closing Lima Correctional Institution, the state asked for a stay while it appeals the decision to a higher court.

Common Pleas Judge Richard Warren declared in an 18-page ruling that Ohio Gov. Bob Taft and Reginald A. Wilkinson, director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections, did not have the authority to close the prison and transfer inmates. He further directed the state to reinstate “the status quo operation” at the Allen County prison prior to the governor's Jan. 22 directive to close it down.

Kim Norris, a spokesman for the Attorney General, said the state has not wavered from its position that the governor acted within his authority when he chose to close the prison. The decision to shutter LCI was a result of the state's struggles to balance an overextended budget.

“We have already obviously prepared what our next step is,” she said. The state will appeal the decision to the Third District Court of Appeals in Allen County, she said.

In his ruling, Judge Warren listed several reasons for the decision, including that the General Assembly never relinquished its authority and control over the prison to the governor. He also said the governor, as a condition to closing a prison, must demonstrate that the property is not needed - a condition the judge said was not met in light of Ohio's overcrowded prison system.

Prison workers around the state, including Toledo, would benefit from the prison remaining open. Displaced Lima employees could “bump'' employees with lesser seniority at other prisons, including the medium-security Allen County Correctional Institution and the Oakwood psychiatric prison on the same campus. They also could bump as many as 136 employees of Toledo Correctional Institute in North Toledo.

Former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Andy Douglas, who argued on behalf of the prison union and various local organizations, offered evidence in a hearing before a packed courtroom Monday that the state's prisons are overcrowded and present safety hazards for prison employees.

In particular, Mr. Douglas introduced testimony about the overcrowded conditions of the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville that many believe led to the 1993 riot.

“The judge very carefully - and I thought interestingly - cited other state jurisdictions with regard to legislative versus executive authority and the separation of powers,” he said.

“I thought he made it very clear that other states have seen fit to give their governors the type of power that our governor seeks to assert, but the General Assembly in Ohio - and I think properly so - has not seen fit to do so because of our experience with regard to the Lucasville riot problem and the admitted severe overcrowding in Ohio prisons today.”

The fight to keep Lima Correctional Institution open began in April when the union filed its first lawsuit. That case was dropped two days before the Ohio Supreme Court ruled an Allen County judge did not have jurisdiction over the case. The parties agreed at the time to take the issue of collective bargaining to an arbitrator.

The same day the arbitrator ruled that the state did not violate the union's contract, another lawsuit was filed claiming the governor usurped authority when he ordered the closure of the prison.

Orest Holubec, the governor's press secretary, said the state is reviewing the decision and consulting with its attorneys.

“We still believe the governor has the right to balance the budget and close the prison,” he said.

Mr. Douglas admitted that his clients, though hopeful of success with the higher court, recognize that the battle to keep LCI open is far from over.

“Obviously we're excited and optimistic, but we're preparing for the state to unleash all of its vast resources against these people who are only trying to require government officials to follow the law,” he said.



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