SANDUSKY - A bill to add a fourth judge to the Erie County Common Pleas bench is back in Columbus, five years after state lawmakers shot down a similar request.
The latest attempt to add a judge for the general division has the critical backing of the county's elected officials as well as the local bar association and the Ohio Supreme Court.
State Sen. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green) said yesterday that he and state Rep. Chris Redfern (D., Catawba Island) sought and received an additional assurance - that the new judge not impose an additional financial burden on the county.
“The only other criterion was that it not have any meaningful increase in the budget for a fourth judge,” Mr. Gardner said. “Erie County has been one of the most challenged in northwest Ohio in terms of their budget.”
An Erie County Common Pleas judge is paid $107,600 a year, with all but $14,000 paid by the state, said Pete Daniel, the county's finance director. Erie County also is responsible for the judge's benefits, he said.
A new judge has been sought for nearly seven years to help remove a backlog of criminal and civil cases.
Mr. Gardner, the Senate's president pro tem, and Mr. Redfern met with the county's elected officials on Monday to discuss the issues before introducing the legislation in the Senate on Thursday. Senate Bill 127 will be considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Civil Justice for its first hearing Wednesday, Mr. Gardner said.
“Hopefully, if the hearings go well, the legislation will be completed and the bill sent to the governor by Oct. 15,” he said.
The bill includes an emergency clause that would allow the measure to take effect immediately, instead of after the customary 90-day waiting period.
In order to put the new judicial position on the November, 2004, ballot, the legislation must be approved in time to allow candidates to file nominating petitions by the Jan. 2 deadline, Mr. Gardner said.
Michael Bixler, Erie County administrator, said making room for a fourth judge will entail shuffling space in the courthouse, including moving the law library to county offices in a separate building.
The new judge's courtroom will be on the second floor of the courthouse, he said.
Mr. Bixler did not have a cost estimate on the proposed changes, which were anticipated five years ago but shelved when the plan was defeated in Columbus.
But paying for the changes will not entail seeking a tax request, a touchy issue for Erie County voters who have rejected several tax requests in recent years, he said.
“We have some old plans and drawings on the shelf. The cost estimates will have to be looked at again,” he said.
In May, 1998, the Ohio House rejected a fourth judge after debating whether the position should handle cases from the general division or probate. Erie County had been studying the issue since 1996 because of its growing criminal and civil caseload.
Adding to the controversy of a new judge was a state Supreme Court report in 1997 that cited delays and backlogs by Judge Ann Maschari, the sole judge handling civil and Common Pleas cases.
Mr. Gardner cited those concerns as a possible roadblock toward the newest effort to get a new judge.
“I would candidly tell you today that there is a controversy over court efficiency and caseload and prompt consideration of case loads,” he said.
Mr. Gardner said the reorganization that a new judge would entail “would yield timely disposition of cases.”