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Ohio chief justice pursues study of judges’ workloads

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor is pushing for a study of judges’ workloads at a time the number of cases on judges’ dockets is steadily declining in Ohio and nationally.

O’Connor told a gathering of judges in March the study was a proactive move at a time of a tight state budget, and a chance to explain the changing nature of the judiciary, according to written and recorded minutes of that meeting obtained by The Associated Press through an open records request.

O’Connor, a Republican, said no sitting judges would lose jobs as a result. O’Connor will meet with a panel of municipal, common pleas, juvenile court and other judges June 30 for more discussion. A decision is probably weeks away. The court has set aside $250,000 to pay for such a study.

Competition from private companies offering mediation and arbitration services outside the courts is helping drive a 26 percent decline in Ohio judges’ caseloads since 2007, O’Connor said. Nationally, dockets shrink about 3.5 percent a year, she added.

Meanwhile, judges are working just as hard because of more and more specialized courts, O’Connor said. In such courts, judges spend extra time helping drug addicts, human trafficking victims, veterans and defendants with mental illness, among others.

“We cannot ignore the changing nature of our business whether it is the result of outside forces or internal demands,” O’Connor said at the March 10 meeting. “And we cannot act as if these forces are of no importance.”

There is “a powerful message to be told,” O’Connor said, “that you are working hard because you are required to do more things. You are now required to wear many hats.”

Many state court systems have done such studies to measure courts’ efficiency in a time of tight budgets, according to the National Center For State Courts.

The country’s opioid epidemic, which kills about eight people a day in Ohio, is having a major impact on workloads as judges deal with the impact of addiction, said Michael Buenger, the Ohio Supreme Court’s administrative director. For example, 75 percent of children removed from homes in some counties are taken because of their parents’ drug abuse, he said.

Juvenile court judges must then oversee those children until proper placement is found, Buenger said.

Paul Pfeifer, the head of the state judicial agency, is skeptical of the proposal. He told O’Connor at the March 10 meeting that judges won’t like it and will question the merits.

Pfeifer, a former Supreme Court justice and a fellow Republican, also said fears of cutbacks from lawmakers questioning judges’ reduced caseloads are overblown.

“My view is once it’s done, it’ll go on the shelf,” Pfeifer, executive director of the Ohio Judicial Conference, said at the March meeting.

Judge Joyce Campbell runs two specialty courts in Fairfield in suburban Cincinnati, one for people with severe mental illness, the other for repeat drunk drivers. Even with caseloads down, she spends far more time with individual cases today than when she went on the bench in 1999, sometimes seeing the same defendants weekly for a year.

“Probably 85 percent of my time as a judge, I’m a social worker,” said Campbell. “I’m dealing with drugs and alcohol and poverty and broken homes and broken people.”

 

Local Court Receives State Certification

 

April 2014 the Treatment Alternative Court (TAC) and STAR Program (Sobriety, Treatment, Accountability, and Recovery) of the Fairfield Municipal Court earned their final certifications from the Ohio Supreme Court’s Commission on Specialized Dockets.

 
In order to receive the certification, the local court had to submit an application, undergo a site visit, and provide specific program materials in response to certification standards that went in to effect in January, 2014.
 
Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor congratulated the Fairfield Municipal Court and Judge Joyce A. Campbell for receiving final certification.
 
“Specialized dockets have proven effective at addressing persistent criminal behaviors,” said Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor. “Specialized dockets result in significantly lower recidivism rates which means offenders become productive members of society, for which we all benefit.”
 
Specialized dockets are courts that are dedicated to specific types of offenses or offenders and use a combination of different techniques for holding offenders accountable while also addressing the underlying causes of their behavior. There are more than 150 specialized dockets in Ohio courts that deal with issues such as:
 
  • Drugs and Alcohol
  • Mental Health
  • Domestic Violence
  • Sex Offenses
 
The new standards provide a minimum level of uniform practices for specialized dockets throughout Ohio, and allow local courts to innovate and tailor to meet their community’s needs and resources.
 
When asked about the two Specialized Dockets Judge Joyce A. Campbell states “that the Treatment Alternative Court (TAC Docket) was originally established in 2000.  The Treatment Alternative Court has assisted hundreds of individuals that came into contact with the criminal justice system as a result of their untreated severe mental illness.  Certification is an important step in improving outcomes for our citizens.”  And “that the STAR Program has assisted numerous individuals since beginning in 2009 to overcome their addictions and become productive law abiding citizens.”
 
Recommended practices outlined in the certification process include establishing eligibility requirements, evaluating effectiveness of the specialized docket, and assembling a treatment team for implementing daily operations of the specialized docket. The team can include licensed treatment providers, law enforcement, court personnel, and is headed by the specialized docket judge.
 
The Commission on Specialized Dockets has 22 members who advise the Supreme Court and its staff regarding the promotion of statewide rules and uniform standards concerning specialized dockets in Ohio courts; the development and delivery of specialized docket services to Ohio courts; and the creation of training programs for judges and court personnel. The commission makes all decisions regarding final certification.